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March 30, 2015

Irish Passivity Threatened by a New Water Tax.

Irish Water protests

Since the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, the Irish people have been notably passive. Bitter divisions amongst communities and families, that lingered long in its aftermath, would appear to have quelled all appetite for uprisings and rebellions.

But over the past six months the Irish people have been rediscovering their will to fight—figuratively, more than literally, this time. The fight has taken the form of mass demonstration rallies right across the country, wielding placards calling for justice and reform.

Having endured six years of austerity measures to finance the bank bailouts, the Irish people have been sending their government a clear message: “We have had enough.”

Despite widespread criticism of the austerity policies imposed on them, the Irish populace dutifully endured severe fiscal policies in recent years, in the form of increased taxes with simultaneous cut-backs in vital services such as health and education systems.

With serious increases in unemployment, the country was awash with hardship as families struggled to put food on the table, let alone keep the mortgage payments up to date. Throughout, they complained about the burden they were expected to bear—yet they bore it all the same.

Until the new water charges came along.

Now, after more then nine decades of political apathy, a mass movement has formed.

The water charges have sparked a revolution—of sorts.

Ireland’s water infrastructure is in a poor state of affairs—massive leakage in ancient pipes and water that must be boiled before drinking in some parts of the country. Everyone agrees that major investment in upgrading the system is needed—that is not an issue for debate in any quarter.

The issue is with the government’s approach to doing so. They’re centralising responsibility from local authorities—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and have set up a semi-state company to manage the system: Irish Water.

But instead of the government funding Irish Water through the existing taxation system, the company will charge householders according to their water consumption. And for many this is seen as a double taxation—previously responsibility for the provision of water lay with individual local authorities, which are funded through the existing taxation system.

For some, the water charges are seen as a violation of a basic human right. As water is essential to life, it should be available to all. But the introduction of metered water charges could jeopardise access to water for households already struggling with their existing living costs.

For others, the outrage was centred around a perceived injustice in how the charges were going to applied.

From the get-go there have been issues with Irish Water:

Without a penny being put into improving the water system, €86 million was paid to consultants just in the establishment of the company. (1)

The water rates were set at €4.88 per 1,000 litres after the application of certain allowances, which would have placed Ireland at the second highest rates in Europe.

Registration required the PPS (social security) number of one occupant for each household. The company’s argument was that it needed this to correctly attribute water allowances, but public concern was that it would be used to deduct payment at one’s source of income, if bills weren’t paid.

On top of all these issues, it emerged that the company had a staff bonus scheme in place, whereby additional payments up to 19% of salaries could be payable to employees—even if performance reviews indicated that improvements were needed. (2)

In the context of salary cuts—forced upon and accepted by workforces as a better alternative to unemployment—across public and private sectors, this information added to the outrage.

For many, Irish Water encompassed everything that was wrong with the old brown-envelope, jobs-for-the-boys, corrupt practices that were rife in Irish politics. The practices that the current government swore to reform were shown to be alive and kicking in the newly formed semi-state company.

The status quo reigns supreme—at election time there’s a lot of talk but, once in power, walking the talk goes out the window.

And despite being under constant fire throughout most of last year, the government was resolute in pushing through their planned proposals. In their dogged persistence, they were perceived by the public to be smug, arrogant and completely out of touch with the lives of their voters—many of whom are still experiencing considerable financial hardship despite the reported upturn in the economy.

The anger that had been simmering throughout the Troika Bailout years started to reach boiling point.

Country-wide, anti-water charges groups sprouted, mushroomed and consolidated their plans to organise mass rallies. The outrage was palpable and by October/November 2014 there was a widespread feeling that this issue could topple the government.

In an article that, for me, summed up the mood of the nation, leading Irish political commentator, Fintan O’Toole, wrote:

“The public revolt against water charges is not, for the most part, a rebellion against the eminently sensible idea that a small State should have a single public utility to develop its water system. It’s an expression of anger about bigger things: command-and-control politics; trust-me-I’m-an-expert arrogance; rotten, feckless disregard for the realities of life at the bottom of the heap; the feeling that nobody gives a curse how you live or what you think.

It’s about injustice, and it’s justified.” (3)

The apathy of the last century was rapidly disolving and a fierce determination to apply people power emerged in its place. For a while, it seemed that it might indeed end in rebellion and uprising—such was the level of outrage and anti-government sentiment. Something primal had been ignited.

Late last year several organised rallies took place in Dublin and around the country, drawing tens of thousands and—in one case—over 100,000 reported marchers. In a country with a population of only 4.6 million, this is a significant turnout.

