Emigration and history keep Irish off the streets

DUBLIN Fri Oct 1, 2010 2:57pm EDT

Farmer Bernie Winter drives his cattle to the low field for grazing on Clare Island, County Mayo, Ireland September 23, 2009. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Farmer Bernie Winter drives his cattle to the low field for grazing on Clare Island, County Mayo, Ireland September 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland is vying with Greece for the title of Europe's problem child but Dublin has yet to be rocked by Athenian-style riots, instead demonstrating a widespread sense of resignation about the economic crisis.

Ireland's deeply unpopular government unveiled a bill for cleaning up its banks on Thursday that could top 50 billion euros ($68 billion) and warned of more savage spending cuts as it grapples with a public debt pile set to balloon to 100,000 euros per household.

The latest attempt to prop up banks rocked by a property market collapse comes after two years of deep cuts to services and wage cuts for public servants -- yet there is no sign of individual frustration spilling over into collective unrest.

"I think there is quite considerable anger out there at the moment but it remains hidden," said Andreas Hess, a lecturer in sociology at University College Dublin.

Figures published last month showed net outward migration running at the highest rate since 1989 and Hess noted that ever since the Great Famine of the mid 19th Century, Irish people had shown a readiness to move abroad when times get tough.

"The potential for exit in terms of emigration is huge and it's a major part of the Irish story," said Hess, who has lived in Ireland for 10 years. "You speak to anybody in Ireland and they have an uncle or a cousin who lives in Chicago or Sydney."

Gary Redmond, president of the Union of Students which plans an anti-austerity protest in Dublin on November 3, said that of those who graduated in 2009, 100 students a week were moving abroad.

"Ireland is on the verge of losing a whole generation. People are simply not able to get a job in Ireland, not happy with the quality of life here and they are upping and leaving."

While Northern Ireland's image around the world has been scarred by TV footage of sectarian violence in recent decades, the south has been busy pursuing prosperity.

Redmond noted that while the Irish complained among themselves they were not inclined to do anything about it -- a view reinforced by shoppers on Dublin's O'Connell Street, scene of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule which ultimately fizzled out partly due to a lack of public support.

"What good is protesting going to do? If people see riots on their television screens it's hardly going help our reputation around the world," said Brian Lavery, a 23-year-old tax consultant who expects teachers and civil servants to strike for a few days but doubts there will be widespread unrest.

People also feel reluctant to protest given that so many of them benefited from the boom.

"We're being punished for all the excess. People got greedy during the good times," said Lavery.

"GRIMACE AND BEAR IT"

A history that includes centuries of British domination followed by decades in which the authority of the Catholic Church went largely unchallenged, may also have created a society where people are reluctant to challenge the status quo.

"It's a cultural characteristic of the Irish people," said portrait photographer Kevin Abosch as he strode down O'Connell Street. "Generations of pacifism have been bred into them."

UCD's Hess also noted the political system was born out of a traumatic civil war in the 1920s and often appeared designed to avoid dissent for fear of repeating past mistakes.

"There has been a cozy consensus which is now gradually breaking up," said Hess. "Labour is ahead in the polls for the first time and it's the only major political party not to have been born out of the civil war."

John FitzGerald, professor with the Economic and Social Research Institute, said the Irish were unusually well-informed on economics, thanks to fierce public debate born of a consensus approach to agreeing pay deals and referendums on key issues.

"People are extremely angry, as is reflected in the opinion polls, but at the same time they realize there is no alternative and that they are going to have to just grimace and bear it."

UCD's Hess said that in Spain collective action had been more robust even though cuts there have been much less harsh but cautioned social unrest is notoriously difficult to predict.

"The day the Bastille was stormed, Louis XVI is supposed to have written in his diary that nothing had happened that day. A few years later his head was on the block."

(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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