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Water dispute turns poisonous, both on the streets and in the Dail

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A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin 15/11/2014

A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin 15/11/2014

A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown.
Photo: Tony Gavin

A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown. Photo: Tony Gavin

A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin

A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin

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A rioter throws a brick at a garda car during a Anti Water charges demonstration in Jobstown yesterday. Photo: Tony Gavin 15/11/2014

The air over Ireland is poisonous and the mood is febrile. The feel-good atmosphere of solidarity and people power unleashed by the recent massive nationwide marches has soured in a spectacular fashion.

On Saturday, there were the ugly scenes in Jobstown involving the Tanaiste - scenes which in no way could be spun as a "peaceful protest". The following night, in Bantry, two Cork County Council water services vans were torched (vans which are used for maintenance and the fixing of leaks in the area, and not for the installation of water meters). And yesterday in Co Tipperary, the Nenagh constituency office of Environment Minister Alan Kelly received a bomb threat, while junior minister Aodhan O Riordain revealed during a radio interview that he had been the subject of "bullet protests".

In Limerick, Finance Minister Michael Noonan was yesterday heckled by a small crowd of anti-water charges protesters as he arrived for an event - as was the Taoiseach outside Dublin's Mansion House on Sunday afternoon.

But the river of deep bitterness caused by the introduction of water charges isn't just coursing through the electorate - it's flowing through the corridors of Leinster House and into the Dail chamber.

Politics too has become angrier. In the Dail chamber, the wars of words have grown more frequent and rowdier as recriminations reach a noisy crescendo over just who's to blame for various aspects of the water shambles.

The usual sniping between Government and opposition TDs has a nasty edge to it these days, for the stakes are sky-high. The Coalition has never been more vulnerable than it is right now, thanks to the high-handed and cack-handed manner in which it set about imposing another straw of austerity to the creaking back of the people - and both sides of the ever-yawning political divide know it.

This tension spilled over in the Dail chamber last Thursday, when heated exchanges between Joan Burton and Mary Lou McDonald over the water charges culminated in a four-hour sit-in by Sinn Fein TDs after their deputy leader refused to leave the chamber following a vote to suspend her.

Afterwards, McDonald defended her actions, insisting she was defending the people she represented.

But an eager Fine Gael piled in. "A diversionary stunt," scoffed Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald. In New York, the Taoiseach declared Sinn Fein were "talking about understanding democracy, but when it suits themselves they can throw it aside".

This loud rumble is indicative of the level of jostling for the high moral ground usually associated with a looming general election. The small hard-left parties - such as People before Profit Alliance and the Socialist Party - have been front and centre in the wave of water protest marches, tapping into the reservoirs of public anger while simultaneously stealing a march on the main opposition parties, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein - hence the latter's haste to reclaim their role as the people's protest party.

With feelings running so high around the country, the Coalition has had to tread carefully when it comes to their public utterances on the protests. A dismissive comment by Michael Noonan - that the November 1 marches were just the opposition "having a last rally around the water issue", having failed to ignite the public's anger over the Budget - simply served to further ratchet up the rage.

The tensions in the political arena caused by the water charges are indeed being played out against the backdrop of the next general election, with a succession of opinion polls showing no certainty, except that the formation of the 32nd Dail is likely to be a knife-fight between all the mainstream parties and a large cohort of Independents.

All sides are circling each other, looking for advantage. On Thursday - while the Sinn Fein sit-in was in full swing - Health Minister Leo Varadkar tweeted: "Legislation today to increase child benefit and reduce stamp duty on health insurance held up by Mary Lou".

And with many members of the public expressing disgust over the treatment of Joan Burton by some of the protesters, Leo pressed home this point yesterday. "I think when you see Mary Lou's antics in the Dail last week and when you see the behaviour of the Socialists and others in Jobstown at the weekend, you kind of see what sort of alternative is on offer at the moment and it's not a very good one," he said.

Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit also distanced himself from those events, stressing that the peaceful protests would continue, while Sinn Fein roundly condemned the events in Jobstown.

The Socialist Party TDs were unapologetic. Paul Murphy stuck to his view that it had been "a peaceful protest", while Ruth Coppinger asserted that the Tanaiste should have known to expect such a reaction and Government TDs "will not be met with garlands of flowers". (True. But she could hardly have anticipated to be met with roars of "get the c**t" at a peaceful protest either).

It remains to be seen whether the Government succeeds in lancing the poisonous boil which has inflamed the electorate when it at long last unveils its water charge package tomorrow.

But one aspect of the Irish Water fall-out is clear - the bitterness now pervading the body politic is going absolutely nowhere.

Irish Independent