What is a sinister fringe and are water protesters ISIS affiliates? - the media on the water charges protests

The Irish establishment has reacted hysterically to popular opposition to the water charges. In an almost comical performance, the media has focused laser-like on Joan Burton’s feelings while trapped in her car and on the protests’ alleged ‘violence’. But it has turned a blind eye to the violence of austerity across the country.

We’re not supposed to talk about it because it lends direct support to the protests, but the background to the recent events is that since 2009, austerity has attacked communities, families and individuals throughout the country, and the poor and vulnerable have paid the heaviest price. 

Here is a short list:

-There are now 1,230,000 people suffering from deprivation, or 27% of the population—up from 12% in 2007.

-Between 2009 and 2014, health spending was cut by a mind-boggling 27%. On top of that, we know that privatised, for-profit health care systems result in more people who die, worse care, and more money wasted, but the government is doing nothing apart from cutting even more.

-Communities have been faced with a string of cuts over 2008-2014, including: 

-Violence against women programme: -38.2%

-Women’s organisations: -48.7%

-Projects for youth: -44.1%

-Community development: -43.6%

-Voluntary social housing: -50.0%

-Drugs programmes: -37.0%

-Family Support Agency: -32.5%

-The number of people sleeping rough in Dublin is at its highest since records began, having tripled in five years. There are 700 homeless children living in emergency accommodation; the number of homeless families in this situation has more than doubled in the past year.

We could go on, but the point is that it should come as no surprise that people are out in the streets trying to force politicians to back off. It would be surprising if it didn’t happen.

But we were told that the protests signaled that we in Ireland were ‘heading to an ISIS situation’, in reference to the violent fundamentalist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. In a ‘sinister twist’, a ‘sinister fringe’ has ‘infiltrated’ and ‘hijacked’ the protests (Tom Brady, Niall O’Connor and Fionnan Sheahan, Irish Independent). The protesters are responsible for the ‘creeping anarchy’ threatening the peace by engaging in ‘rampant law-breaking and thuggery’ (Stephen O’Byrnes, Irish Independent).

TD Paul Murphy has been a special target, described as a ‘ridiculous’ and ‘immature’ posh kid who is ‘privately educated’ and ‘unapologetic about the ugly antics of protesters’. The Irish Independent pictured Murphy on the front page of its Weekend Review with a big communist logo in the background. Clearly, he must be friends with Stalin, no? (Kim Bielenberg, Fionnan Sheahan, Irish Independent).

The fears of Joan Burton when trapped in her ministerial car have received an incredible degree of attention. If that passion for details was applied to the hardships of ordinary people living under austerity, there would be no secrets left about how bad austerity is as an economic strategy. 

We have been told that Burton was ‘abused’ and that her ‘necklace was broken’. She said ‘I was frightened’. 

But if the media was serious about discussing feelings of fear and abuse, it would investigate those of the hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country suffering from deprivation, or who fear losing their jobs, or fear not to make ends meet because they lost their jobs, or fear to end up on the street because they can’t make ends meet, or fear they can’t provide for their kids because they can’t keep up anymore. Or look at those who fear death from cancer because waiting times are too long because the health care system is privatised and wasteful. Or those who fear they will have to emigrate because there are no jobs available in Ireland. 

But the media cares about the interests of those in power, so it won’t talk about that. The focus is on the two hours Joan Burton spent in her car.

There has also been much talk about the ‘intimidation’ and ‘violence’ associated with the protests. There have been endless assertions that: 

Throwing a water balloon is violent; throwing an egg is violent; tapping on a car is violent; shaking a car is violent; intending to shake a car is violent; a megaphone is very suspicious.

The media likes to narrow it down to those questions only because it diverts attention from what really matters. It ensures that we don’t ask the questions that should be asked: 

Is suicide or depression due to austerity-induced unemployment violence against the unemployed? Is lack of access to a rape crisis centre closed by cutbacks a form of violence and intimidation against victims? Is being forced into homelessness humiliation and intimidation? Is someone forced to die of cancer because of waiting lines a victim of violence? Is enforced deprivation intimidation? 

The media and the establishment may reflect on those matters. Everybody else knows the answers.

Guest contribution from Julien Mercille who is a lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (Routledge). Follow him on twitter @JulienMercille