Faced with a growing public revolt against the introduction of water charges and a faltering support, the Irish government is in a deepening crisis.
The government — a coalition between the right-wing Fine Gael party and the Irish Labour Party — came to power in 2011 on the back of public outrage over austerity and social spending cuts.
The impact from the global financial crisis hit Ireland particularly hard. According to Eurostat, Ireland has paid 42 percent of the total cost of the European banking crisis, or 41 billion euros — about 9000 euros per person. The average across the European Union is 192 euros per person.
The government of Fine Gael Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny is presiding over further austerity cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB). The unemployment rate, however, remains well into double figures, and wages are low.
Despite the scale of Ireland’s economic collapse, social unrest has remained minimal. Instead, Ireland — with a population of only 4.5 million — has witnessed a more literal decimation. More than 400,000 people, mostly young people, skilled workers and families, have emigrated in search of work and a better lifestyle.
The government has recently heralded a “recovery” in the Irish economy. But the introduction of new charges on water use, levied via new state-owned company Irish Water, has brought years of simmering discontent to a head.
The cost of water is already included in general taxation. There are also still towns in Ireland without safe drinking water, where residents are forced to boil their water before use.
It is also widely believed that the commodification of water and the corporate structure of Irish Water is designed to make it easier to privatise the water utility.
A boycott campaign began against the charges, encouraging people not to register with Irish Water and not to pay, and after a number of smaller protests, a national protest was held on 11 October, organised by the Right2Water campaign.
A coalition of trade unions, community groups and political parties — including the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA), the People Before Profit Alliance and Sinn Fein — drew more than 100,000 people to the streets of Dublin.
Rather than act to quell the public’s outrage, however, the Irish government responded with threats and violence. Enda Kenny warned of higher taxes, and it was suggested that wages and benefit payments might be garnished to cover the charges.
When videos emerged of communities picketing local homes to stop the water meters from being installed, Labour leader and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Joan Burton responded by questioning how people living on housing estates could afford smart phones.
Almost unbelievably, this was followed by Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway trying to defend the water charge on live television on 21 October by arguing that “water just doesn’t fall out of the sky”.
On 1 November, a further 100 rallies took place across the country. These drew about 200,000 protesters in the pouring rain, chanting slogans such as “No way, we won’t pay” and “From the rivers to the sea, Irish water will be free”.
Faced with rising opposition to the charges, the government began to back-peddle and contradict itself. Tánaiste Burton claimed that a family of four would pay less than 200 euros a year in water charges, only for the Taoiseach to contradict her, releasing a statement suggesting that she had been expressing a “personal view”.
An anonymous group, describing themselves as the “Water Meter Fairies”, has begun removing water meters from houses, and many councils across the country – including many led by Sinn Féin – have passed resolutions against the water charges.
Political Opposition and Media Dirty Tricks
On top of the water protests, the rise in support for parties opposed to austerity, particularly the republican party Sinn Féin, has the political and media establishments in a tailspin.
In local and European elections in May, Sinn Féin won a major break through. Running on an anti-austerity platform, it almost doubled its vote to 17 percent in municipal polls in the south and won more than 20 percent in the elections to the European parliament.
As a result, Sinn Féin is now the only party represented in both northern and southern Ireland in the European parliament. In some areas, the party was stopped from winning more council seats only because they ran out of candidates to run.
The media and the government, desperate to undermine Sinn Féin and to distract from public opposition to water charges, began increasing attacks on the republican party.
When Sinn Féin Vice-President Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin MP for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy went on a speaking tour of Australia in September, the Irish Independent attacked them for travelling business class on the long flight.
Despite the fact that the tickets were booked and paid for by supporters in Australia, the tickets were used to “prove” that Sinn Féin was not genuine about opposing austerity.
In one late October issue, the Sunday Independent dedicated 12 articles and an editorial to attacking Sinn Féin. The next weekend, that number had risen to 23.
On November 6, addressing a Friends of Sinn Féin fundraising dinner in New York, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams accused Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil of being part of a “campaign of slander”, “dirty tricks” and “bogus” accusations against the party — led by the Irish Independent group of papers.
“We have seen that most recently in the scurrilous allegations levelled against myself and Sinn Féin by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Fianna Fáil leader. These allegations are not true”, said Adams.
