Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ireland: As Irish Water crashes and burns, a people is risen

Water protest in Dublin
The Irish government’s unpopular public utility, Irish Water, has been dealt a body blow, after it failed two key tests within the space of a fortnight, gifting a huge victory to opposition parties and the massive anti-water charges movement.

On 15 July the government revealed that, of Ireland’s approximately 1.5 million households, only 645,000, or about 43 percent, had paid the first water bills issued by the new body.

Facing down threats of tax increases or of having water supplies cut off, and accusations from an increasingly hysterical government that those opposed to water charges were “fascists”, "ISIS" and a “sinister fringe”, more than half of Irish households have refused to pay the hated new charges.

Perhaps expecting a poor return, the government has already rammed legislation through the Dáil that will allow unpaid bills to taken from people’s wages and welfare payments.

Mary Lou McDonald TD, Deputy President of the anti-austerity republican party Sinn Féin, 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.”

The Socialist Party’s Paul Murphy TD, who advocates a complete boycott of Irish Water, described the public response “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 28 July, when the European statistics agency, Eurostat, announced that Irish Water had failed its “market corporation test”, requiring 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 massive protests late last year, the government announced that water charges would be capped at 260 euros for a two-adult household – 160 euros for a one-adult home – until 2019.

To further sweeten the deal, the government promised a 100 euro “water conservation grant”, 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, and 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, and the cost of wages, consultancy fees, advertising and infrastructure, it is hard to see how the even 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, and the 850 million euros already spent on setting it up must be included in Ireland’s public debt burden.

Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty TD called on the government to accept that it had “egg on its face” and to scrap Irish Water and water charges, rather than waste more money on the utility or increase domestic water charges.

Drowning in Austerity

These embarrassing defeats for the government are also an unambiguous victory for the campaign against water charges, which has become the largest social movement in modern Irish history.

The Irish people are struggling under the policies of austerity introduced as conditions of an economic “bail out” of 85 billion euros 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 and remained there. Youth employment alone topped 20 percent in July.

Despite a modest economic recovery since, over 30 percent of the Irish population was living in "enforced deprivation" in 2013, and 130,000 more children – the equivalent of the population of County Mayo were living in "consistent poverty".

These figures would be higher still if not for a staggering 10 percent of the population emigrating in search of work – the biggest wave of migration since the great Famines a century and a half ago.

With cuts to jobs and services came new taxes and fees: a household charge, a road tax, and – finally – a water charge, administered by a new body, Irish Water, that quickly became renowned for its levels of corruption, graft and incompetence.

In perennially damp Ireland, it is paying for water – the cost of which is already included in general taxation – that has become the rallying point for the country’s rejection of austerity and the politics of poverty.

Right2Water, Right2Dignity

Since October last year, a series of massive protests, some numbering over 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.

In towns, villages and suburbs across the Irish 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 did manage 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 – Unite, Mandate, CPSU, CWU, and Opatsi – has called a new national protest in Dublin on August 29.

“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,” said Right2Water in a statement.

“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 fulfill 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 and 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which sparked off the Irish War of Independence, the anti-water charges campaign is in a position to fundamentally rewrite Irish political reality for whole a new era.

For more on the campaign against water charges, read here and visit Right2Water Ireland.

[A slightly amended version of this article has been published at Green Left Weekly.]

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