We are not a nation of protesters. We have very good reasons for this, starting with the weather. There are also several others, the most important of which is that we rarely see much benefit from it. Protesting against a very specific cut or single measure can be easily understood, things like the cut to the medical card for the over 70s or the recent cut in services for the disabled. Such protests are designed to simply get a minister to pull back and reassess what he or she is cutting.
Large scale protests against things bigger than one single Minister or aimed at an entire strategy are far less effective. Irish people don’t believe that such a protest can or will lead to any change. They look at the Greeks, they had plenty of protests and even riots, and did it save the country from austerity? Did it stop the cuts? No.
The Irish electorate prefers to voice opposition through its elections and therein lies a warning that the state of political flux in Ireland may be far from over. The Greeks have always been one step further down the crisis road than Ireland and they have recently entered a debt reduction deal because it’s obvious that even with all the cuts and reforms they cannot meet the bill. Ireland will follow. I have always said it’s not a case of ‘if’ we get a deal on debt it’s a matter of ‘when’. The problem for the government is that it is allowing the EU far too much time before facing that reality.
We might not be a nation of protesters but we are really going to be put to the test this week and there will be a huge number of us very angry before it’s over. Some months ago Michael Noonan talked of the importance of a deal on debt in light of the budget. That deal was important, not because it would have avoided all the cuts, but because it would have allowed the government to present a more realistic strategy for the longer term and show some light at the end of this tunnel.
This is the budget that will finally make everyone realise that something must be done, Ireland has tried its best but it simply cannot repay the levels we are being asked to. A property tax is about to be introduced that will leave people incensed. The jump from a €100 household charge to a much higher bill will simply be too much for many families, and most will not see it as a tax on some kind of disposable wealth, it’s a tax on their home. A tax being raised to pay for local services that the same people have little say over and are often quite unhappy about.
This government came to power at the head of a people who were convinced that a change in the people at the top was all that was necessary. The people who got them into the mess could not get them out. Fianna Fail needed to be taught a lesson and they most certainly were. The people gave strong support to the new government; the endorsement of their utterances on bank debt and cuts was overwhelming. People did have an expectation from the plans and it was not an unrealistic one. They knew jobs might not come easily but they expected a government that was going to take a tougher line with the troika. They also expected a government that would look at alternatives in a way they felt the FF/Green administration was not doing. This simply has not happened.
This budget will hurt every person and family in the country. So far people have found things getting ‘tight’. They will soon wake up to the possibility that they cannot pay. A cursory glance at the levels and rates of measures proposed suggest that the government feels it has no option and it also has lost any concept of just how little wriggle room is left for ordinary people.
As soon as this budget is over there are quite a few who will be happy to rush back to the abortion debate in the hope of getting peoples mind of what will be a bleak outlook with no hope on offer. Fine Gael is in a difficult position and they know that they too have started to feel the brunt of anger in the polls. Right now attention within the party is focussed on James Reilly. The abortion debate will not be pretty; they will let him take the heat for that. Afterwards, it may well be time for a reshuffle. Reilly simply does not have the trust, the leadership skills or political ability to lead the kind of change that FG has mapped out for the health service. Everyday that he remains he is damaging government credibility. They will let him take a few more unavoidable hits for the team but in the long run they know what must happen.
Labour will argue that in the budget they have fought to protect and limit the hit on the less well off. Unfortunately the only people who will really listen to that argument are those in FG opposed to Labour policy. They will say Labour has had far too much influence. The people themselves are likely to be shocked that Labour will impose these measures.
If ever the Irish people were to take to the streets then this budget might be it but even if that doesn’t happen we can rest assured we will be entering a state of political flux once again with people on the search for politicians that they can trust and who can offer a viable plan. The Irish people have clearly demonstrated that we are not afraid of austerity, we are not afraid to take pain, we make every effort to honour any debt, we are a patient and realistic people. We are not stupid, however. This budget seems set to take us all to our limit. Perhaps, in dealing with this crisis, it is time to say thus far shall we go but no farther.
Johnny Fallon is a political commentator