Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

Symposium 2016-2017: Globalisation, Inequality and the Rise of Populism: Explaining the Belated Emergence of Social Protest in Ireland between 2009 and 2014

Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

Symposium 2016-2017: Globalisation, Inequality and the Rise of Populism: Explaining the Belated Emergence of Social Protest in Ireland between 2009 and 2014

Article excerpt

1. INTRODUCTION

In the summer of 2009, Ireland was the first European country to officially enter recession following the fiscal crisis which had enveloped the international banking system following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Unemployment, which had been increasing for over a year by that point from a low of under 4.6% in early 2007 went on to peak at over 15% in 2012. This contributed, in part, to the widespread fall in income (the median household income fell by 12.7% between 2009 and 2013) and increase in household deprivation experienced in Ireland where the household deprivation rate increased from 17% in 2009 to over 30% by 2013. The squeeze on household incomes was accompanied by severe cuts in public services across areas such as health, education and social services, all of which were more likely to be visited upon more vulnerable members of Irish society.

Whilst these hardships certainly had an impact of subsequent political events in Ireland, levels of social unrest and public protest were actually relatively muted. Despite the deep cuts in public services and social protection, a consensus soon emerged that Ireland would not experience the same level of civic unrest and public protest as other countries in Europe which had experienced deep economic recession (c.f. Power and Nussbaum 2015). This was summed up well by (Kirby and Murphy, 2011):

"... when compared to Iceland's 'Saturday Protests', Spain's
'Indignados' movement and Portugal's Desperate Generation' protests, a
sense persists of a relative lack of overt Irish protest. This sense
was captured in a 2010 Greek protest chant 'this is Greece, not
Ireland, we the workers will resist'" (Kirby and Murphy 2011, p175).

Although trade unions organized several large public rallies in 2009, street protest was small scale and orderly and certainly of a different character to the violent street battles which broke out in the capitals of Greece and Spain. However, this changed quite dramatically in the autumn of 2014 when widespread social protest erupted across Ireland. Yet, by 2014 unemployment had been continuously falling for two years and GNP had returned to levels not seen since the end of 2007. How can we explain this pattern of muted protest during the depths of Ireland's fiscal crisis followed by mass demonstration and social protest just as all the indicators suggest that the economy was returning to some semblance of normality?

Sociological explanations for why improving economic conditions are associated with social protest often invoke 'relative deprivation' Coleman 1990 (Coleman, 1990) as the underlying process. According to this approach, rising living standards overall lead to social unrest and political action when the gains of one group outpace those of another leading to the perception of relative deprivation among the disadvantaged group. We examine this mechanism but find it wanting. Instead, we suggest that the temporal pattern of social protest in Ireland actually reflects two interlinked social processes: first, we give a primary explanatory role to the sense of grievance that had built up in Ireland after 2009 as a function of the falls in living standards and cuts in public services. However, to account for the temporal structure of protest, we differentiate between 'structural' and 'incidental' grievances and the role the latter play in creating an 'injustice frame' which focuses the 'structural' grievances brought on by the fiscal crisis and the retrenchment of Irish Government policy. We identify these 'incidental grievances' and show how they play a role in 'igniting' the structural grievances that had been smoldering since 2009.

However, whilst the incidental grievance process is necessary to explain the pattern of protest, we also argue that it is not sufficient. Instead, we argue that the absence of structured opposition groups in Ireland following an extended period of social partnership was replaced by the development of numerous opposition groups in the period after 2009 facilitated by social network processes and trade union coordination. …

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