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Ireland’s Disappeared

Michael Cronin


The billboard says it all. Or does it? In an advertising campaign mounted by an Irish newspaper over the slogan “We are defined by the choices we make”, there are two contrasting pictures. On the left-hand side, there is the photograph of a rioting crowd in Athens, with a member of the Greek riot police prominent in the foreground. On the right, there is a photograph of O’Connell Street in Dublin, with the General Post Office and the Spire but, significantly, no people. The broadsheet was too quick off the mark in terms of what subsequently happened, given the protests over the water charges, but the image has stuck. The streets of Madrid and Athens may be filled with angry, frequently violent demonstrations against the cuts to income and living standards but Ireland’s poster boys and girls of austerity, by and large, shun the publicity of the crossroads for the penitent stoicism of keeping calm and carrying on. As Brendan Walsh put it in the conclusion to a working paper on “Well-being and Economic Conditions in Ireland”, “[t]he population appears to be resilient in the face of economic hardship” (Walsh 2011: 15).

It can be argued, however, that the years since the onset of the recession in Ireland in 2008 have been characterised not by passivity and quietism but by extreme violence. This violence is endemic and routinely misrepresented. More importantly, the nature of the violence itself illustrates the changing nature of political opposition and the role of suicide and self-harm in restructuring the conflict between the victims of recession and between the haves and the have nots in situations of worsening inequality.

In a study of mortality rates in twenty-six European (EU) countries between 1970 and 2007, David Stuckler, Sanjay Basu, Marc Suhrcke, Adam Coutts and Martin McKee noted that for every 1 per cent increase in unemployment, there was a 0.79 per cent rise in suicides at ages younger than sixty-five years (Stuckler 2009: 320). Using multivariate regression, correcting for population ageing, past mortality and employment trends and country-specific differences in healthcare infrastructure, the authors of the study singled out suicide as significantly associated with the effects of economic crises as “[r]ising unemployment had no effect on other causes of death assessed”. In a follow-up article, the authors looked at the effects of the 2008 recession on public health. Official unemployment in both pre- and post-2004 EU member states did not increase until 2009, after the banking crisis, and then job losses increased dramatically, rising to thirty-seven per cent above the 2007 level in both parts of Europe. The downward trend in suicides seen in both groups of countries was reversed almost at once. The 2008 increase was less than one per cent in the new member states but it had increased by almost seven per cent in the old and in 2009 it increased in both (Stuckler et al 2011: 124). As Stuckler et al noted, “the countries facing the most severe financial reversals of fortune, such as Greece and Ireland, had greater rises in suicides (seventeen per cent and thirteen per cent respectively) than did the other countries, and in Latvia suicides increased by more than seventeen per cent between 2007 and 2008” (125).

In a further study on recession and suicide in fifty US states for the period 1999-2010, it was found that a one percentage point rise in unemployment was associated with a rise of 0.99 percentage in the suicide rate (Reeves et al 2012: 1813-1814). In an article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2014, Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee and David Stuckler concluded that suicide rates either increased (for most countries in Europe, where suicide rates had been falling, and Canada, where rates had been stable) or accelerated (for the United States and Poland, where suicide rates had already been rising) after the onset of the latest economic crisis. Their conclusion was that “there have been at least 10,000 more economic suicides than would have been expected in the European Union, Canada and the USA since the Great Recession began in 2007” (Reeves et al 2014: 307). Brendan Walsh and Dermot Walsh in a study that took in the initial period of the recession in Ireland claimed: that “[t]he Irish time series data for the period 1968-2009 support the hypothesis that rising unemployment and higher levels of alcohol consumption have led to increased suicide mortality among younger males” (Walsh and Walsh 2011: 44).

As the Report on the All-Ireland Young Men and Suicide Project pointed out, suicide has been a major cause of death among younger males (aged fifteen to twenty-four years) on the island of Ireland in recent years. In the period 2002-2012, the rate of male deaths in this group was five times higher than the female rate. The suicide rate among young Irish men was among the highest in the EU (Richardson, Clarke and Fowler 2013: 25).

