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.