The Irish people have always been fond of a singsong. “From the rivers to the sea, Irish water will be free”, “Not a penny, Enda Kenny” and “No way, we won’t pay!” went the chants as several thousand people marched through Dublin’s city centre in April to protest newly introduced water charges once more. It was the third such protest in as many months.
Unfortunately, their plan to symbolically – and literally – bin the first ever quarterly water bills in a large red receptacle was somewhat scuppered by the fact that most of them have not yet arrived. “This demonstration is really to coincide with the bills being delivered. It probably would have been bigger if most of them had arrived but very few of them have,” People Before Profit parliamentarian told The Irish Times in slightly embarrassed fashion.
From now until June, some 1.5m Irish households are due to be billed directly for their water for the very first time by beleaguered semi-state Irish Water. However, according to the corporation’s own figures, at least a third of households are still to register. This is despite a government incentive of a “water conservation grant” of €100 for pre-registering, the deadline for which was recently extended, for the fourth time, until the end of June.
“Today’s protest is specifically to push the non-payment message,” Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger told the national broadsheet. “The only way we will get the charges abolished is through the massive non-payment of bills and convincing people who are somewhat in the middle not to pay.”
Mass protesting in November last year saw the Irish government running scared. The subsequent introduction of optional flat rates means that Irish families will pay just €0.89 for every 1,000 litres on average, compared with €3.59 here in the UK, according to figures compiled by Global Water Intelligence.
However large swathes of Irish people are still uncomfortable with the concept of Irish Water, and localised protests against meter installation are a weekly occurrence. The company has courted controversy over its finances and practices ever since its inception, and fears over potential privatisation are not abating.
With its set up a condition of Ireland’s bailout from the “Troika” of European and international financial bodies, the Irish government has had little choice but to push through the deeply unpopular merger of its local water authorities at all costs. (Those costs are many: over half a million was spend on one recent eight week marketing campaign alone).
Government sources have said that they are confident the protest has now “been reduced to the hardcore” and that “anger has subsided” as the country’s focus now shifts conveniently to the upcoming referendum on marriage equality. But this is a very tricky moment for the Irish government, make no mistake. Proposals to allow Irish Water to deduct unpaid charges from people’s wages and welfare payments are still up for discussion: if passed, that’ll cause this subject to flare up like an old injury, all over again. Watch this bill-shaped space.
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