The tendency to focus on age and stress aggregate GDP data can, however, obscure an even more alarming relationship between suicide and socio-economic disadvantage that was highlighted in the Simon Community report Men, Suicide and Society (2012). The authors argue that “there is a gradient in suicide risk by occupational social class (and other markers of socio-economic position): those in lowest socio-economic group and living in the most deprived areas are 10 times more at risk of suicide than those in the most affluent group living in the most affluent areas” (Wylie et al 2012: 4). In a summation of a comprehensive survey of the economic literature on suicide, Brendan Kennelly and Sheelah Connolly state that “[w]hile exceptions can be found, the balance of evidence suggests that, controlling for other risk factors, including the presence of psychiatric illnesses, being unemployed, having a low income or living in a socio-economically deprived area increase one’s risk of dying by suicide” (Kennelly and Connolly 2012: 73).

If the empirical findings of these various studies repeatedly bear out the link between economic crisis and disadvantage and the incidence of suicide and extreme forms of self-harm, the question that might be asked is why should the response to recession and disadvantage take this form. In other words, why across the world from Foxconn employees in China to Greek pensioners in Athens, should suicide be the preferred response to the intolerable conditions of lives lived in the shadow of dispossession and exploitation? A way to answer this question is to consider briefly two significant changes in the nature of economic organisation in recent decades, the first relating to the nature of devolved or transferred cost and the second to new regimes of entrepreneurialism.

The historian and cultural commentator Tony Judt, in a work published shortly before his death, claimed that there was something profoundly wrong about the way people lived their lives in the contemporary world:

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but we have no idea what they are worth. (Judt 2010: 1)

Even if the “we” in Judt’s claim needs to be qualified and refers to particular parts of the world where material self-interest can be distinguished from physical survival, he diagnoses a recurrent and habitual concern with cost as the ultimate arbiter of what is of value in many contemporary societies subject to the dictates and constraints of the market economy. To take one contemporary example, it is often the costs associated with the provision of translation and interpreting services for migrants which becomes a core argument in attempts to remove translation altogether from societies and impose a lingua franca. One commentator, for example, on the translation situation in the United Kingdom had the following to say:

It’s a shocking figure: more than £100m was spent in the past year on translating and interpreting for British residents who don’t speak English. In the name of multiculturalism, one Home Office-funded centre alone provides these services in 76 languages […]The financial cost is bad enough, but there is a wider problem about the confused signals we are sending to immigrant communities. We are telling them they don’t have to learn English, let alone integrate. (Rahman 2006)

What is noteworthy is the way the idea of cost itself is constructed. Costs are always a cost to someone and it is that someone who goes on to define what a cost is but strictly, of course, in their own terms. Implicit in Rahman’s argument is the contention that if everyone learned English the unnecessary costs associated with translation would disappear. It is a variation on an argument that is articulated in critiques of the foundational multilingualism of supra-national bodies such as the European Union. Large sums of money, it is argued, currently being spent on translation and interpreting services would be saved if the sole working language of the EU was a vehicular language like English (van Parijs 2004: 13-32).

What these arguments centred on cost fail to make apparent is the equally onerous costs of having to resort to a lingua franca. If one takes the example of English, vast sums of money are spent by governments around the world to teach the language to its citizens (Grin 2004: 189-202). This is a cost that is not borne by English speakers themselves but is incurred by those who do not speak the language and feel the necessity to learn it. In addition, the circulation of cultural goods such as music, cinema, literature in English does not automatically have to bear the translation costs that are almost axiomatic for non-Anglophone cultures which seek global circulation of their own cultural goods. In a sense, what is at play here is a practice of what might be termed transferred or devolved cost which is characteristic of the redefinition of consumption in digital contexts.

