Monday 21 October 2019

In Deep Water by Michael Brennan: The blunders and backlash behind bruising Irish Water fiasco

Non-fiction: In Deep Water

Michael Brennan

Mercier Press, paperback, 352 pages, €18.99

Intriguing story: Michael Brennan
Intriguing story: Michael Brennan
In Deep Water by Michael Brennan

Caroline O'Doherty

So miserable was the deep recession Budget speech by the late Brian Lenihan in December 2009 that his reference to water meters and water charges barely registered with a despairing population.

Essential services were facing massive cutbacks; public sector pay, child benefit, the dole and other welfare payments were slashed, the pension age was increased and capital projects were mothballed.

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There was more than enough immediate pain to handle without dwelling on what other agonies might lie further down the road.

But over the next few years, water charges came to dominate politics and public discourse in the most bruising fashion so that even today, 10 years on, there are still wounds being licked.

Michael Brennan's story of the establishment of Irish Water and the mayhem that flowed from it like a tap with a faulty shut-off valve reads almost like a political thriller.

He doesn't need to ham it up to convey the tension, rows, gambles, miscalculations, blunders, backlashes and personal strife that are rife throughout the tale - the facts alone do that and he has collated vast amounts of them.

But what Brennan has done is gather all the elements of the story and all the perspectives to present a superbly well-rounded and readable account of one of the most controversial and calamitous public policy exercises undertaken in recent times.

Some of the episodes are scorched in the public memory such as the Jobstown protest in November 2014 when then tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car for more than three hours and Brennan's vivid minute-by-minute recreation of the events is compelling.

Other incidents are less well-known, such as the 'meter throwing' competition held during a community fun day in the Edenmore estate on Dublin's northside when, instead of tossing wellies, residents chucked Irish Water meters swiftly removed from local foothpaths after the installers had gone home.

Or the attack on the home of former Irish Water managing director John Tierney, an incident not previously revealed.

The pressure on the public faces of the utility company was intense, and fears for their safety real as the country's first social-media mobilised campaign of resistance grew. The toll on political figures is also clear and the divisions in Fine Gael and the decimation of the Labour Party caused by the saga are well chronicled. But so too is the impact on the ordinary people who became the, sometimes accidental, voices of resistance.

As in all the best thrillers, there are victims and villains in this tale and the labels are transferable throughout.

Brennan, political editor with the Sunday Business Post, applies some sociological and psychological analysis to the story.

He notes the main figures' experiences of water services growing up. For example, taoiseach Enda Kenny and arch-opponent, socialist Joe Higgins, both grew up in small rural farmhouses with no running water so they knew well its value, but yet took very different views on charges in the Dáil.

He also examines briefly the prominent role of women in the water charge protests, a frustration for politicians, meter installers and garda, who felt it harder to come down heavy on mammies and grannies sitting on stopcocks with their kids and grandchildren playing nearby.

But he refrains from over-analysis, allowing the facts to tell an intriguing story that is not over yet. The country's water infrastructure, antiquated and dilapidated in 2009, is only marginally better now and as population grows, it is creaking at the seams.

And water charges, suspended in 2016, are to return next year in a different guise as excessive use charges with expectations that this will only be the start of a full charging structure. Brennan may start planning the sequel now.

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