Ireland is famous for having a long history of occupation met with violent resistance. Many of our EU neighbours have seen large-scale anti-austerity protests over the past five years. In some countries, including Greece and Spain, these demonstrations have even turned into violent rioting.
Curiously, despite our past, and the reactions of other closely related countries, the contemporary Irish response to imposed austerity since the economic recession has been peaceful. We have not organised a strong protest movement, nor has there been rioting against the state.
On 12 May 2014, in a speech delivered in Chicago, President Michael D Higgins gave a lecture about economics, ethics and the recession. He highlighted the “interlocking banking, fiscal, social and political strands” to the unfolding of the economic crisis, both internationally and in Ireland. He lamented the limited ways economists understand the recession.
Higgins went on to discuss the “moral and intellectual dimensions that run far deeper than most official framings of the crisis”. The gap between economic discussions of the financial meltdown and subjective human understandings of this crisis has also been identified by researchers in cultural psychology.
Our own research at the University of Chicago investigated how people in the public eye in the Republic of Ireland comprehend the causes, consequences, and solutions, to the economic recession.
Our findings, based on data obtained from 20 interviews with influential policy-makers, radio and TV personalities, journalists, outspoken academics, and members of prominent financial institutions, reveal three inter-related reasons, given by this group, to make sense of the Irish reaction.
First, migration from Ireland is seen as a culturally legitimised and historically ingrained response to hardship. When times get tough, the Irish hit the road.
This Irish exodus along the well-trodden paths to the streets of Sydney, or the skyscrapers of New York, means a large number of mostly young people are no longer in Ireland and therefore cannot protest.
Migration also means there is less competition to gain employment for those who choose to remain. Moreover, migration assists with alleviating the strain on the public finances for the Irish government.
Unemployed people in Ireland are entitled to receive core social welfare payments. If migration did not occur there would be severe financial strain on the state to maintain this benefit. This is because when the Irish migrate we relinquish our right to this assistance.
Several people we interviewed told us migration acts as “releasing a pressure valve”, allowing the government to maintain the financing of core social welfare payments for unemployed people who stay. This was one of the few government benefits not significantly reduced because of austere policies. It helps to appease the unemployed in Ireland.
Next, within the mentality of the Irish, there is a strong collective memory of “The Troubles,” an inclusive term which refers to the recent history of violence in Northern Ireland. When members in the public eye speak about contemporary Ireland, they distance it from the past.
One respondent nicely encapsulates this sentiment: “Remember we come from a background where we have lived tragedy after tragedy, rubber bullets, people being killed deliberately, accidently, tit for tat, stupidity, decent places being burnt to the ground, decent schools, and people have said ‘no, no, we are not going down that road.’”
Although the Irish might be angry and aggrieved by the blanket bailout of the ailing banks, resulting in both increased migration and taxes, as well as decreased public expenditure, we do not turn to violence. As a maturing democracy, we now do our bloodletting at the ballot box, as evidenced in recent national and European elections.
The nation’s moral logic
More controversially, the third reason lies in the pervasive moral logic of the nation. Several people believe that the Irish public acknowledges we are partly responsible for our own misfortune and are prepared to reap what we’ve sewn.
Although stories are told of institutional ‘villains’ – the banks, the financial regulator, and the government – the Irish public is represented as ‘losing the run of themselves’ during the boom years; and now must suffer austerity to gain redemption.
The Irish do not protest, because it is illogical to do so when served our just deserts. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. This situation is collectively accepted.
One might argue, painting with a very broad stroke, that in the face of the economic downturn the Irish now find we feel empowered by cutting back and find our dignity through shared suffering, rather than in violence.
Behind the facts and figures espoused by economists and bankers are lives, logics, and lived experiences that need to be understood. A psychology sensitive to culture and morality is the key needed to understand complex and confounding phenomena, such as the curiously peaceful Irish response to austerity, and the civic unrest elsewhere in the EU.
Séamus A Power is a PhD candidate and and Dr David Nussbaum is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago and they are doing research on the reaction of Irish people to the recession. If you would like to take part, you can do so here.
A version of this article was originally published on The Guardian newspaper website July 24th, 2014.