“In their efforts to stem the rising tide of public support for Sinn Féin it would appear that our political opponents are prepared to employ any dirty trick; use any lie; level any insulting allegation or bogus accusation.
“And that is what this tactic is really about. It’s about trying to blunt the growth of Sinn Féin and our potential for electoral gains at the next general election in the South in 2016. They will not succeed.”
The Independent has sought to favourably contrast the leader of Ireland's 1919-21 war of independence Michael Collins to later-day republicans like Adams — despite the paper strongly opposing Collins in his day.
In his speech, Adams pointed out that Collins' response to attacks by the Independent had been to send gunmen around to smash its printing presses. “Obviously, I am not advocating that,” he joked, to laughter from the crowd.
The remarkable reaction of Ireland’s most powerful media corporation, echoed by the corporate media across the country, was to loudly and insistently claim that Adams was seeking to intimidate the media and threaten journalists — and demand he apologise.
Pointing out that all he had done was refer to an established historic fact, Adams refused.
Adams responded with an article titled “The Good Old IRA” on his blog, Léargas, lambasting the Independent and Fine Gael for their hypocrisy in mythologising heroes of the war of independence such as Collins, while demonising those who fought in the more recent war in the north to protect their homes and communities from state-sponsored violence.
The main strategy of the media and government, however, has been an attempt to associate Adams with alleged crimes and misconduct by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the 25 year conflict in the north.
Maíria Cahill, grand-niece of former IRA Chief of Staff Joe Cahill, appeared on the BBC’s Spotlight program on 13 October, alleging that she was raped by a member of the IRA in 1997, and that Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin were involved in a cover up.
Adams rejected any knowledge of a cover up, saying that he had recommended she go to the police.
He also pointed to the problems of administering civil and criminal justice in a society that was at war.
Acknowledging that during the decades-long armed conflict, republicans had mishandled allegations of abuse, Adams also delivered a public apology on behalf of the republican movement.
The constant media and government attacks on Sinn Fein have failed to dent its popularity, however — or divert people’s anger at the water charges.
The day after the massive protest against water charges on 1 November, an opinion poll commissioned by the Independent found that support for Sinn Féin had actually risen by 4 points to 26 percent, making it the most popular party in the southern state for the first time.
Fine Gael dropped to 22 percent, while the centre-right Fianna Fáil was on 20 percent, and the Labour Party received 7 percent support.
Even more striking, however, was the finding that 47 percent of those polled supported the idea of an entirely new political party.
Expressions of public anger at the water charges have continued, as have attacks on its opponents by the government.
On 15 November, hundreds of protesters in Jobstown, Tallaght, including recently elected Anti Austerity Alliance TD and Socialist Party member Paul Murphy, surrounded Joan Burton’s car for three hours, preventing her from leaving.
Kenny responded by accusing protesters of having “kidnapped” Burton, and called Murphy “immature” for taking part.
The Taoiseach himself himself was the target of over 400 protesters when he appeared at a Fine Gael meeting in Sligo on 17 November.
On 7 November, Kenny claimed that the water protests had been infiltrated by “dissident republicans” associated with splinter group the Real IRA. Health Minister Leo Varadkar also criticised what he described as a “sinister fringe” within the protests.
The Right2Water campaign called the claims “an insult … to those ordinary members of the public who have come out in their hundreds of thousands to protest peacefully against domestic water charges”.
On 19 November, the government announced a huge retreat on water charges, temporarily replacing metered charges with a flat rate and capped water charges until 2019. The government then promptly walked out of the Dáil in the middle of the debate.
The following day, Fine Gael and Labour voted down a Sinn Féin motion in the Dáil to hold a referendum to keep Irish Water public, and Fine Gael TD Noel Coonan continued to attack water protesters, claiming the protests are leading to an "ISIS situation" in Ireland.
Commenting on the government's backtracking, general secretary of the Mandate trade union, John Douglas, said the Right2Water campaign would continue until water charges are abolished and “water is safely secured in the hands of Irish citizens”.
Another national mobilisation against water charges is planned for International Human Rights Day on December 10 in front of the Dáil in Dublin.
Although the next general election is scheduled to be held by April 2016, it is widely expected to take place well before then. How long before may depend on the direction the water campaign takes over the next few months.