In a practice that originated with low-cost airline operators, intending passengers are invited or, in the case of some airlines, obliged to print out their boarding passes in advance (Cronin 2013).This entails the passenger having access to the equipment (computer and printer) and internet connection which allows him or her to enter the necessary details and print out the pass. Both the equipment and the connection are a cost to the passenger or to the entity that has made these available to the passenger. There is the further opportunity cost of the time spent accessing the site, filling in the details and printing out the pass. This is time that the passenger could have spent doing something else. In short, what were formerly production costs for the airline, paying someone to prepare and print out your boarding pass, now become consumption costs for the passenger.

The prevalence of the paradigm of prosumption and the constant drive to transfer or devolve costs from the producer to the consumer so as to enhance profit margins has arguably worked its way into the social body itself. In 2013, when events were held to commemorate the centenary of the Dublin Lockout ‑ the major industrial dispute between the employers and workers in Ireland in the early part of the twentieth century ‑ the role of police brutality was all too apparent. Whether it was the deaths and hundreds of injuries that resulted from the baton charge by the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) on Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) on August 30th, 1913 or the death of the ITGWU official Michael Byrne after torture in a police cell, the choreography of violence was all too familiar (Yeates 2001). On one side, there were assembled the state, employers, police and an assortment of hired heavies (Alice Begley, a worker, was shot dead by one of these on her way back from a union office carrying a food parcel) and on the other, there were the workers who eventually resorted to forming their own militia, the Irish Citizens’ Army, to protect demonstrations. Here, in a sense, the private sector and its state allies “produced” the violence against the workers who “consumed” the brutality directed against them. In other words, the private sector and state devoted substantial resources to producing violence directed against workers. The workers did not pay for or produce the violence to which they were subject.

The notion of the costs involved in the production of state coercion has a more contemporary resonance in the continual references to the monies involved in the policing of the Corrib Gas protest where seventy-five per cent of the complaints about police misconduct made to the Garda Ombudsman’s Commission were deemed to be admissible for investigation. In an article on the retirement of Chief Supt Tony McNamara, who was responsible for policing the protest from the outset, Lorna Siggins reminded readers that the “Department of Justice’s latest figure for the Garda overtime cost for Corrib since 2006 is €12.6 million to the middle of December 2009” (Siggins 2010). What is explicit here is the cost to the producer (in this case, the state) of the force directed against protesters. The protesters, in other words, do not bear the direct costs of the baton charges and other forms of physical violence directed against them.

In the case of suicide during times of economic crisis, however, as the figures above show, a radically different pattern emerges. What we observe is the lethal conflation of protest and prosumption. The cost of dealing with opposition to economic hardship and the decimation of public goods and services is transferred from the state and private security contractors to the victims of recession. It is the victims who become both the producers and the consumers of violence that will lead to their certain demise. In this way, the cost of repressing dissent is transferred from the state and private sector to those who are impoverished by job losses and drastic benefits cuts. In a study undertaken by the National Suicide Research Foundation which looked at 190 cases of suicide in Cork city and county between September 2008 and March 2011, almost forty-two per cent of those who took their own lives were unemployed and thirty-two per cent worked or had worked in construction (Buckley 2012). In the macabre accountancy of the market economy, self-inflicted harm becomes the ultimate expression of transferred cost as the dispossessed and the disadvantaged become their own judge, jury and executioner.

