Anti-water charge protests in Letterkenny, County Donegal on November 1.
The Irish government’s unpopular public utility, Irish Water, has been dealt a body blow. It failed two key tests within the space of a fortnight — gifting a huge victory to opposition parties and the huge anti-water charges movement.
The government revealed on July 15 that of Ireland’s 1.5 million households, only 645,000, or about 43%, had paid the first water bills issued by the new body.
More than half of Ireland's households have faced down threats of tax rises or having water supplies cut off and refused to pay the hated new charges. In doing so, they rejected accusations from an increasingly hysterical government that those opposed to water charges were “fascists”, like “ISIS” and a “sinister fringe”.
Perhaps expecting a poor return, the government has already rammed legislation through the Dail (Ireland's parliament) that will allow unpaid bills to taken from people’s wages and welfare payments.
Mary Lou McDonald, deputy president of anti-austerity republican party Sinn Fein, and Member of the Dail (TD), welcomed the low payment figures.
“This is a serious embarrassment to the government who have done their best to denounce and belittle the resistance to their introduction of water charges,” she said.
“The defiance of the Irish people tells them in no uncertain terms that water charges are unwelcome and that they will not be cowed by threats.”
Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy, who advocates a complete boycott of Irish Water, described the public response as “a massive victory for the anti-water charges movement and for people power” and “a major political crisis for the government and a crisis for Irish Water”.
Failing the test
The next embarrassment for the government came on July 28, when the European statistics agency, Eurostat, announced that Irish Water had failed its “market corporation test”. This requires the utility to earn half its revenue from customers.
The Irish government had hoped that by passing the test, Irish Water would attract private investment to cover the costs of updating Ireland’s archaic water infrastructure.
Ironically, it was the government’s attempts to buy-off and swindle an angry electorate that meant Irish Water failed the Eurostat test.
In response to the huge protests late last year, the government announced that water charges would be capped at €260 for a two-adult household and €160 for a one-adult home until 2019.
To further sweeten the deal, the government promised a €100 “water conservation grant”. This was to be paid to every Irish household annually, regardless of whether they had even signed up with Irish Water.
The payment had nothing to do with water conservation and everything to do with bribing ratepayers. It was identified by Eurostat as just one way in which Irish Water failed to show its financial independence.
Combined with the non-payment of bills, the costs of installing hundreds of thousands of water meters as well as wages, consultancy fees, advertising and infrastructure, it is hard to see how even the Irish government could believe its own spin about Irish Water’s sustainability.
Failing the Eurostat test also means that Irish Water remains on the national balance sheet. The €850 million already spent setting it up must be included in Ireland’s public debt burden.
Sinn Fein finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said the government had “egg on its face”. He called on it to scrap Irish Water and water charges rather than waste more money on the utility or raising domestic water charges.
Drowning in austerity
These embarrassing defeats for the government are wins for the campaign against water charges, which has become the largest social movement in modern Irish history.
Irish people are struggling under the policies of austerity introduced as conditions of an economic “bail out” of €85 billion from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund in 2010.
Public services have been slashed, house foreclosures continue to rise and unemployment has soared into double figures. Youth unemployment topped 20% in July.
Despite a modest economic recovery, more than 30% of the population lives in poverty. This includes more than 130,000 children — the equivalent of the population of County Mayo.
These figures would be higher still if not for a staggering 10% of the population emigrating in search of work — the biggest wave of migration since the devastation wrought by the famine in the mid-19th century.
With cuts to jobs and services came new taxes and fees. The government introduced a household charge, a road tax, and — finally — a water charge. Irish Water was set up as a new body to administer the water charge and quickly became renowned for its corruption and incompetence.
In perennially damp Ireland, it is the issue of paying a special charge for water — the cost of which is already included in general taxation — that has become the rallying point for a people sick of austerity.
Since last October, a series of huge protests, some more than 100,000 strong, have shaken the Irish Republic to its foundations.
These huge rallies have been augmented by day-to-day grassroots struggles against Irish Water and its local agents. Across the republic, pickets and protests have hindered the work of Irish Water, costing time, money and political capital for the government.
In some parts of Ireland, anonymous groups of “water meter fairies” have been industriously undoing what little work Irish Water’s meter installers managed to finish.
The Right2Water campaign, uniting community anti-water charges groups, NGOs and political parties, and led by some of Ireland’s main trade unions has called a new national protest in Dublin on August 29.
Right2Water said in a statement: “It’s very clear this government believes the water charges issue has gone away. We’re saying very firmly that it hasn’t and this will be the biggest issue when it comes to the next general election.
“People are outraged. The government obviously recognise they have lost the debate. Nobody wants these unfair water charges because they see it for the scam that it is.
“Right2Water promised when it was launched it would finish the job and remove water charges from the statute books. We have done so much already but we have much more to do. In the coming months we will fulfil our promise.”
With a national election due by April next year, the latest polls are showing a slump in support for the ruling right-wing coalition parties, all but ruling out an early election.
In May, Right2Water produced a policy document designed to politicise the movement around democratic, anti-austerity demands beyond the issue of water, and may endorse candidates in the election.
As Ireland begins a series of commemorations to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916, which sparked off the Irish War of Independence, the anti-water charges campaign is in a position to fundamentally rewrite Irish political reality for a whole new era.
[A different version of this article can be read at Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog.]