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Citizens' water mutiny routs Coalition

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Charles Haughey

Charles Haughey

Charles Haughey

Carlsberg doesn't do U-turns, but should it ever plan to engage in that activity, it should outsource it to Fine Gael and Labour.

The Coalition's 10-point Irish Water reverse may not be 'probably the best U-turn in the world' but it was certainly the most comprehensive one Ireland has seen since Charlie Haughey's 'living beyond our means' speech of 1979.

The Coalition will certainly be hoping the Irish Water thing is 'all history now', for it all came as quite the terrible shock.

One of the more curious features of the Irish character is the apparent capacity to absorb any amount of bad governance without rising up in the streets like those temperamental French, or the Greeks.

That lot may burn the city at a drop of a hat, but our persona is best summarised by Flann O'Brien's tale of the 'Dublin man'.

This was a character who endured any amount of indignities from a visiting relative, incorporating infidelity, violence and the burning down of his house before our Dublin hero finally snapped when, on the way out of the burning building, his anti-social visitor kicks over the milk bottles on the step.

Something of that surrounds the Irish response to the iron age of austerity, where the outwardly sanguine response of the Irish citizen to the extinguishing of their futures and the future of their children set the Government up for its fatal fall.

Given all the indignities the voters had experienced, no-one in government had any expectation that, like the Dublin man and the milk bottles, our voters would explode over a final, outwardly minimal, imposition.

The Government will certainly be praying that last week represents the beginning of the end of the Irish Water crisis.

The dream that the hydra of public dissent will be tamed by a twin-track process of government concessions and unease within middle-class Ireland about the hairy political beasts which swarmed around the issue may, even on this occasion, be fulfilled.

Paddy and Patricia may not like the water charges, but they are not prepared to sign up for the revolutionary overthrow of world capitalism, particularly if Paul Murphy is in charge.

And no matter how cross he may be, Paddy is, as they say, not inclined to die in a ditch for the less than princely sum of €60.

However, whilst the Coalition has escaped, one could hardly say after the last three months that it was with one bound. Instead, the stuttering dragged-backwards- through-a-ditch response has severely shredded the already decaying authority of Enda Kenny.

It may seem to be a truism to note that when a crisis breaks, effective politicians diagnose the solution and get there as speedily as possible.

But it appears to be a step too far for a Taoiseach and an administration that cannot meet a crisis without appearing to do everything in their power to make it last for as long as possible.

Indeed, it may not yet be over - for attention is already turning to the enthusiasm with which the Government congratulated itself for emasculating every objective it claimed Irish Water would meet.

It was bad enough that Irish Water initially resembled the HSE, but, the poor half-alive, half-dead creature dragged on to the stage last week resembled a milk-and- water version of CIE.

Ultimately, the even greater problem the Government faces is that lancing the Irish Water boil may not even signal the beginning of the end of its woes.

The Government, which appears to be unable to listen to its people, is still struggling to decipher the real furies that has driven the most dramatic of spontaneous public rebellions since the PAYE strikes of the 1970s.

We have noted before that in Irish life, more often than not, the real row is not actually the row that is going on at that point in time.

Irish Water is merely the symbol of a far more fundamental war that is escalating between the Government and the citizens over the growing belief that the Coalition sees the people as representing little more than economic units.

Ireland is a country experiencing a serious psychological crisis.

The national state of psychosis is less than surprising, for if we add the two years of private anxiety in 2006 and 2007 to the six years of official austerity between 2008 and 2014, this state has been in a depressive fugue for just under a decade.

Over the past year, the divide between a cabinet that sees itself (don't smile now) as a group of latter-day Churchills and the citizens has become ever more unbearable.

It has not helped that beneath the surface a political class turned sour by 14 years of opposition may secretly have believed Paddy needed to have manners put on him for the original sin of voting for Bertie.

Ironically, in becoming such good undertakers for the Troika, the Coalition may have dug its own political grave.

Irish Water has been characterised as representing the first major rebellion of a risen people.

In fact, it is all a little more inchoate and uncertain. Our war- weary public bears a closer resemblance to a mutinous army, tired beyond reason by a never-ending war, the objectives of which are, in their eyes unclear, and of no benefit to them.

Like any mutinous army, the citizens have lost faith in the armchair generals urging them forwards.

The absence of faith is understandable, for a set of generals, who are well apportioned and a long way away from the firing line, have for a number of years been telling them that things are improving. However, the only improvement the citizens see is that they are being shot less regularly.

Oddly enough, they do not see this as representing any great development in terms and conditions. In our case, the citizens have finally had enough of the new ethic of eternal austerity and 'more for less'.

Enda may, as he cavorts with digital queens and Google executives, think this is a fine idea. The voters, however, have reached the limits of toleration for more work for less pay and more tax for eternally deteriorating services.

Irish Water was a classic case of ordering the troops over the trenches once too often.

In spite of the unease it has sparked, it should be noted that sometimes public fury can be a cleansing thing. But, the great mood of mutiny that has spread across the coping classes and the working poor is not the same as being a risen people. The latter have a purpose and a unified objective, whilst mutineers are direction-free and devoid of hope.

In the case of our Irish Water mutiny, this is the most visible symbol to date of the escalating existential crisis where consent between the citizens and the Government has broken down.

Because it is an unseen thing, the consent of the citizens is often undervalued, but it is the hidden hand that allows the state to function. And if it is withdrawn, in our case, the gates will be wide open for Sinn Fein to pour through.

For now all is still equivocal, but the Coalition's mandate is, however, severely shaken.

It has not yet reached the limits of legitimacy that hurled the Biffo regime over the political edge.

However, both in terms of the Taoiseach's public acceptability and the profile of Fine Gael's support, the Coalition is edging inexorably towards those territories.

As Labour continues to flirt with Green meltdown country, how Fine Gael, Labour and a Taoiseach whose intellectual shallows are epitomised by his favourite method of communication, the selfie, respond to those challenges will decide whether or not Irish Water represents the beginning of the end of the Coalition's travails.

The Government had better be careful for if it gets the answer wrong we could instead be witnessing the beginning of the end for conventional politics in Ireland.

Sunday Independent