There is increasing concern at the Dublin government’s use of heavy-handed tactics in support of its austerity agenda.
The week began with Gardai police using pepper spray against protestors in Galway -- and on Thursday saw the violent eviction of an elderly couple by government bailiffs in Dublin.
Both incidents were captured on camera and posted on the internet. The attention gained has increased concern over the government’s resort to physical force in its handling of the economic crisis.
LABOUR’S WAY - PEPPER SPRAY?
Last Saturday, up to seven thousand people gathered in Galway to demonstrate at the Labour Party’s annual conference over the household charge and a variety of other austerity cuts, charges and taxes.
Although organisers had set up a barricade to shield the conference participants from the protest, several hundred succeeded in pushing through the barricade, despite the attentions of the Gardai.
Students, lecturers, pensioners, peace activists and people from all walks of life pushed forward through the barricade over a narrow bridge. Young and old alike quickly moved forward in order to stage their protests directly at the front door of the conference centre.
However, video footage later showed that some Gardai members resorted to the use of pepper spray, and a number of members of the public were assaulted with the spray. Despite this, the protest subsequently take place in a calm and dignified atmosphere.
“The first push on the barrier was met with pepper-spray from the Gardai,” said one student, who was demonstrating against education cuts.
“This resulted in at least eight people falling back and having to claw at their eyes and mouths from the extreme agony of the burning sensation.
“No warning was given that such a weapon was being used. Thirty minutes after this, over a hundred people, angered by the tactic of the Gardai successfully breached the barrier.”
The unprecedented use of pepper spray against a broadly peaceful protest was extraordinarily backed by Labour Party officials. Labour TD Aodhan O’Riordan described the protestors as “thuggish” and confrontational. “What you don’t do is break past barriers, push and shove,” the TD for Dublin North Central said.
Tensions over the Labour Party’s intention to shut down opposition in Galway had grown in the week before the conference, when student organisers of a “counter conference” were told that their event could not proceed on the campus grounds.
“The Labour Party.. didn’t want to be embarrassed by having their sell-out highlighted and made damn sure it wasn’t gonna happen,” said Sarah McCarthy of the United Left Alliance in Galway.
“So their money and influence ensured that they, a political party with nothing to do with the college, bar the cuts they keep throwing at it, had more of a right to assemble and talk than a college society.”
However, demonstrators were delighted that their protests were finally heard.
“I got pepper sprayed along with a few comrades. It was agonising,” said another student. “The day was still a huge success and I’m so proud of everybody who helped push through the barricades. I’m okay now, but wasn’t for like 30 plus minutes afterward. It felt like my face (and eyes in particular) was on fire and the flesh was burning from my face. Not nice.
“I’m just delighted we managed to break through the barricades. It was amazing.”
THROWN ONTO THE ROAD
Later in the week, a Youtube video of an elderly couple being ousted from their private home in a wealthy area of south Dublin helped to bring the harsh reality of the governments austerity agenda home to Ireland’s middle classes.
The video, shot by a sobbing neighbour of Brendan and Asta Kelly being dragged out and away from their posh Killiney residence by bailiffs, shocked television viewers. For many, it recalled scenes from the 19th century when British landlords mercilessly threw tens of thousands out of their homes.
Shouting “let me go”, the silver-haired 71-year-old pensioner and his 63-year-old German-born wife were pulled out the driveway to the street.
“Anglo Irish Bank has ruined this country. Look what these men are doing -- look what has happened to your country,” Mrs Kelly shouted.
According to media reports, the couple had unwisely purchased a large number of heavily-mortgaged properties in Dublin, and the property crash had prevented them from selling up. Their mortgages had since passed into the hands of the government-owned ‘Irish Bank Resolution Corporation’ -- formerly known as the notorious Anglo Irish Bank.
The use of the police and Anglo’s hired heavies to seize the family home and put the once-wealthy couple onto the streets has caused widespread shock.
The incident has also raised concerns over the potential for future clashes over the future installation of water meters and the collection of the new property taxes.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said the images of the eviction were “pitiable”.
“Austerity has failed, in this state and in states across Europe where unemployment is rising and poverty and hardship are the only growth industries,” he said.
“The dire social consequences of austerity are to be found in every household struggling to pay mortgages and household bills; on every main street where businesses are shutting down; and in every hospital and school where reduced resources are hurting the sick and the young.
He said the eviction in Killiney was “another example” of the failure of austerity.
“Some 100,000 households are currently in mortgage distress with 91 more joining that number each day. This is unacceptable. Austerity simply doesn’t work.”
The various incidents have seriously eroded support for the government and boosted the left-wing opposition parties, according to the latest MRBI opinion poll.
Support for Sinn Féin has climbed six points to 21 percent, confirming it as the second largest party in the state, while support for Fine Gael and Labour had fallen to 33 percent (down 3 percent) and 13 percent (down 6 percent) respectively.
There was also a sharp increase in the numbers who are undecided about upcoming European austerity treaty in next month’s referendum. Forty percent said they were unsure how they would vote, leaving the result wide open.
Mr Adams, whose poll showing also confirmed him as the clear leader of the opposition in the Dublin parliament, said the poll was evidence of the “increasing concern and opposition of citizens to government policy”.
He called on the public to vote against the upcoming European austerity treaty in next month’s referendum. The treaty, if passed, requires that the 26-County state submits to a permanent program of budget deficit reduction, to be enforced by the European courts and legal system.
“This Austerity Treaty will handover significant control of fiscal and budgetary matters to un-elected EU officials,” he said.
“Whatever view a citizen takes of this, or any other Irish government, at least by virtue of universal franchise citizens can change governments and make them democratically accountable come election time.
“We cannot do this with EU officials who are not elected by Irish citizens and cannot be held accountable by them.”
“The Austerity Treaty must be opposed,” said Mr Adams.
“Its debt and deficit limits are draconian. If passed this Treaty will mean decades of austerity imposed on a people crying out for investment in jobs and growth. It means that citizens will continue to pay for the greed of bankers and the bad policies of the former Fianna Fail/Green government. This is wrong.”