The people were rising up, with determined intent. Although largely peaceful, a few scuffles and the trapping of the Tanaiste (Assistant Prime Minister) in her car for several hours, along with the blocking of the Taoiseach’s car (Prime Minister), forced the government to finally pay attention to the level of anger thay had invoked. They recognised that they couldn’t afford to remain smug or complacent over the matter any longer.

Reforms in the customer proposition were quickly introduced: (4)

The charges were reduced from a rate of €4.88 per 1,000 litres of water to €3.70.

A Water Conservation Grant of €100 was introduced for every household who registers with the company.

Charges will be capped until the end of 2018 at €160 per annum in a single adult household and €260 in a multiple adult household.

The requirment for a PPS number was abolished.

The first billing period from October to December 2014 was abolished, with first bills being issued this coming week for the period of January-March, 2015.

The deadline for registration—initially to avoid penalties, now to receive the grant—has been postponed several times. The final deadline is now set for June 30th.

The 2014 bonus payments were scrapped and the system is under review for 2015.

With the revised rates and conservation grant, the charges now to be applied after allowances will be amongst the lowest in Europe. (5)

These changes represented a significant victory for those whose main objection to the charges lay with the perception that they were being unfairly applied and managed—and it had the desired effect for the government. The number of registered households started to increase—where only one third had registered at the time the changes were introduced, there are now two thirds of households registered, with the first round of billing due to be rolled out this week.

As more households registered, the government seemed to relax into the idea that the country was coming round to the policy.

However, for the “right-to-free-water” camp, the war is still ongoing.

“The provision of sufficient water and sanitation is an essential public service and a human right recognised by the United Nations. It should be freely available to all regardless of wealth or income.

Water charges will discriminate against working people and the unemployed in favour of the wealthy and are another regressive tax taking vital money out of the pockets of people and out of our economy. Our public water system is already paid for through general taxation, which is progressive, and we wish it to remain that way.” ~ Right2Water.ie

Despite the greater affordability of the coming water bills, there is still a great deal of opposition to the principle of paying for water. A mass rally held in Dublin city last Saturday attracted another massive turnout of 80,000 people.

It is also thought that many of those who have registered, have done so to receive the €100 allowance but have no intention of paying the bills. (6)

Even amongst those who aren’t opposed to paying for their water consumption, there is still disquiet.

The current rates and allowances are fixed until the end of 2018 and after that all bets are off. While the sweeteners offered to entice housholders to register are only good in the short term, it will take decades to restore the water infrastructure to a reliable and safe standard. Can the electorate trust the government to operate according to best practice rather than political and corporate cronyism?

The company is due to start billing 1.7 million households this week, rolling them out over an eight week period. More than 700,000 of those households have not yet registered with Irish Water and will receive incorrect bills, as the company has no information on the number of occupants to charge for and the installation of meters is still ongoing. (7)

Irish Water and the government remain undeterred. Given the large proportion of unregistered householders, the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, signed a statutory order earlier this month obliging the national postal service, An Post, to verify postal addresses. (8)

On top of this, the government is now reported to be preparing legislation to allow for attachment to earnings orders. This will give Irish Water the power to have payment deducted from non-paying householders’ wages or social welfare payments. (9)

With the government reverting to hard-ball tactics and a sizeable proportion of the population having little or no trust in them to put the interests of the people first, opposing politicians are encouraging the non-payment of bills. Things are about to get very interesting.

An election is looming. And while one of the coalition parties in government has (surprisingly) managed an upswing in popularity in the last few months, their partners could be in serious trouble given their anti-water-charges stance in the last election campaign. Added to that, a new political party was launched in recent weeks and Sinn Fein—a socialist party traditionally marginalised due to their connection with the IRA during “The Troubles”—is growing in support.

An appetite for real political change has been brewing in Ireland since 2009, but the past year has seen rumblings grow into a will for true reform. These are interesting times. And with the new water bills about to land through letterboxes any day now, we wait to see how the promised non-payment of water charges will play out.

Is the uprising over, or is the final battle about to commence?

~

References:

1. The Journal

2. The Journal

3. The Irish Times

4. Citizens Information

5. The Irish Times

6. The New York Times

7 & 8. The Irish Independent

9. The Irish Independent

~

Relephant Read:

Would St Patrick Approve of today’s Irish Catholics?

~

Author: Hilda Carroll

Editor: Travis May

Photo: William Murphy/Flickr

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