Ireland is facing mounting anger over controversial moves to introduce water charges, with widespread street protests reports Rob Winkel
The introduction of water charges in Ireland has given rise to a popular opposition movement which has sparked a strong debate throughout Irish society. The latest day of action, called by the umbrella campaign group Right2Water on Saturday 1 November, saw demonstrations in all major cities and most major towns in the country. A total of 150,000 people are estimated to have taken to the streets around the country in to tell the government to scrap their latest regressive tax on the population.
I visited two of these demonstrations in County Cork, where it was estimated by police that 5-10% of the local population were on the streets despite torrential rain. Demonstrators said that the introduction of the water charges was one step too far after the introduction of numerous other regressive taxes since 2009; and local police I spoke with were supportive of the movement. Crowds cheered to calls for a boycott of water charges and vowed to continue organising until the policy is fully scrapped. Incumbent local politicians who support water charges were told that their days in office were numbered.
The primary source of outrage is that up until now the costs of water purification and distribution have been met by general taxation. Under new proposals, water infrastructure is being transferred from existing local authority control to a new semi-state centralised body called Irish Water, which will bill households for water usage based on meter readings. Beyond the well-documented over-expenditure and failures in establishing Irish Water, there is widespread belief and fear amongst the organised left that this new Quango is little more than a vehicle for future privatisation of the nation's water infrastructure.
Numerous forms of direct action have been seen in Ireland in recent months, most notably the organising of communities who have physically blocked contractors from installing water meters on their streets and estates. Refusals to register for water charges, as well as public destruction of registration packs have also been widespread.
To date the movement has gained some ground in the struggle against the government. The election of Paul Murphy (who represents the Anti-Austerity Alliance) in a Dublin by-election in October followed a campaign based primarily on water charges. The government's October budget announced minor concessions and tax relief in relation to water charges in response to early demonstrations.
Following Saturday's nationwide protests, the government have announced that more 'clarity' will be provided in the coming week. Such attempts to re-frame the dispute as infighting amongst the mainstream parties about technicalities and operation of Irish Water have only demonstrated the ever-increasing political distance between the ruling parties and the working classes.
Trust of the establishment parties of Ireland has reached a new low, and the government's relative silence when met with a simple demand has inflamed public opinion while giving new energy to the demonstrations which now occur weekly in many cities.
More protests are planned for November and December in Dublin and elsewhere. New grassroots groups have organised from within their communities, and many young activists are marching for the first time. Water charges are seen as one component in a seemingly endless assault on the cost of living for the Irish population; an attempt by the government to fill the financial void left by transferring the nation's public wealth to banks and property developers in recent years. They are the latest in a number of regressive taxes and tax rises in the name of austerity.
The momentum of the fightback against these policies now appears to have a strength that may bring down the existing coalition government and widen the political space for a politics which rejects austerity and its destructive effects on society.