Management science literature has made much in recent years of the notion of entrepreneurialism to describe behaviour whereby workers incorporate functions that were previously the sole reserve of management under Fordist regimes of the mass production of goods and mass provision of services (Neilson and Rossiter 2008: 51-72). In the words of Scott Kushner, “the responsibilities of strategy development, accounting, invoicing, benefits administration, space management, procurement, and accounts management are assumed by enterprising freelancers, or workers who have been labelled ‘precarious’” (Kushner 2013: 12). The dual logic of entrepreneurialism involves both the outsourcing of functions that were formerly carried out by head office, mentioned by Kushner and the devolution of a multiplicity of functions to workers themselves who, through the mediation of new technology, multitask. They become, among other things, their own timekeepers (automated flexi-time systems), secretaries (word processing tools), accountants (automated payroll systems, online banking, revenue online services (ROS)) and travel agents (online ticketing). Central to the notion of entrepreneurialism as transferred function is the notion of the individual taking on responsibility for, and becoming a curator of, their own lives. The multi-functionality of IT software ‑ Microsoft Office performing a multiplicity of functions from indexer to accountant ‑ provides an objective correlative for the relentless focus on the individual as the potential agent or administrator of any number of functions.

It is in this context that Michel Foucault’s distinction between the prisoner and the debtor as symbols of their respective ages takes on a troubling resonance. Foucault argued that the prisoner was the emblematic figure of nascent modernity in that the mass organisation and regimentation of schools, hospitals and factories for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was inspired by rational utopias of discipline and control that were best exemplified in model prisons throughout the western world. In this regimen, the emphasis was on specified agents watching others. The lives of others were only interesting insofar as they could be observed and controlled. In late modernity, however, the figure of the prisoner has ceded to that of the debtor. What was already implicit in modernity, namely, the internalisation and the incorporation of external disciplines (the model pupil, the model prisoner, the model patient), is now pushed to its logical extreme where prisoners become their own jailers (Foucault 1990: Lazzarato 2011). The logic of debt, which involves mortgaging the present to some future good, means that the individual under the regimen of the entrepreneurial is subject to a form of relentless self-harrying where as putatively sovereign subject they become the wardens of their own financial conscience. The flattered subject of individual omnipotence becomes the bounded captive of economic reversal.

The tragic aporia of the debtor turned jailer was highlighted at a coroner’s inquest in Clonmel, Co Tipperary in May 2013. The coroner, Paul Morris, commenting on the role of financial institutions in the suicide of a man in his sixties, claimed: “They treat you as a celebrity while you’re building up money and then, when things go wrong, they’re so aggressive that they can push a person over the edge” (Kane 2013). Being pushed over the edge is the flipside of entrepreneurial “celebrity”, but the deadly irony is that it is the indebted not the creditors who administer the final blow. As the authors of the study published in The Lancet on the public health effect of economic crises note, “although the financial sector of an economy may be principally responsible for risk-taking related to the present economic crisis, the true costs of this risk-taking behaviour are to society as a whole” (Stuckler et al 2009: 322). A signal consequence, therefore, of a regime of transferred cost and the transferred functionality of entrepreneurialism is that the risks are indeed assumed by society as a whole as citizens increasingly assume the costs and policing of their own financial subjection.

Despite the considerable evidence of systematic inequalities in suicide risk associated with different indicators of social position (these include labour market status, occupational social class, education, income, housing tenure and labour market position at the level of the individual and socio-economic deprivation at aggregate level), Stephen Platt has noted that there has been a “near universal failure to consider equality issues in both academic reviews of approaches to suicide prevention and the formulation of national suicide prevention strategies” (Platt 2011: 211). David Adams, an Irish Times columnist, claimed that “while suicide remains a taboo subject we will continue avoiding a much-needed open and honest public discussion on the subject” (Adams 2013: 16). What is even more striking, however, is the taboo around particular causes from those whose alleged brief is to prevent or contain suicide.

The Young Men and Suicide Project was an initiative undertaken by the Men’s Health Forum in Ireland and supported by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. The aim of the initiative was to investigate and identify effective mental health promotion and suicide prevention work and recommend and pilot appropriate policy initiatives for the island of Ireland. In their ministerial foreword to the report on the project, Dr James Reilly, then minister for health in the Republic of Ireland and Edwin Poots, minister for health in Northern Ireland, pledged their support: “We will make use of this work in our continued efforts to make a difference and save lives” (Richardson et al 2013: np). In the executive summary to the report the authors acknowledge that “the recent spike in suicide rates among young males in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland coincides with the economic downturn and increasing levels of unemployment” (8). Leaving aside the coyness of the verb “coincides”, it is clear that there is an initial awareness of a socio-economic context to the incidence of suicide among young men in both jurisdictions.

