This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
It’s lunchtime at a quiet bar and restaurant by Dublin’s River Liffey, and a man in his 30s walks in holding a copy of his résumé. He wants to leave it for management to look over.
“Sorry, waste of time,” the server says bluntly, raising her hand two feet off the counter. “I’ve résumés up to here behind the bar.”
The whole exchange takes maybe ten seconds, but the surrounding silence makes it an awkward one. As the man shuffles out, the expressions of the few patrons are full of sympathy, but not surprise. They soon turn back to their food.
Just a few years after the death of Ireland’s famous “Celtic Tiger” economy, Dublin is a different place. For the majority, it’s a lot harder to catch a break.
On this quiet December Tuesday, talk is dominated by the following day’s water charges protest, and how a €3 per week payment will bring tens of thousands onto the streets. In the free-wheeling days of a decade ago, many would have laughed at the idea. This, however, is a changed country.
In 2008, as Irish banks faced collapse, a calamitous blanket bank guarantee was agreed, which in turn had necessitated a €67-billion EU-IMF bailout by 2010. Years of pain followed, as taxpayer money was used to prop up speculators who had fueled a giant property-based bubble.
Since the implosion, Ireland has endured round after round of maddening austerity, but to the surprise of many, this inner anger hasn’t translated into rage in the streets, as it has elsewhere in Europe.
The official line is that this patience and understanding is now being rewarded. The country has since exited the bailout, and there are signs that a corner has been turned. Unemployment is at 11.3 percent, down from a high of 14.7 percent in 2012. It may even drop to around 9.7 percent this year. After surviving a series of regressive budgets, the country is back on its feet.
Yet now, after years of simply “getting on with it,” it looks as if a new plan to charge Irish residents some €160 per year for water could finally be the drop that spills the cup.
Almost from nowhere, people are digging in as the Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition government attempts to impose new water treatment and consumption charges on the public. Rallies are ongoing against the new semi-state body Irish Water, set up to satisfy EU-IMF demands.
As numbers grow, the protestors have an unlikely ally in their corner: the Detroit Water Brigade.
As Detroit has sunk into its own economic hell, this volunteer group has provided bottled water and rainwater barrels to embattled communities facing water shut-offs stemming from unpaid bills. Local activism has already squeezed certain concessions from authorities. In the long term, they’re pushing for an income-based ceiling on water charges for their city.
After bringing international attention to Detroit, the collective arrived in Dublin recently at the invitation of Right2Water, a gathering of Irish community groups, opposition politicians, and union leaders who oppose Ireland’s water plan. Not restricted to the capital, they toured the country to pass on lessons learned in Michigan.
The suburb of Crumlin is as “Dublin” as it gets. The night before the demo, the visitors are given a roaring welcome at a local sports hall, where a crowd hangs on their every word. The Americans offer solidarity, but they’re also taking an active role in preparations for the following day.
Detroit’s Makita Taylor, a mother of six, outlines her own experiences with water shut-offs, insisting the Irish must not take their government at its word when it says the same will not happen here.
“You have absolutely no reason to think it can’t happen to you,” she tells her audience.
“The government is banking on ignorance, so educate yourselves as you have been doing. Really encourage each other to care.”
In Detroit, water is publicly administered. However, as the city emerged from bankruptcy, striking deals with Water and Sewerage Department bondholders and chasing delinquent debts to quickly raise revenue became major priorities. An estimated one in five Detroit residents lives on $800 or less a month, but the average monthly water bill is now over $70, with the council recently approving an 8.7-percent hike. With many families unable to make those payments, water access has been cut off for thousands.
After a recent visit to the city, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported a crisis stemming from the surge in disconnections, with 27,000 water shut-offs in 2014 alone.
“We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” the UN report read.
“We were also distressed to learn from the low-income African-American residents of the impossible choices they are being compelled to make—to either pay their rent or their medical bill, or to pay their water bill.”
Back in Ireland, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar made headlines when he said it “really bothers” him that people are protesting about what for many may amount to a €3 per week charge. There are “much bigger problems in Irish society,” he said, yet there is no bigger problem facing his government than water.
After protests in November 2014, the government made concessions, which included a climb-down on water metering. Single adult households are now slated to pay a basic €60, with every other household paying €160 (after €100 rebates are factored in). With metering set to apply above a certain quota, the original base figure had been estimated at €240. The flat rates will now remain in place until the end of 2018.
But the protestors are calling for the abolition of Irish Water altogether, not concessions. If they give a financial inch now, they say, a mile will be taken later. The government has promised Irish Water won’t be privatized, but the public smells a rat.
The government says water is leaking away at dizzying rates, and charges are needed to overhaul an antiquated system which has seen hundreds fall ill with cryptosporidium poisoning. They insist Irish Water’s rates are among the lowest in Europe. Those against, however, say they have long paid for their water as part of general taxation, and that people are now being forced to pay twice.
Compounding matters, the government assured people that Irish Water would be “a very cost-effective and lean operation,” but it has been anything but. Consultant fees have reached €85 million. The Irish Times recently pointed out that Irish Water spends some €81,000 a week on legal fees, enriching three Dublin law firms to the tune of €5 million since August 2013.
