Faced with growing public revolt against the introduction of water charges and faltering support, the Irish government is in a deepening crisis.
The government ― a coalition between the right-wing Fine Gael (FG) party and the Irish Labour Party ― came to power in 2011 on the back of public outrage over austerity and social spending cuts.
The impact from the global financial crisis hit Ireland particularly hard. According to Eurostat, Ireland has paid 42% of the total cost of the European banking crisis, or 41 billion euros ― about 9000 euros per person. The average across the European Union is 192 euros person.
The government of FG Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny is presiding over further austerity cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB). The unemployment rate, however, remains well into double figures.
Despite the scale of Ireland’s economic collapse, social unrest has remained minimal. Instead, Ireland ― with a population of only 4.5 million ― has witnessed a more literal decimation. More than 400,000 people, mostly young people, skilled workers and families, have emigrated in search of work and a better lifestyle.
The government has recently heralded a “recovery” in the Irish economy. But the introduction of new charges on water use, levied via new state-owned company Irish Water, has brought years of simmering discontent to a head.
The cost of water is already included in general taxation. There are also still towns in Ireland without safe drinking water, where residents are forced to boil their water before use.
It is also widely suspected that the commodification of water and the corporate structure of Irish Water are designed to make it easier to privatise the water utility.
A boycott campaign against the charges has begun. Campaigners have encouraged people not to register with Irish Water. After a series of smaller protests, a national protest was held on October 11, organised by the Right2Water campaign.
A coalition of trade unions, community groups and political parties ― including the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA), the People Before Profit Alliance and Sinn Fein ― drew more than 100,000 people to the streets of Dublin.
The government responded with threats and violence. Kenny warned of higher taxes.
When videos emerged of communities picketing local homes to stop the water meters from being installed, Labour leader and Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Joan Burton responded by questioning how people living on housing estates could afford smart phones.
Almost unbelievably, this was followed by FG Senator Martin Conway trying to defend the water charge on live television on October 21 by arguing that “water just doesn’t fall out of the sky”.
On November 1, a further 100 rallies took place across the country. These drew about 200,000 protesters in the pouring rain, chanting slogans such as “no way, we won’t pay” and “from the rivers to the sea, Irish water will be free”.
Faced with rising opposition, the government began to back-peddle and contradict itself. Burton claimed that a family of four would pay less than 200 euros a year in water charges, only for Kenny to contradict her, stating that she was expressing a “personal view”.
An anonymous group, describing themselves as the “Water Meter Fairies”, have begun removing meters from houses. Many councils across the country ― especially those led by Sinn Fein ― have passed resolutions against the water charges.
Sinn Fein's rise
On top of the water protests, the rise in support for parties opposed to austerity, particularly the republican party Sinn Fein, has the political and media establishments in a tailspin.
In local and European elections in May, Sinn Fein won a big breakthrough. Running on an anti-austerity platform, it almost doubled its vote to 17% in municipal polls in the south and won more than 20% in the elections to the European parliament.
As a result, Sinn Fein is now the only party represented in both northern and southern Ireland in the European parliament. In some areas, the party was stopped from winning more council seats only because they ran out of candidates to run.
The media and the government, desperate to undermine Sinn Fein and distract from public opposition to water charges, began increasing attacks on the republican party.
When Sinn Fein Vice-President Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein MP for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy went on a speaking tour of Australia in September, the Irish Independent attacked them for travelling business class on the long flight.
Despite the fact that the tickets were booked and paid for by supporters in Australia, the tickets were used to “prove” that Sinn Fein was not genuine about opposing austerity.
In one late October issue, the Sunday Independent dedicated 12 articles and an editorial to attacking Sinn Fein. The next weekend, that number had risen to 23.
On November 6, addressing a Friends of Sinn Fein fundraising dinner in New York, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams accused Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail of being part of a “campaign of slander”, “dirty tricks” and “bogus” accusations against the party ― led by the Irish Independent group of papers.
“In their efforts to stem the rising tide of public support for Sinn Fein it would appear that our political opponents are prepared to employ any dirty trick,” said Adams.
“And that is what this tactic is really about. It’s about trying to blunt the growth of Sinn Fein and our potential for electoral gains at the next general election in the South in 2016. They will not succeed.”
The Independent has sought to favourably contrast the leader of Ireland's 1919-21 war of independence Michael Collins to latter-day republicans like Adams ― despite the paper strongly opposing Collins in his day.
In his speech, Adams pointed out that Collins' response to attacks by the Independent had been to send gunmen around to smash its printing presses. “Obviously, I am not advocating that,” he joked, to laughter from the crowd.
The remarkable reaction of Ireland’s most powerful media corporation, echoed by the corporate media across the country, was to loudly and insistently claim that Adams was seeking to intimidate the media and threaten journalists ― and demand he apologise.
Pointing out that all he had done was refer to an established historical fact, Adams refused.
The main strategy of the media and government, however, has been an attempt to associate Adams with alleged crimes and misconduct by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the nearly three-decades long conflict in the north.
Mairia Cahill, grand-niece of former IRA Chief of Staff Joe Cahill, appeared on the BBC’s Spotlight program on October 13, alleging that she was raped by a member of the IRA in 1997, and that Adams and Sinn Fein were involved in a cover up.
Adams rejected any knowledge of a cover-up, saying that he had recommended Cahill go to the police. He also pointed to the problems of administering civil and criminal justice in a society that was at war.
Acknowledging that during the decades-long armed conflict, republicans had mishandled allegations of abuse, Adams also delivered a public apology on behalf of the republican movement.
The constant media and government attacks on Sinn Fein have failed to dent its popularity, however ― or divert people’s anger at the water charges.
The day after the national November 1 protest against water charges, an opinion poll commissioned by the Independent found that support for Sinn Fein had actually risen by 4 points to 26%. This made it the most popular party in Ireland's southern state for the first time.
Fine Gael's support dropped to 22%, while the centre-right Fianna Fail was on 20% and the Labour Party received 7%.
Even more striking, however, was the finding that 49% of those polled supported the idea of an entirely new political party.
Expressions of public anger at the water charges have continued, as have attacks on its opponents by the government.
On November 15, hundreds of protesters, including recently elected Anti Austerity Alliance TD and Socialist Party member Paul Murphy, surrounded Joan Burton’s car for three hours.
Kenny responded by accusing protesters of having “kidnapped” Burton, and called Murphy “immature” for taking part.
On November 7, Kenny claimed the water protests had been infiltrated by “dissident republicans” associated with splinter group the Real IRA. Health minister Leo Varadkar also criticised what he described as a “sinister fringe” within the protests.
The Right2Water campaign called the claims “an insult … to those ordinary members of the public who have come out in their hundreds of thousands to protest peacefully against domestic water charges”.
On 19 November, the government announced a huge retreat on water charges, temporarily replacing metered charges with a flat rate and capped water charges until 2019. The government then promptly walked out of the Dail (Ireland's parliament) in the middle of debate.
The next day, FG and Labour voted down a Sinn Fein motion to hold a referendum to keep Irish Water public. FG TD Noel Coonan continued attackis on water protests, claiming they were creating an “ISIS situation” in Ireland.
In response to such backtracking, general secretary of the Mandate trade union, John Douglas, said the Right2Water campaign would continue until water charges are abolished and “water is safely secured in the hands of Irish citizens”.
Another national mobilisation against water charges is planned for International Human Rights Day on December 10.
Although the next general election is scheduled for April 2016, it is widely expected to take place well before then. How long before may depend on the direction the water campaign takes over the next few months.