Friday 6 December 2019

Sleeping giant of public opinion has awoken and now water will wash away the Coalition

Anti water meter protesters try to block Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaving Santry after he officially launched the Sports Surgery Clinic Research Foundation this evening.
Photo:Mark Condren
Anti water meter protesters try to block Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaving Santry after he officially launched the Sports Surgery Clinic Research Foundation this evening. Photo:Mark Condren
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Tick-tock. The meter is ticking now - not for those loathed water charges but to mark the Irish people's dwindling patience with this sinking Government, which is conspicuously out of step with its citizens.

Tick-tock. Enda Kenny is turning into a lame duck Taoiseach, deaf to the public clamour. He reached a nadir when he paused, in black tie en route to a party, and warned of a 4pc tax hike if water charges weren't paid. I half expected him to snap "off with their heads" as he turned away.

Tick-tock. Two days of mass marching, and another day lined up for December - the sleeping giant of public opinion has been awakened and protests are growing. What a mistake that's been for the Government.

Because this is about so much more than water charges now. This is a pent-up reaction gushing out against the double-dealing, greed, arrogance, cronyism and downright stupidity of an unfit-for-purpose political system.

A system which expects the working poor, as many of us have become after six years of austerity, to keep on making sacrifices. Even when there is nothing left on the bone.

This time, we are ordered to finance a super-quango with a bonus culture. No wonder people aren't inclined to stump up.

Tick-tock. Who truly believes the first lot of water taxes will be used to repair the network?

That's not credible when an over-staffed and over-compensated Irish Water has already soaked up €86m in consultancy and legal fees. If the network is really in such disarray, a halt should be called to installing water meters, with resources redirected towards infrastructure work instead.

Tick-tock. The awoken giant of public opinion is contemplating justice and fairness - and how both were sacrificed when Europe insisted Ireland meet all bank debts, so that German and French investors who took a gamble wouldn't lose out.

The giant is rubbing its eyes, wondering why its Government didn't fight harder in Europe to protect Irish citizens, and why senior politicians preferred the easier option of another new tax.

Did they think us too sunk in inertia to notice yet another deduction? Or too cowed to care?

Or too stupid to realise the conservation argument was a fig leaf for revenue generation?

The giant is on its feet now and has taken to the streets. "This is what democracy feels like. This is what democracy looks like. This is what democracy sounds like." That was the chant from 4,000 throats on the demonstration I marched in last Saturday.

Similar slogans were roared out around the country from some 150,000 protesters - and they were not the 'usual suspects', but ordinary people pushed to the brink. The march I attended was organised by Richard Boyd Barrett and People Before Profit, but it was an apolitical gathering. There were marchers from a variety of political persuasions and marchers with no affiliations.

Tick-tock. Some of the people on the streets were Fine Gael and Labour voters. TDs in marginal seats ought to be afraid. Very afraid. Even those in 'safe' seats can expect to feel a chill wind. Support for the Coalition is ebbing faster than those gallons of water we're told is lost through leaky pipes.

Enda, let me tell you how democracy in action felt. It felt good. It felt like active citizenship - people engaging with government and expressing a view on the way we are governed, rather than waiting for the blood sport of election day.

Tick-tock. There were marchers behind homemade banners who've never demonstrated before. Marchers who last went out to protest in the 1980s. Marchers with adult children back living with them in the family home because they can't afford one of their own. Marchers whose children have emigrated because they see no future in Ireland.

Marchers who say they've never failed to pay a bill before. But this one is a bill too far.

And what provoked those crowds to pour in, in their tens of thousands, some 150,000 in all, to those rallies last Saturday? Deep-seated disillusionment. A weariness with mainstream politics, now thoroughly discredited as being incapable of reform. To categorise this growing movement as founded in anti-austerity is to misunderstand it.

It was fascinating to observe the marchers as they arrived. To watch them find spaces for their cars where nobody would be blocked in, and take care to pay for parking. To see them strap their children into buggies to keep them safe. And produce rain wear, because heavy clouds weren't going to deter them. These were law-abiding, prudent people. They understood tough decisions had to be taken if Ireland was to regain its sovereignty.

But they expected some solidarity in return - not a disconnected elite.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly adds no reassurance when he says water bills will be modest and affordable. Charges, once introduced, have a habit of being ratcheted up.

Tick-tock. Labour is just as disconnected as Fine Gael. Really, Joan Burton, I'm surprised at you for forgetting what a struggle life has become for some of your constituents if you can casually refer to a €200 bill. This water charge is a regressive tax because it hits everyone the same irrespective of income - sacrificing the weak in society.

Politicians have a responsibility to the people, not the party. At least Labour's senators realised that when they voted against the Government yesterday, helping to pass a motion for a referendum to protect water from privatisation.

Tick-tock. "This is what democracy feels like," went the chant. It felt good, Enda. The last time it felt as good was when the Fianna Fail/Green coalition was shown the road in 2011.

The current regime has forgotten it governs solely by the will of the people.

As each day passes, with minister after minister defending water charges, some with soft words and some with big sticks, the people are growing more sullen.

Tick-tock. Something has to give. A few concessions won't stem the tide any more.

Irish Independent

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