Nearly 90,000 people took to the streets of Dublin on March 21, in an unprecedented fifth mass protest in six months against the introduction of water charges by the Irish government.
The sea of flags, banners and placards was addressed by a range of politicians, community activists and union leaders.
The protest was organised by the Right2Water campaign — a broad coalition of community groups, NGOs and political parties, led by some of Ireland’s largest unions.
Since October, Right2Water has coordinated a series of huge protests in Dublin and across the Republic of Ireland, involving hundreds of thousands of people.
Right2Water coordinator and Unite trade union official Brendan Ogle called the turnout “truly historic”.
“It was the biggest mass mobilisation of people we've seen on any single issue, ever.”
Water charges are just the latest punitive austerity measures forced on Ireland under the terms of a 2010 economic “bailout” by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
The official unemployment rate is in double figures, and would be significantly worse if not for the fact that a staggering 10% of the country’s population has emigrated in search of work.
The number of Irish children living in poverty exceeds 130,000 — equal to the population of Mayo. A recent study by the National Suicide Research Foundation linked the economic recession to an additional 500 suicides in Ireland.
Worryingly, the rate of home foreclosures on unpaid mortgages has begun to rise dramatically in recent months and some local courts list hundreds of cases in a single day.
The attempt to introduce water charges has proved the final straw for many people.
The cost of water is already covered by general tax revenue, so the new charge is widely seen as blatant double taxation, and the corporate structure of Irish Water — the new organisation administering the charge — is seen as a prelude to privatisation.
Irish Water is also plagued with claims of corruption, nepotism and financial waste. Billions of euros of government money has been redirected to cover the spiralling costs of setting up the corporation.
Despite the mass protests and ongoing community pickets across the country, the Irish government continues to insist that the population is “coming with it” on water charges.
Irish Water claims that 990,000 households have registered for water charges — about 66% of its target number. However, many of these households were registered against their wishes, and the revelation that some councils have handed over household information to the corporation has provoked further outrage.
Addressing the protest on March 21, Lynn Boylan, MEP for the anti-austerity republican party Sinn Féin, rejected Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Enda Kenny’s claims that the water movement was receding.
“Enda Kenny, does this look like a dying movement to you?” she said.
“Irish Water must go. We cannot, and we will not, pay.
“We will not and we cannot because there are people out there struggling to keep a roof over their head. There are families struggling to put food on the table. And this government now wants them to pay for water a third time. Well for six months now, hundreds and thousands of people have taken to the streets.
“The government’s day of reckoning is coming … whether it is defeated here on the streets, like it was in 1916, or we … defeat them at the next ballot box.
“Water charges is a red line issue for Sinn Féin.”
In the aftermath of the protest, however, Environment Minister Alan Kelly indicated that measures were being initiated to allow water charges to be deducted directly from wages and welfare payments, a move described by Right2Water as a sign of government panic.
The first water bills are due to be sent to Irish households from April 1 and the average bill expected to be €240.
Sinn Féin, Ireland’s largest anti-austerity party, is consistently polling more than 20%, and the unions involved in Right2Water are developing a manifesto for all potential election candidates to sign up to. The manifesto will reject austerity in favour of services, job creation and workers’ rights.
The manifesto is likely to be completed before a Right2Water meeting on May 1 and 2.
Ogle described the upcoming general election as a “game changer”.
“They thought they had gotten away with socialising €65 billion of private debt, with a vicious five-year austerity agenda," he said. “For five years those events caused nothing less than a national collective trauma. … People who are opposed to the water charges … are realising that if we put the same people back into the Dáil [parliament] again, all the protests are a waste of time.
“First of all we can protest. Second of all we can deliver change and third of all, if we really organise, we can get a different government.”
[Abridged from Duroyan Fertl's blog.]