On Wednesday parts of Athens burned when peaceful demonstrations against the IMF/EU's austerity measures were infiltrated by radical thugs. Meanwhile, the Irish celebrated 'Dirty Look at the Dáil Day' a national holiday invented by some self-aware jokers to satirise our national reluctance to complain (people were to express their dissatisfaction with politics by casting a "dirty look" at government buildings).
Not that we weren't a bit relieved at our ineffectual approach to protest after hearing of the horrible deaths of three Greek bank employees. For regular Athenians the strings attached to their special €110bn loan from the EU/IMF came as a severe shock. They spent their lives believing themselves to be living in the world's first democracy, but they've just learned that they're actually being run by an oligarchy called "the bond markets". So while a majority gathered to protest peacefully (if a bit incoherently), a minority turned up with fire bombs and violent intentions and it led to tragedy.
But here in Ireland we shouldn't use Greek over-reaction as an excuse to retreat further into self-hating passivity. We've been very quick to pat ourselves on the back for pleasing the bullies at the ratings agencies who downgraded the Greeks' debt. But pleasing bullies probably isn't a great long-term tactic, particularly when they're the people who got us into this economic mess in the first place.
The right to assemble is a key element of democracy, particularly at schismatic times like these. Nobody seems to like the parties of power and Europe's elected representatives are, whatever way you look at it, bending the knee to the whims of unelected millionaire investment types (this should be a disturbing fact, even if in practical terms you think it's unavoidable). Demonstration is the only way, between elections, to address the yawning democratic deficit and for ordinary people to make their voices heard.
In the past Ireland was a hotbed of angry protest. In the 19th and early 20th centuries we were forever holding public meetings, staging lock-ins (not the kind you're thinking of) and electing alternative governments. But over the past few decades, we bought into a more neo-liberal attitude. Strikes and demos are now greeted not by ministers considering the issues at hand, but by the sound of business associations itemising the cost, and after two decades of advertisements co-opting revolutionary rhetoric, some younger people seem to think the sarcastic consumption of runners is dissent ("Yes", says the man from Nike, "you can purchase your way into a new tomorrow... you self-actualised, community-less individual, you!")
The truth is that protests, while they should never be violent, are meant to be moments of disruption. They might have a short-term cost attached, but in the long run they make democratic societies work better, which actually makes capitalism work better. The right to assemble is like the 'safe word' in the S&M relationship we have with our politicians. We shouldn't resist activating that right because it upsets rating agencies or because it temporarily affects commerce. Nor should we resist it because of the nasty brain-dead violence of Greek anarchists.
Yet, apart from a public sector march here or there, a once-off kerfuffle over medical cards for pensioners, and four million late night pub-rants, the Irish public have been very, very compliant. In Iceland, the populace responded to their economic clusterf*ck by descending on their houses of parliament banging pots and pans. In America, right-wing groups protest against their own healthcare interests with a network of gun-toting "Tea-Parties". Here the public sector demonstrated their anger at pay-cuts by refusing to answer a few phones while the rest of us express our rage at a huge bank-bailout and the failure of our institutions by working harder (take that, banks!).
Faced with the same problems as Greece (and we have some of the same problems) I think we actually would resort to a campaign of dirty looks. We expect our politicians to guess how we feel, like the passive aggressive spouse in a sitcom called That's Ireland! ("What do you want now, honey?" asks the Dáil shrugging its shoulders. "Is it a medical card? Is it a new road? I just can't tell!" Cue laughter from the studio audience in the bond markets).
A bit of direct action wouldn't go astray. Recently someone I know referred to an acquaintance by the affectionate nickname 'Face of Hate' (It was in a sentence like: "I was out with Face of Hate last night" or "Face of Hate's beef stroganoff was delightful").
"Why is he called Face of Hate?" I asked.
"He was once on the front cover of a tabloid, photographed in the middle of a demonstration with a big red shouty head on him, and the caption read 'Face of Hate'. It stuck."
Well, Face of Hate has inspired me. There's a demonstration being held against the bank-bailouts this Tuesday outside the Dáil (assembling at 7.30 at the Garden of Remembrance). The views of the organisers (the Right to Work Campaign) don't totally accord with my own, but that's been one of my longstanding excuses for inaction. So I think I'll go along anyway. I want to remind myself how it's done. In the years ahead there'll be plenty of reasons to express civil disapproval and I want to be ready. Peaceful protest is part of democracy and if there was ever a time to re-engage with our democratic roots, it's now. I want to hear alternative views. I want to meet other angry people and see what I have in common with them. To paraphrase Shakespeare – Greece doth protest too much, but this nation, I think, doth protest too little.
Michael Clifford is on leave