Questions have also been raised over the granting of lucrative contracts to install water meters nationwide, with the cost of the devices reaching €540 million, despite the fact that they now won’t be fully utilized for years.
Slowly, unrest has grown. Residents have confronted water workers, in some places blocking meter installations. So-called “meter fairies” have been removing meters from outside homes, and residents have appeared in court.
Since 2008, Irish people say it’s been all take and no give. Incomes have fallen dramatically, but taxes have ballooned, with various levies dreamed up to cover the bailout. The oft-repeated line is that Ireland enjoyed the good times, and therefore had to take its punishment, but cracks have slowly appeared in this argument.
“People were told they all partied,” says David Gibney of Right2Water. “And a lot of people believed that. But as time has gone on, you get the Anglo Tapes and all the rest of it coming out, and people say: ‘Hold on a second—that wasn’t me partying. [A small number of] people partied, and we have to pick up the bill.’”
The Anglo Tapes Gibney refers to are tape recordings that emerged in 2013, centered on the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, which began in 2008. In one phone call, two Anglo executives discuss a request for rescue funds from state coffers. Asked where he came up with an initial figure of €7 billion, one banker says to another that he “picked it out of my arse,” with the pair heard laughing about how the debt would never be paid back. Anglo famously went on to cost Irish taxpayers €30 billion.
The tapes caused uproar when released, but they did nothing for anyone’s bank balance, and the financial pain caused by such malpractice has continued.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently admitted that the Universal Social Charge, for example—which takes in €4.5 billion per year and was sold to taxpayers as a temporary measure—is now not likely to be abolished.
Rents and housing prices are again soaring—residential properties jumped 16.3 percent in the year to October 2014—but services have been shredded. The health system is in crisis. Although the collapse occurred under the previous government, the current coalition has broken a raft of election promises, not least on government “advisor” salaries. The perception is that insiders and cronies benefit at the expense of everyone else.
As the march kicks off, police report that a crowd of 30,000 has gathered, but organizers put the figure closer to 100,000. The truth is somewhere in between. Some protestors are arrested after a sit-in at O’Connell Bridge. A policeman is injured after an object is thrown, but things remain relatively peaceful.
At the main rally behind government buildings, which goes on all afternoon, independent left-wing MP Clare Daly takes to the stage and says those present are “living in a moment that changed Ireland.”
“Irish Water is already dead,” she says. “We are here to bury it.”
All walks of life are present, but some are more present than others. The Sinn Féin party has banners everywhere, and its figurehead, Gerry Adams, gets the rock-star treatment from a large section of the crowd when he appears. Some, though, bemoan the “hijacking” of the event by politicians who have next year’s general election in mind, if indeed a vote doesn’t come sooner.
Irish Water is not yet dead, and Ireland hasn’t really changed, despite Daly’s enthusiasm. Yet something is clearly stirring. Unconcerned by local squabbles, DeMeeko Williams of the Detroit Water Brigade is fired up when asked for his thoughts.
“Do not let them take this water,” he says. “Or else you will end up just like us. A lot of the things that have happened in Detroit will come to Ireland.
“When we were out in Crumlin and we saw the water meters being installed, [we said] ‘Why are you letting them put them in? Shut them down!’ And they stood with us. That was awesome. You are standing up for your children and for Ireland.”
Back on stage, local stars Damien Dempsey and Glen Hansard belt out Brendan Behan’s famous song “The Auld Triangle.” Chatting afterwards, Oscar-winning singer Hansard gets to the point.
“Yes we voted in the government,” he says. “But there’s a growing sense of: ‘who are we voting in, and who are they supporting?’ Because it seems like they’re not supporting the people. We don’t mind paying our taxes, nobody does. It’s just…don’t take the piss.”
Reflecting after the dust settles, Right2Water’s Gibney feels the Detroit group’s visit was a massive boost, and says the trans-Atlantic cooperation will continue. An Irish visit to Michigan is being discussed.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say we have nothing in common with the people of Detroit,” he says.
“But the people who’ve spoken to them can see it’s exactly the same situation, it’s just that they’re twenty years ahead of us. They kept referring to themselves as the Ghost of Christmas Future from Scrooge, which made sense to a lot of people.”
“You have 1.7 million people in Ireland with less than €100 at the end of the month,” he goes on, using figures from the Irish League of Credit Unions. “And they’re told: ‘It’s only €3 a week’. [That’s] a lot to somebody who has no money, when their rent has just gone up 10.5 percent. You can only shake a can of Coke a certain amount before it explodes.”
One new poll has both government parties at their lowest ratings in a decade, with Fine Gael at 21 percent and its partner the Labour Party running at just 6 percent. An Irish Sunday Independent survey found that “less than two in five householders” have said they will eventually pay the revised fees. The protests, meanwhile, will go on.
“I think they’re on the run,” Gibney concludes. “Most of the time politicians can talk their way around things, but nobody is pulling the wool over people’s eyes on this issue.”