First things first, a few disclaimers. I have a water meter and I signed up to pay the charges. Paying won’t be easy, but I will. I’m a member of Fine Gael and I also supported two of the previous three governments. Finally, I entirely agree with the concept of paying for the amount of water I use
So there are my cards on the table.
It’s also important to note that I think if this government falls because of the water charges controversy, they will have entirely earned that calamity. Even if I am knocking on doors, canvassing for a Fine Gael candidate, I won’t be pretending Fine Gael and Labour acted sensibly. Everything about the setting up of Irish Water smacks of arrogance, incompetence and noxious presumption. When a government fails to fear its electorate, then it’s time for that government to get a firm slap or go.
This blog post however isn’t about the prospects of an early general election. I want to write about who I think the protesters, who have thronged our streets, actually are. And for all of Fine Gael and Labour’s fault, they did finally provoke 100s of 1000s of people into protesting. A fitting epitaph, if one is soon required.
Obviously, as a member of Fine Gael, I am expected to rail against the ‘sinister elements’ that are piggy backing on public discontent to ferment anarchy and threaten our very existence. Pure bollox, but it’s a good lie because it resonates. It resonates with me, even though I know it’s bollox.
The attack on Joan Burton did shake me. I despise, with all my being, anyone who uses physical violence to make a political point. I am quite content to get all reactionary conservative on people who indulge in those kind of antics. It is not correct however to seek to understand the multitudes who are protesting, by referencing a fringe of a fringe.
I will not discount them entirely. But a tiny few organised thugs combined with some easily led (or eager to be led) young men, hungry for action, is in no way representative of so many people from all over the country. They are just not prevalent enough to tar such a huge movement.
So to my list of participants.
I will begin with those who actively (which does not equate to violently) seek to overthrow our system of government and uproot its foundation stones of democracy and capitalism. I’m talking about the Far Left and the even further left. Marxists, Trotskyites, communists, anarchists and various other labels I don’t understand, even after consulting Wikipedia. Fortunately, for this democrat and capitalist, they are few and far between. I’m glad they exist though. Capitalist democracy is far from perfect and is often guilty of missteps. If nothing else, a radical and explicable alternative, waiting to pounce if our democracy loses popular support, should help keep anyone with a vested interest in the status quo, honest.
The second group are the political opportunists. I would put Sinn Fein, various independents and shameless members of Fianna Fáil into this category. I can’t criticise any of these groups for this. Water Charges are not some social or moral issue that must be supported by decent folk. It’s merely a money raising scheme, with some theoretical environmental and state finances benefits. If opposition politicians didn’t jump on this issue and use it to beat the government with, then this country would be in a worse state than it already is. Now, I’m not saying I’d trust anything these opportunists say, but if protests of this size had no politicians involved, then democracy, as I understand it, would be in serious trouble.
The third group are those who are taking a principled stand against what they understand to be a double taxation (triple if you throw in the Household Charge and quadruple if you include the USC). It’s difficult to argue against this. We’ve paid for water through general taxation since 1973. Now we are expected to pay for it again, but with no discernible decrease in income tax. The answer given, is that our water system has been so neglected, that we need extra money to fix it. It’s a compelling argument, unless one asks why has it been allowed to deteriorate so badly? Then politicians are forced to look at their feet and suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. It has been neglected for one reason and one reason only, there were no votes in it. The vast majority of us have been getting more or less drinkable water for decades, so why promise to spend money on something not yet in crisis? But now the crisis has arrived. And it’s arrived during an economic meltdown. Who’s going to pay for the decades of neglect, those politicians who prioritised elsewhere or the ordinary citizen? Exactly.
The fourth group are the people who simply can’t pay this new charge. If you need that explaining to you, then you probably stopped reading at the part where I didn’t give the leftists a bit of slipper.
The fifth group are the citizens who probably can pay, but have this feeling in the pit of their stomach that tightens when they think of the so many billions of euro that have already left Ireland to pay bank debts. Ordinary people, with reduced standards of living, people who got nothing from The Boom. The people who have lost family members to emigration, lost family members to suicide, lost their homes, face the prospect of losing their homes, have gone hungry to keep their homes, people who are forced into internships, the people who are losing hope that this iniquitous austerity will one day end. The response of Fine Gael and Labour to this, is a blind faith that more and more low-paid jobs, in a possibly improving economy, will cause enough people to forget that we’ve been royally and systematically screwed. And it’s a policy that may succeed. I’m hoping it does to be honest, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.
The sixth and final group are the ‘enough is enough’ people. This is pretty self-explanatory. Fine Gael and Labour promised all sorts of utopian nonsense at the last election. They won a huge majority, yet instead of radical change, the most they appear to be able to do is ‘the best small country in the world in which to do business.’ Has there ever been a rallying call so uninspiring? Worse, it is now virtually impossible to distinguish this government from the governments (the ones I supported don’t forget) who destroyed our country and condemned so many to poverty, immigration and despair. Enough should certainly be enough.
These groups are not discrete. They overlap in several places, but for the most part, they feel they have a genuine grievance with those elected to govern this country through an existential crisis. And they have enjoyed a certain degree of success. The government has already backed down once, quite considerably too. Unfortunately, it appears that this government thinks it has moved far enough. Almost a million households have signed up for the charges. This has all the appearance of overwhelming compliance, which the government presumes to mean satisfaction.
But I can’t help thinking they’ve misunderstood the multifaceted and complex motivations of the protesters. Or worse, they have understood and have decided to now only concentrate their efforts on appealing to their base. If that is the case, this government, which I wish to support, will end, being thought of as even worse than the previous one.