Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Time to say thanks to the 'sinister fringe'

We should recognise and applaud the public service carried out by the water charge protesters

By Tom Halliday
By Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

In recent days, many from the political and social gentry have been agonising about Irish Water. We've heard what TDs and ministers have to say. Academics and other experts, lowly columnists and startlingly well-paid broadcasters have all had their turn.

Even the Taoiseach has had a little public moan about it, while he was in the USA to assure Apple that we don't want a single cent of that €13bn it owes us.

Busiest of all have been the Fine Gael TDs, leaking gossip about internal party rows resulting from their desire for fairness.

They tell us they believe that everyone should be treated equally.

As a result, the right wing of Fine Gael believes those who didn't pay the water charges should be chased to the ends of the earth for the cash.

The other right wing of Fine Gael prefers to balance things out by giving a refund to those who paid the charges.

But Fine Gael is forgetting something - they don't get to decide how this plays out.

Labour's Alan Kelly has swaggered from one microphone to the next, from Sean O'Rourke to Pat Kenny, from one soft interview to another.

But what Alan says matters even less than it did when he was Minister for Water Charges. On this issue, Alan is a beaten docket.

I could google Fianna Fail, to find out its latest position on water charges, but why bother? This column won't be published for several hours, by which time FF will have flipped its position on water charges at least once more.

It was for the charges, and against them, for postponing them, for killing them, then in favour again, then against, for, against, rinse and repeat.

Doesn't matter.

Fianna Fail may see itself as a puppet-master, pulling Enda Kenny's strings - but FF won't decide what happens next with water charges. You will.

When we see the Irish Water debacle in perspective it's quite extraordinary.

Politicians and pundits have slagged off the water protests as the work of a "sinister fringe" of subversive conspirators.

And, like any mass movement, the water protest has some loudmouths, and even the odd headbanger - much like Fine Gael.

Some saw the hand of Sinn Fein behind the marches, although its leaders wobbled at the start and said they paid the charges.

The truth was SF played a constructive role in the protests, but no one controlled those vast crowds.

Some saw the red hand of the small left-wing parties, and they have indeed been active in the protests from the beginning, openly and making a plausible case.

A handful of TDs, notably Catherine Murphy and Joan Collins, saw immediately what was happening.

But it's long been clear that this was a genuine grassroots phenomenon, far beyond the organising ability of any one outfit. It was a coming together of socially concerned people - mostly working class but across the social spectrum - who understood what was happening and weren't going to stand for it.

Here's what was happening.

First, the austerity regime wanted another revenue stream.

FG and FF are interchangeable on the issue of draining money from the citizenry. And many people were getting browned off with that.

Because Irish Water had to be off-the-books, they couldn't threaten to use Revenue to take the payments from our income. So, they were vulnerable.

Second, FG/FF has a long-term view of privatising the water supply, as other right-wing parties have done across Europe.

The attempt by Irish Water to collect PPS numbers was intended to build a valuable customer database that could later be sold. It always denied it had a privatisation plan. But it was there on the Irish Water website, incontestable, in the data collection disclosures.

The data we gave Irish Water was to become a lucrative asset, for an off-the-books company, and could be sold on to any other company.

The small print noted that if the company was sold, the data it collected from us "will be one of the transferred assets".

And: "By submitting data to Irish Water, the customer agrees to this transfer, storing or processing."

All of this was in solid blocks of hard-to-read text, grey on white (I kid you not). Hardly had that web page been accessed when it was taken down. Oh, that was a mistake, Irish Water said.

You bet it was.

No party had the guts to put a water supply privatisation plan before the people and seek a mandate - it was something to be slipped through, piecemeal.

Privatisation would have had a damaging effect on the citizens' interests for decades, while further enriching a small group of the usual suspects. It wasn't FG politicians who stopped that, it wasn't FF. Labour was up to its neck in the plan. No civic group, no collection of academics, no editorial writer stood in the way. It was the people from the grassroots movement, denounced as sinister, sneered at and disparaged, who did the nation some service.

What thanks did they get? They were dismissed as "the pay-for-nothing brigade". People who for decades worked and paid taxes, who bore the brunt of the crash, in lost jobs and wage cuts, were sneered at and subjected to highly politicised policing.

In December two years ago, tens of thousands protested about the water charges. It was two weeks before Christmas, mid-week, a working day, in freezing weather, but the media declared the protest a failure because there were only half the numbers who turned out on a sunny Saturday in summer. Then, at the 2016 General Election a majority of the TDs elected had an anti-water charges mandate.

And last week, a feeble "report" by "experts" provided some ass-covering material for the politicians, some of whom remain reluctant to abandon their beloved privatisation plan.

Yet other politicians nurse a longing for revenge against those who dared set foot on the public stage, let alone change public policy - people who didn't accept that their role is to do the heavy lifting and keep their mouths shut.

The new buzz word is "populist". It's a political term that once meant policies that benefited the many, as opposed to policies that benefited the few. Today, it's a label slapped on anything that's outside the centre-right politico/media consensus.

So, the Ballyhea marchers, angered at having to bail out bankers, or the water charge protesters, are declared "populist" and lumped in with Brexit and with Trumpism, movements fuelled by racism and bankrolled by billionaires.

Over the past week, there have been attempts to set rural people against urban, in the same way that some set private workers against public.

We all pay for water, through general taxation. Those who can't get water through public pipes deserve a subsidy. Those who were bullied or conned into paying water charges should get their money back.

A watchful public intervened in a pet project, a mad scheme, and said no. The onus is on the same public to keep an eye on the next steps.

The major parties smugly presided over the Celtic Bubble, and when it burst they blamed us - they said we "partied", we "went mad". Their austerity policies bled us dry; they used the economic crisis to try to smuggle through a privatisation plan they couldn't justify politically.

In the process, they've squandered hundreds of millions on hi-tech water meters we never needed.

It's in our interests to watch carefully what these idiots do next.

Sunday Independent

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