Over 100,000 Irish citizens protested against proposed water changes. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
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How water became everything in Ireland

Patience with austerity has run out, and Irish people are pushing back against the Irish Water debacle.

Ireland is feeling emotional. After six years of benign cooperation with a tough austerity regime, one subject became a tipping point late last year. That issue? Water.

Last November – receiving meagre attention in the UK – over 100,000 Irish citizens marched through the streets of their towns and cities, protesting against proposed water charges. “Enough is enough,” was the message delivered with aplomb. “We can’t pay any more.”

Just a few months earlier, an ironically portentous article had appeared on the Guardian. “Why has the Irish response to the financial crisis been so peaceful?”, the subheading asked. It then attempted to find answers: because we feel partially to blame for the crisis, because we remember violence and don’t want it repeated, because so many young people emigrated.

As it turned out, Irish people had been quite angry for some time – and not with themselves, but with bankers, financial regulators and policymakers.

Since 2009, almost half a million people have left the country. Public services have been cut across the board, with the introduction of a variety of additional taxes including the Universal Social Charge (payable on incomes over just €4,004 in 2011) and the new Local Property Tax, payable on all residential properties since 2013.

New semi-state Irish Water – an epic PR disaster from start to finish – will be remembered as the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.

On reflection, it is hard to believe that Irish Water wasn’t specifically designed with the intention of mobilising the Irish population. Part of the EU-IMF bailout agreement, it landed – with a thud – on public consciousness last January, when its chief executive admitted that it had already spent €50m on consultants.

This was followed by a controversy involving the organisation’s collection of PPS digits (akin to National Insurance numbers) and outrage over a proposed bonus scheme structure for its employees.

The main issue though, was that no one was clear exactly how much they would have to pay. Indeed, the pricing model has changed so often that the Irish Times’ long-suffering consumer affairs correspondent has produced five Q&As – and counting – on the topic so far.

In a sudden manner reminiscent of the 2011 London riots, it all came to a head on a day in mid-November. Surrounded by angry protesters, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Joan Burton found herself trapped in a car in Jobstown, Dublin for almost three hours. She described the events nervously as having “parallels with fascism”.

Perhaps if the whole situation hadn’t been handled so shambolically, more people would have been willing to pay the charges. The original plan to charge separately for each adult household member appeared nonsensical and money-grabbing. And the costs were to affect everyone – including the most vulnerable – at a time when the economy was finally on an upwards slope.

The “conservation” argument used by the government has also become redundant. Although the installation of water meters was to be completed by January, half a million are yet to be installed. The necessary flat rates – guaranteed until 2019 – mean that it will now generally be far cheaper to pay them than to use your meter (if you have even one yet).

Of course, it’s worth noting that in the majority of European countries – including the UK since Thatcher – water is a paid-for service. After November’s nationwide protests, the Irish government backtracked to the point where Ireland’s charges will now be some of the lowest in Europe, at €160 for a two-adult household (factoring in a “water conservation grant” for pre-registering).

But regardless of how far rates have been slashed, a level of hostility towards Irish Water as an organisation is likely to remain. There are suspicions it will eventually be fully privatised, although this government has vowed that will “never” happen and that it would necessitate a referendum.

Water, essential to life, is a highly emotive issue and should have been handled with far greater care. One need only look to bankrupt Detroit, where water supplies have been disconnected in their thousands, to see why the Irish nation might be nervous of paying directly for the privilege.

Ultimately though, the Irish Water debacle has been a lesson in two major areas: first, in how not to set up a commercial semi-state company. The second, and more positive, is in the very real power of the people to influence policy. While the long-term political effects will not be seen until the 2016 election, one fact remains clear: the Irish may be used to enduring hardship, but push them far enough and they will always fight back.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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