“Income inequality” features as one of the risk factors for suicide in young men as well as the “socio-economic impact of the recession” and “living and working conditions, unemployment and socio-economic status”. Referring implicitly to the research of Brendan Walsh and Dermot Walsh cited earlier, the authors concede “a causal link between rising unemployment and higher levels of alcohol consumption and increased suicide mortality among younger males” (9). However, when it comes to listing the two key factors that are “known to be effective in reducing suicide rates”, the reader is told that they are, “physician education in depression recognition and treatment” and “restricting access to lethal means of suicide” (10).

The socio-economic context is wholly absent despite the fact that one of the articles listed in the bibliography of the Young Men and Suicide Project is the study by David Stuckler et al which demonstrated that “for every US$10 [per capita] higher investment in active labour market programmes there was 0.038% lower effect of a 1% rise in unemployment on suicide rates in people younger than 65 years” (Stuckler 2009: 321). In other words, more money spent on social protection and job creation projects means a noticeable reduction in the number of suicides. The authors of the Young Men and Suicide report are in no doubt about the gravity of the situation: “There can be no room for inertia or ambivalence – there is both a public health and a moral requirement to act” (Richardson et al 2013: 13). However, not one of the twelve key recommendations for action references the socio-economic context to suicide.

The striking failure to engage with political economy is not shown by the subjects of the study itself, young men. The first issue that emerges from the Focus Group discussions is the “fears and struggles” of young men, particularly “in relation to the economy, unemployment, recession” (87). Their anger is directed specifically at “what they saw as the betrayal on the part of government in relation to key decisions about the country’s future, and about not having any input into decision-making at any level” (87). Thus the subjects of the report show a lucidity that is absent from the recommendations by its authors. In Northern Ireland, the target area for the pilot intervention was the geographical catchment known as “Colin”, situated between Lisburn and West Belfast. Colin is made up of the housing developments of Poleglass, Twinbrook, Lagmore and Kilwee and has a population of approximately thirty thousand people. The principal reasons for selecting the target area were the “high levels of male suicide within it, the level of health inequalities, and its disadvantaged status” (92). However, no element of the pilot intervention, a programme encouraging young men to seek help in times of difficulty, addressed the question of socio-economic disadvantage.

The relentless individualisation and psychologisation of responses to the suicide crisis in Ireland offers a disturbing parallel to the entrepreneurialist ideology mentioned earlier. For example, in the pilot intervention proposed for the Republic of Ireland, the development of an online mental fitness programme for young men called “Work Out”, is explicitly based on the principles of “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” (102), the preferred psychological paradigm for corporate management training (Harvey 2010). The very identification of the areas for the Work Out programme reflect the psycho-social imprint of the new managerialism:

• Being practical
• Building Confidence
• Taking Control
• Being a Team Player
(Richardson et al 2013: 102)

The individualised mode of delivery through an online site further exacerbates the dilemmas of those caught in the cusp of a new individualism where all the means to determine the macroeconomic futures of their lives have been removed by abstract and remote forms of techno-economic governance. The flattered subject of the therapy talk of new media (Zengotita 2007) becomes the helpless object of high finance and low subvention. Thus, the specific ideology of entrepreneurialism which underpins the recourse to suicide and self-harm in straitened circumstances becomes the animating principle of policies that allegedly seek to alleviate the problem. Whatever the taboos about reporting or discussing suicide, the taboos around its political and economic causes are the most powerful of all.

