Like many others who attended the march on Saturday 21st February I was amazed at the turn out. At 13.50 I was walking up O’Connell street and the march was passing the GPO. I walked around the march, curious to see how it was arranged, and what groups were represented. Eventually, I trickled down to the back of the march which passed the GPO at around 3pm. There were at least 120,000 protesters on the march. Some estimate slightly more, some slightly less. ICTU claim it was the biggest march in thirty years at 150,000+ , whilst RTE claim less than 100,000. But, overall I think 120,000 is a fair estimate. Either way there can be no disputing the fact that this was a huge turnout.
The vast majority of those on the march were workers behind trade-union banners. I imagine several thousand (including myself) attended out of both a) curiousty, b) dissatisfaction with the economy and c) how the entire crisis is being handled. A couple of hundred attended alongside their political parties and then there was a handful of the usual suspects: an electic mix of anarchists, single-issue campaigners, religious groups and a variety of communists. Typical of any city center demonstration there was a diversity of views from Christians calling for repentance to anarchists calling for 1968 student-worker national strike.
ICTU strategically located all the private sector unions at the front of the march, strategically located for the camera’s and an attempt to highlight that it was not a public sector march. SR technics and Waterford Crystal workers being the two groups that stood out. The banner at the front of the march was ‘there is a better, fairer way’. Behind this was a delegation of firefighters in official uniform playing band-pipes. The INTO were heavily represented as were the NBRU. SIPTU, and its myriad branches were hugely represented. The INO had a large presence as did UNITE. AMICUS and IMPACT were also there in large numbers. I am not sure how many groups travelled up to Dublin from around the country but I certainly counted a fair few from Cork, Limerick and Sligo.
The atmosphere on the march was certainly one of anger, discontent and realism. In hindsight I should have brought a dichtophone (or even a pen & paper) to try interview and document the sentiment of those marching. I spoke to a couple of people but it was generally a question of complaint about what is happening in the economy, and the inequitable response by government. There was also a lot of literature (placards etc) calling for the bankers to be held to account. In fact, I would not be surprised if a lot of people simply turned out to express anger toward the ‘golden circle’ and the recent revelations surrounding Anglo-Irish bank.
For ICTU it was a public demonstration to support their ten point plan, and a message to the government that they should get back to the social partnership talks. Again, I am sorry that I did not interview a representative sample about their views on the social partnership talks and ICTU’s ten point plan. It would be interesting to know how many of those on the march support both of these issues, and the strategy they feel the unions should adopt. Small marginal political groups were calling for a national strike but none of the trade unions took this line. In fact, none of the unions were calling for any sort of industrial action.
The bigger question, though, is whether the march will have any impact upon the fiscal policies being adopted by the government at the moment. The immediate answer is most likely to be no, but this is not to say the march will have no effect upon public policy. It will give the Unions a lot of confidence going forward, and it will put the tremors upon Fianna Fáil candidates ahead of the local elections in June. So, the indirect impact could be quite large even if the direct impact will be quite small. The coverage of the march in the Sunday papers was conspicuous by its absence. The main sentiment being expressed was that people are unrealistic if they think the government can avoid cuts in public expenditure.
This argument though is devoid of empirical depth. I think most people protesting on Saturday acknowledge that tough prudent decisions need to be made in relation to the economy. The problem is not the need to make decisions, but how the decisions are being made, and in whose interest they are being made. This is a question of equity. Ordinary public and private sector workers are justifiably annoyed about being asked to carry the burden of fiscal adjustment whilst the corporate club escape unscathed. Why the government are solely concentrating upon expenditure cuts (in terms of wages and services) whilst ignoring the need for a bigger programme for national recovery remains odd. It is within their electoral interest to pursue an adjustment plan that is both competent and equitable. But, unfortunately, it has been neither, and the longer it isolates itself from a fair and equitable national recovery programme the more likely mass industrial action becomes inevitable.