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13 Feb 2013 - 05:58:23 pm


Last week, I joined the anti-austerity march in Limerick City, one of several held throughout the country. Young and old, from veterans to children in prams, paraded through the city. Around me, people chatted about many things, from granny's illness to who is going out with whom, the price of petrol; all very relaxed. In the middle of this, someone carried an EU flag with a red swastika in the middle. Some around me muttered that this was over the top, too much.

Quite some leap, from granny's piles to the symbol of Nazism. But that's what marches do; they produce every sort of opinion tramping under one motivation. As the speeches on the platform closed, someone actually sang, to guitar accompaniment, a 'rebel' song which had throw out the Brits as its theme.

I couldn't help but think that, for all the anger and personal resentment of a hapless and hopeless government guiding the march, the sense of helplessness was the petrol driving this engine. No one trusts politicians, few trust the trades' unions, whom they see, for the most part, as being embedded in the boss-friendly ruling system. Politicians and union heads receive huge salaries; some union leaders have urged 'restraint,' as if a calmer populace could produce salvation.

Nothing salves the discontent, however, not even marching. I am personally left with 50, when levies, taxes and bills have ripped in to my weekly wage. I lost another 5 from my salary on February 1st. I don't even know why. No one asked me. I know writers who are left with less than that - in a country which mouths loudly about its cultural heritage. Our prominent writers keep their gobs shut, won't protest, won't organise. The keepers of our cultural flame have circled round the fire and made sure they stay cosy.

Irish people are convinced - and no government spin can unconvince them - that those who brought the country to its knees may never see justice, the reasons why we are paying more per capita of that damnable debt than any country in Europe will never sufficiently be explained. We live in a system where politicians can, with impunity, hide answers from the people who elected them. We are paying back money we never owed. And poverty is making us despair. We march, but we are marching without hope. The suicide rate is through the roof. People are dying of cold, of hunger, and in doorways. 'Tax the rich!' we shout, knowing it will never happen, that economic equality is for losers. Helpless.

Some may ask why the Irish people, shouldering the economic burden of all Europe like some green Atlas, aren't in the streets getting physical. Like the Greeks, some argue. Others counter that the weight of the Roman Catholic church over generations has taught us to embrace servility as somehow being a way to obtain grace. Still more contend that it's the fault (naturally) of the Brits, that we have become cap-doffers who mutter behind the backs of the landlords but cannot face them down. These arguments have in common the notion that we are unwilling to think for ourselves, or that we are not mature enough to think for ourselves; that we do not like the notion of being responsible for ourselves. In truth, when we see dissatisfaction with our present timid and absurd government manifest in an increase in love for Fianna Fil, whose history of giving the finger to the Irish people is legendary, one must ask whether we are indeed politically mature, whether we should be allowed to govern ourselves at all.

Some mutter of a general strike - a fairly reasonable idea - and we know how that would be parried by our government spinners and their media lackeys: unpatriotic, dangerous to our image in Europe, stomping on the green jersey. As if politicians, bankers and developers have been such patriotic souls and we were staining their memory. The Brits didn't cause our present travails, other Irishmen did. 'Stop blaming Whitey for your problems!' shouted the great Afro-American writer, James Baldwin into the Black ghettoes, back in the 'Sixties.

Clearly, politicians could redeem themselves by foregoing their enormous, obscene salaries and pensions, bringing in legislation (and we know how fast they can legislate when they wish to) that caps their salaries at a fraction of what they receive now, in the patriot good interest of the people. But modern Irish politicians are not patriots; those who rule come, in the main, from a developed and predominantly rural middle-class which itself is based on small village shop-keeping and farming and an adherence to Roman Catholic values. There is no sophistication there, no beyond-the-parish thinking. Rewards and favours, in the form of board appointments, committee appointments and various forms of political elevation, are still the order of the political day. A wary eye on what Mrs Murphy would think in her house up the boreen is still maintained. Don't fix the potholes in that boreen and you're out of a job. Much more terrifying is Mrs Murphy finger-waving than Chancellor Angela Merkel.

One finds a Versailles-like obstinacy in government here; the unruly mob can be kept howling at the gates with vague promises and loaves of bread. In our government another world presides, which has nothing at all to do with the ordinary, beaten, lives beyond Leinster House. It is a world of unanswerable privilege.

So we march. There are no James Larkins among us, so all's well. Nor is there a Patrick Pearse, wild with religion and poetry and idealism - but he was a Brit, after all. Our impoverished country is meanwhile being drawn into wars around the world - Mrs Murphy's grandchildren may end up sending her postcards, as she nurses her piles, from Afghanistan or, God help us, North Korea until they can write no more. 'God is good,' she'll mutter, as the casket comes off the 'plane. She too is helpless.

There is no end, no boundary, to the march of helplessness. Sooner or later it swallows everything, the moral, the ethical, the virtuous, the faithful. That is a link between the Irishman or woman who dies of hunger and cold at home and the Irish soldier who will die in other people's wars. We have given our entire lives and those of our grandchildren into the hands of a power lite whose allegiance is not to Ireland, but to image on a wider stage, to the slap on the back from the Great Landlords of Europe and the United States.

And nothing enslaves and subdues and renders helpless a people like poverty.

- Placards in order at Limerick. . . . .like wreaths at a road accident?

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