One telling example was provided in the article authored by Brendan Walsh and Dermot Walsh which described unemployment as an important contributory factor to suicide in Ireland alongside alcohol. The conclusion, however, downplayed the socio-economic dimension to their findings and dwelled primarily on the problem of the availability of alcohol (Walsh and Walsh 2011: 44-45). The focus on alcohol, of course, tends to sidestep the connection between economic distress and alcohol abuse. In September 2013, the minister with responsibility for mental health, Kathleen Lynch, spoke of the “enormous bearing” of alcohol on suicide and self-harm rates in the Republic of Ireland but predictably failed to signal either the “enormous bearing” of austerity on self-harm or of alcohol abuse as a self-destructive survival strategy (Burke-Kennedy 2013).

As social protection diminishes in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere and as collective structures of belonging such church, trade unions and political parties experience their own crises of identity and adherence, a sense of individual vulnerability increases apace. In these circumstances, the only form of protection left to the individual is a version of civil protection afforded by what David Garland has called the “garrison state” (Garland 2001: 110). More CCTV, more police, more micro-managerialism, more mandatory prison sentences, more audits – in the garrison state the only antidote to fear is the endless extension of control.    

The retreat from social protection and larger collective structures of belonging is arguably part of a fundamental shift in contemporary societies from fear as an event to fear as an environment (Virilio 2010). Whereas previously fear was localised in a specific time and place ‑ a war that broke out, a famine that occurred, a natural catastrophe that was unleashed – fear now becomes generalised into a permanent condition. It is continuous rather than discrete.

What are the consequences of the emergence of a fear-environment, of the cultivation of anxiety and dread as the principal forms of communication and governance? In answering this question, we will examine different areas of contemporary Irish experience and explore the fallout from the instrumentalisation of fear.

A conclusion reached by the Nyberg Commission of Investigation into the Irish banking crisis was the prevalence of “group think” and a “herd instinct” in the Irish banking system (Nyberg 2011). The result was the unquestioning tendency to follow the example set by Anglo-Irish Bank in pursuit of grossly inflated speculative profits. Of course one of the most powerful causes of “group think” is fear of what the group or particular members of the group might think. In Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on student subjects, they were prepared to inflict great pain on their victims once they felt that they had the approval of key authority figures (Zimbardo 2007: 260-75). The worry of displeasing those in power overcame any residual scruples they had as to the morality of what they were doing. Christopher R Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland details the appalling crimes committed by ordinary young German men against Jewish men, women and children (Browning 1993; see also Neitzel and Welzer 2013). What emerges from the study is that the most powerful motive accounting for the men committing acts of unspeakable cruelty was a fear of censure, of being judged weak or cowardly by their peers.

A striking feature in the run-up to the banking collapse and bailout in Ireland was the pervasiveness of a rhetoric of intimidation. In the 2007 election the Irish electorate was told that if they did not vote for the governing party the party would indeed come to an end. Voting against the ruling doxa would be throwing away the benefits of unprecedented growth. The Opposition, for its part, was too afraid to challenge the economic and fiscal orthodoxy so that regime change was never likely (see Leahy 2009). When the Irish state guarantee of deposits held in Irish banks was announced and subsequently passed by the Irish parliament in 2008 the recurrent tenor of the arguments was that in the absence of such a guarantee the ATMs would cease to function, social services would collapse and there would be food riots in the streets. As the scale of the banking crisis became evident and it was necessary to have recourse to an EU/IMF bailout, criticism of the bailout was deemed unpatriotic, a sure way to endanger Ireland’s position on the international money markets and the rejection of which would invite unmentionable economic and social disaster.

A typical headline was provided by The Irish Times on June 10th, 2011, “Government warned not to backslide on bailout reforms”. Citing unnamed officials, Arthur Beesley, the European correspondent for the paper, claimed they “said anything which raised a doubt about the Government’s determination to proceed with the rescue plan was very unhelpful”. When the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, was asked whether Irish ministers were wise to speculate publicly about a second bailout or longer loan maturities, Mr Trichet’s response was to call for “verbal discipline” (Beesley 2011). The fact that the “flexibility” and “structural reforms” that Mr Trichet and the unnamed officials so enthusiastically supported would involve dramatic pay cuts for countless workers in the society was a move that should not give rise to any public expression of doubt as to its political or ethical wisdom. All that mattered was that “verbal discipline” was observed. Putting up and shutting up are, to paraphrase the title of one of Graham Greene’s wartime novels, part of the new Ministration of Fear in Ireland.

