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Saturday 18 January 2020

Ten defining moments in Ireland’s battle against water charges

Anti-water charges protesters make their way down Dublin’s O’Connell St in February. Photo: Frank McGrath
Anti-water charges protesters make their way down Dublin’s O’Connell St in February. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Doyle, Group Political Editor

Ten defining moments in Ireland’s battle against water charges:

1.       Groundhog Day – this all started four decades ago

What many millennials might not realise is that the battle against water charges goes back much further than the current row. In 1977/78 Fianna Fáil abolished domestic rates, which included funding for water infrastructure. During his Dáil speech this week outgoing Environment Minister Alan Kelly said: “Let nobody think we are in anyway experiencing new politics here and this is the birth of a new political maturity, if the current speculation is accurate. This is 1977 all over again.  Groundhog day.”

Somewhat threateningly, he concluded: “We will regret it, just as we did in 77.”

2.       Rural-urban divide on water

In 1985 the Labour Party’s Dick Spring introduced a local authority domestic service levy. But much like today it met huge opposition, particularly in Dublin. As a result much of rural Ireland was paying for water while Dublin’s councils declined to bring in charges.

3.       Goodbye water charges again

Outgoing Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin abolished water charges completely in 1996. Any infrastructure was to be funded from general taxation – but of course as history no government made water a priority.

4.       Imagine if charges had been set at €500

Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and PD coalition discussed water charges at a Cabinet meeting in July 2010. At the time a figure of €500 was suggested as the average cost per household. The current regime has capped charges at €260 – and that’s before you claim back your €100 water conservation grant.

5.       Economic collapse makes water charge inevitable

As part of the €85bn EU-IMF bailout the government commits to introducing water charges by 2013 and to moving responsibility for water infrastructure from local authorities to a new water utility.


6.       Was Phil Hogan really the man for the job?

Phil Hogan announced in June 2011 that every home would get a water meter – but as the anti-water charges movement grew he seemed to regularly stoke the fire when threats such as reducing the flow from taps to a trickle if people didn’t pay. Ultimately Fine Gael ‘disappeared’ Mr Hogan to Europe (where his salary is €250,000).


7.       Everybody hates consultants

In one of the most badly judged interviews in recent times Irish Water chief executive John Tierney revealed on radio that the company spent €50m on consultants. This was really the moment that public opinion turned against Irish Water and charges.

8.       People power took over

Tens of thousands of people marked on Dublin and through towns across the country in opposition to the charges. It was on a scale not seen in recent years. European media outlets regularly questioned why Irish voters didn’t fight back against austerity – but this was the straw that finally pushed people onto the streets. Bills were boycotted in huge numbers meaning the long-term financial viability of Irish Water was likely to fall back on the State.

9.       Tánaiste is trapped in her car

Tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car by water protesters for more than two hours while attending an event in Jobstown in November 2014. The incident is likely to get a prominent section on ‘Reeling in the Years’. A number of court cases in relation to what happened that day are still ongoing.

10.   An Irish solution to an Irish problem

In theory Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have only agreed to ‘suspend’ water charges – but in reality they are gone for good. By setting up a commission to study the issue and an all-party committee to study the commission’s view, the parties have conspired to produce the ultimate fudge. Not a single TD in Leinster House honestly expects water charges to be reintroduced at the end of the process.

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