by Lucy Fitzgerald
A contentious issue in Ireland is the government’s decision to introduce water charges for every household. There have been mass anti-water charge protests throughout the country organized by opposition political parties and campaign groups. Claiming that the charge goes too far after six years of debilitating austerity measures, protestors are encouraging people to prevent water meters from being installed in their areas and are organizing a mass non-payment of water charges. This issue has garnered much attention and even celebrities, such as Liam Neeson, have disputed the charge. This is the first time that Irish people have mobilized on a national scale against the government’s austerity measures.
While the government maintains that it is a necessary tax to encourage water conservation, repair leaks to pipes, and clean the water supply – which is undrinkable in certain areas of the country – the protestors’ claim that the money will be used to pay bonuses to the staff of Irish Water, Ireland’s national water utility. The protestors are not pleased that the government has already paid millions for consultants at Irish Water and are calling on the government to change the constitution so that Irish Water will never be privatized.
During the most controversial anti-water protest, Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton was trapped in her car for hours and was hit in the face with a water balloon. Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins was also targeted by protesters and received verbal abuse after a visit to a school. Five demonstrators have been found in contempt of court and sentenced to at least 28 days in prison. Campaign groups, on the other hand, have filmed evidence of disproportionate violence from the police against protesters and have spoken out against the unexpected early morning arrests of 20 anti-water charge demonstrators, claiming that it is ‘political policing.’
According to Bernie King, a water charge protester, “Some members of the police are being very heavy-handed. We have a right to have our voices heard and they’re peaceful protests. The media are taking the government’s side and aren’t showing the protests. They’re hiding the issue.” A member of the police, who wishes to remain anonymous, defended himself. “I am just doing my job and toeing the middle line. I don’t want to pay a water charge any more than anyone else.”
The issue has divided families and communities. Some people believe that the water tax is fair as citizens in other countries pay for water. Others believe that we already pay for water through our taxes. As a young couple, I know the water tax will be a very difficult bill for me and my boyfriend to pay. He is working a minimum wage job and I have to work two jobs in order for us to afford the expensive utility bills and high rent on our apartment in the capital. Like most tenants, rent takes up 40 percent of our take-home pay and there is a risk of this rising even higher this year. Many tenants will be unable to dispute the water charge as the government is encouraging landlords to deduct the charges from their non-paying tenants’ security deposits. My boyfriend and I are hoping that the protests will convince the government to reconsider its decision before the billing date in April.
The unrest among the majority of Irish people has forced the government to modify its plans. In October a reasonable annual flat rate of €160 for a single person and €260 for a multi-person household was introduced and will be in place until 2019. These charges apply to everyone and are based on usage of 43,000 litres per year for a single-adult household and 70,000 litres for a multi-adult household. There is also a water conservation grant of €100 for every bill payer and bonuses for Irish Water staff have been axed.
These modifications, however, have failed to quell the continuing protests throughout the country. Some protestors are returning the application packets not properly filled out or with protest messages to Irish Water saying ‘No contract, no consent, return to sender.’ Bernie King worries that if the charges are introduced she will face a hefty tax bill after four years. “I have a family of five children so there’s seven people in my house and when they were talking about how much the charge would be I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it, so I set up the campaign group Scrap the Water Charges Kildare.”
Madeleine Johansson, a representative of People before Profit, a campaign group with ministers in the parliament, echoes this view, “People can see through the government’s announcement that this is just a way to get us in and then the charges will go up.”
The largest response from the public since the details of the budget were revealed was at the Right2Water National Assembly outside government buildings on 10 December 2014, where an estimated 100,000 people from all over the country attended. In Ireland, this was a very significant turnout so close to Christmas and on a work day. One Right2Water organizer, Seán Walsh explained that it is an electoral issue. “We will drive them out of office unless they withdraw this water charge.”
It is very unlikely that the government will reverse its decision, despite being at an all-time low in the opinion polls, as it claims that it has an obligation to introduce the water tax in order to meet the EU’s target budget. Otherwise there is a risk of a return to cuts and tax hikes. Domestic water charges will supposedly yield €300 million next year. The government claims that penalties will be introduced for people who do not pay their water tax or enter into a payment plan after one year. Not only will people be fined, the charge will be attached to the house so that if a family wants to sell their home the charges will remain.
For the normally passive Irish people, the water tax is the final straw. Some demonstrators are calling this a social issue and are comparing it to the 1916 revolution. As socialist party leader Paul Murphy states, it is a ‘people power movement.’ Social media is an important tool in strengthening the campaign with Facebook pages set up for local communities to arrange meetings. Text-alert systems are in place to organize protests quickly. Water campaign groups from countries like Bolivia and the USA are even coming to Ireland to give their advice. Globally, many groups feel everyone has a right to clean and safe drinking water, regardless of the ability to pay.
In Ireland the protests continue. It remains to be seen whether or not an amicable resolution to this debate will be found.
Lucy Fitzgerald is an Irishwoman who has lived in Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Argentina. She is fluent in French, Spanish, and English and has an MSc in Gender and International Relations. Lucy is passionate about gender equality and development education. When she is not fundraising or campaigning, she is busy traveling and learning new languages.