A repeated feature, therefore, of recent Irish history is the recurrent instrumentalisation of fear. The paralysis of critical faculties through fear of dissent which brought about an unprecedented economic and fiscal crisis is further strengthened by the politics of anxiety mobilised to mute criticism of the highly questionable means used to the resolve the crisis. Rather than fearing fear, every means is used to make its presence more insidious and more threatening in political debate.

What might be a typical feature of a society which is hostage to a culture of fear, anxiety and dread? One answer can be found in remarks made by an ex-President of the United States, Bill Clinton, in a speech he made to the New York Yacht Club on March 15th, 2011. He claimed: “The thing that has troubled me most, believe it or not, about this whole economic crisis in Ireland has been the rise in the suicide rate, not just among the young, where it was already too high, but among those in their prime working years who feel somehow that their whole lives have been robbed” (Regan 2011). Each suicide is, of course, an individual tragedy, occasioned by a particular set of circumstances but complexity of causes does not mean absence of causes. Nor do all causes, as we saw at the outset of this chapter, have the same weighting. As social theorists from Émile Durkheim to Kieran Keohane and Carmen Kuhling have been swift to point out, there is a real sense in which suicide cannot be considered in isolation from the society and economy in which it emerges, especially when the sheer number of cases of suicide and self-harm is so great that even a former US president is forced to sit up and take notice (Durkheim 2006; Keohane and Kuhling 2004). The omnipresence of a culture of fear coupled with persistent economic disadvantage and an unrelenting assault on all forms of social protection provides an especially toxic framework for a society where Josephine Rigney, a suicide prevention officer for the Health Service Executive speaking to an Irish Rural Link event noted that ‘”It’s two [suicides] a day in Ireland”’ (Anonymous: 2013). In 2011, the Republic of Ireland recorded the number of suicides was the highest on record at 554, fifty-nine more than in 2010 (Cullen 2014: 10).

When dread and anxiety become the permanent horizon of media commentary and an instrument of public policy, it is hardly surprising that the socialisation of fear results in the extreme forms of self-harm and suicide. The only way out is down.

So where are the missing figures from the Irish newspaper advertisement showing an empty O’Connell Street? One answer is that they are buried in Ireland’s suicide statistics. Los Desaparecidos, the Irish Disappeared, are not the victims of predatory military juntas or paramilitary nutting squads but the inevitable victims of the relentless violence of a culture of fear centred around debt and dispossession. One of the more telling moves by the Irish Central Bank in June 2013 was to reduce the protection to homeowners from excessive contact from banks: “While existing rules stipulate lenders can only contact borrowers three times a month, this has been dropped in favour of ‘proportionate’ contact and lenders will be allowed to pay an unsolicited visit to a borrower’s home for the first time” (Garland 2013: 1).

The corporate, individualising, “mental health” strategies proposed as part of the means to combat suicide too often partake of the same structural violence that puts an end to so many lives on the island of Ireland with its unyielding emphasis on the entrepreneurial management of self. The highly publicised link between personal depression and suicide in the case of a Robin Williams conceals an infinitely more insidious link between debt and self-destruction in contemporary societies. The haves in Irish society are engaged in a prolonged dirty war against the most vulnerable and the truth is not the only thing to disappear. We are, indeed, defined by the lethal choices that many are forced to make.


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Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. This essay is a version of a chapter that will appear in Colin Coulter and Angela Nagel (eds), Ireland Under Austerity: Neoliberal Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, Manchester University Press, 2015.