Farmers' protest in Cavan

THE BULGING veins in her neck looked as if they were about to burst, her eyes about to pop out of her head. Seething with fury, she looked as if her anger had taken possession of her body.

A picture of Sligo woman Kathleen Henry taken at a farmers' protest in Cavan on 18 July was one of the most telling images of the recession to date. Ireland is an increasingly angry nation and people like Henry are becoming a more common sight.

"We have gone through good times and bad times but by God we are going through the worst times of all now," Henry told the Sunday Tribune when we tracked her down last week.

Henry was one of the 7,000 farmers who protested outside agriculture minister Brendan Smith's Cavan office recently over cuts affecting their business.

"Farming is the backbone of rural Ireland and there is a sense of desperation among farmers that we are having our livelihoods taken away from us by the withdrawal of the Reps [Rural Environmental Protection Scheme] and the McCarthy report," said Henry.

Henry has vowed: "By God we are not giving up the fight. The towel is not thrown in yet. We will go up and stay outside the Department of Agriculture to make our point."

After the Dáil resumes on 16 September, the harsh realities of the Commission on Taxation and Bord Snip Nua reports, the birth of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), and one of the toughest budgets in our history are set to feature heavily in a winter of public discontent.

As the government tightens the screws on the taxpayers' finances, the anger and frustration may reach boiling point.

Scenes such as the protests over medical cards for over-70s are set to be commonplace later in the year. So how far are we from civil unrest? Are we becoming an angrier nation?

"I think the rise of sectional interest groups who will become more willing to engage in civil unrest and protest marches and demonstrations will grow," said Professor Tom Inglis, sociologist at UCD. "It could be that we are not the mature democratic civil society that we might like to think we are. It may well be that Irish civil society is a thin shell that has no strong political yolk to sustain it."

Professor Mary Corcoran of the sociology department at NUI Maynooth is not as sure that there has been a shift towards civil unrest. She canvassed on the doorsteps with her husband, Senator Alex White, during the recent Dublin South by-election.

"Not all were angry, but those who were directed it very much against Fianna Fáil and, to a lesser extent, the Green Party. Their anger was not expressed in terms of 'a plague on all your houses, let's start a revolution' but in terms of 'I will never, ever vote for Fianna Fáil again'," she said.

"I think that says people are channeling their anger within the existing political structures rather than directing their ire against the political system per se."

Asked about the threat of civil unrest in Ireland, Corcoran cited an example of an event during the Celtic Tiger that raised questions about Ireland being "uncivil" already.

When a series of public sculptures in the form of life-size cows were placed around Dublin a few years ago, they were vandalised and defaced. They were displayed in other cities without any such problems.

"Think about how uncivil Irish people are in public spaces," she said. "Little respect is shown for public transport; pavements and streets are used to discard litter and for urinating. I think that if general levels of civility were sorely pressed during the Tiger road rage, increasing levels of coarseness and a rise in public order problems will continue to during the current crisis."

Corcoran believes our European counterparts are still more likely to take to the streets and protest through mass demonstrations than we are in Ireland.

"Our political system remains atrophied in the faux distinction between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which militates against the formation of a left bloc or leftist alliance which would be the natural leader of a large-scale public protest against policies that, for all intents and purposes, are directed at shoring up the capitalist system," she said.

"People have probably been softened up by decades of partnership so there is little institutional memory of a trade union movement that is militant, has a clearly-articulated class consciousness and is willing to take matters to the streets."

Psychiatrist Patricia Casey believes we are becoming an angrier nation and "there are more and more signs that people are angry".

She cited the fact that farmers protested at Brendan Smith's own constituency office as a telling sign of a shift in Irish thinking.

"That would not have happened before. We all like to give out about doctors but we never give out about our own GP. In the same way, we like to give out about politicians but tend to respect the local minister and not protest in his backyard," she said.

"It is easy to pick up in ordinary conversations that people are mad as hell and furious that the government mishandled our finances and misled us. They were told that Nirvana had arrived and the good times would never end.

"We have seen the harbingers of civil unrest with the protests but I don't ultimately know how things will pan out. Irish people are noted for their courtesy and gentleness and they don't act like French farmers. They would have traditionally shown respect for the employees of institutions so spitting at bank staff and verbally abusing them is a new and worrying departure."