The water wars continue – and the mood music changes
Away from the arguments over the rules of protest, opposition to Irish Water has brought a long festering national unhappiness to the surface
There was a touch of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to last night’s Prime Time encounter between Paul Murphy and Pat Rabbitte. On one side, we had the young upstart, the lad who finally got directly elected after years of trying, the smug, pleaased-with-himself kid who always strikes you as someone who wants to show everyone just how smart he is. On the other side, we had the elder upstart, the man who was once the alternative and who became the mainstream, the cynical grump who always has a snarky retort whatever the occasion.
When you’d Skywalker and Vader talking about driving around with megaphones in the boots of their respective cars, you could clearly see you were dealing with two sides of the same coin. That Stone Roses’ line – “the past was yours, but the future’s mine” – came to mind because this is what the political establishment looks like in 2014. Meet the new order; just like the old order was 30 years ago.
It has been a strange few weeks. Writing about Irish Water a few short weeks ago and the coalescence between different groups of protesters which was then evident, it was abundantly clear that Irish Water had not just become the focus of a lot of pent-up ire, but also acted as a magnet for two forces whose interests had never really come together in this way before.
You’d people who’d quietly put up with paying a lot of taxes and charges over the last five or six years to pay off banking debts which they’d nothing to do with. They decided that enough was enough and paying on the double for water was not on. You’d the politically disconnected, those in working and workless class communities, who have been completely ignored and overlooked by government after government over the last couple of decades. Bringing those two forces together was probably not something which the government imagined would be a side-effect of creating Irish Water.
When you look at this unprecedented coming together of interests, it’s easy to understand why there has been so much focus on what happened last weekend at protests in Jobstown and elsewhere. When you have government ministers getting barricaded in their cars for a few hours, Gardai rough-housing female protestors in Dublin city-centre, minsters getting attacked by water balloons as they go about their work, widespread hysteria from the political classes about these actions, aggressive homophobic and sexist abuse as part of the protest and the use of the Garda Public Order Unit to try to keep the peace, you know things have seriously changed on the streets.
The arguments over whether this was or was not a peaceful protest, the ins and outs of the democratic right to protest and whether the lad photographed flinging a brick before he fell on his hoop was there for the protest or was just on his way home for his tea with a brick in his pocket are coming way too late. The handwringing from the political and media establishment about protests getting out of hand and the triumphalism from those who see these protests as a way of fermenting unrest and instability completely miss the bigger point. The mood music has changed.
For years, there was always a touch of wonder from the political establishment about the placidity of the Irish people. Every single austerity measure was taken on the chin. Tax demands were issued and tax demands were paid. There may have been the occasional angry splash – such as the November 2010 marches – but the Irish citizenry confined their fierce unhappiness with what had happened to their country and society to the ballot box.
There were attempts in some quarters to show this meek acceptance of our fate as a kind of national shame about how we had gone from Johnny Bigpants showing everyone what an amazing economy we had to a laughing stock, but that’s nonsense. We weren’t shamed, we were waiting for a chance to strike back and we did that like we always did at the ballot box. We showed our anger by eradicating a Fianna Fail government like you’d give a belt with a newspaper to a wasp lurching around your back door and giving a Fine Gael and Labour government a mandate to do things.
The newly formed government certainly did go off and do things from 2011 on, but these were probably not the things many who voted for them expected them to do. Promises were not kept, slealth taxes continued to appear and nothing really changed. The government, as is the wont of governments, began to talk about turning a corner and had the stats and data to back this up. On the ground, as parents looked at their kids either emigrating or working some JobBridge or unpaid internship gig, we knew differently. For all the anecdotal indicators – the terraces of houses going for daft prices, the traffic back clogging up the roads and the trinkets people were suddenly buying again like they’d black Amex cards – we knew things hadn’t really got better. We were also wondering about this much fabled road to recovery was taking us.
Enter Irish Water and a focus for all of this unsatisfaction and unhappiness as we’ve seen in recent weeks. The jig is up that placidity will be the way of the walk. The question now is what’s next for this flexing of public power. We know there will be more marches and protests (such as the one planned for December 10 in Dublin), but what will happen beyond this? Will we wait for the next general election, just around the corner, to do the same as we did in 2011 and eradicate a bumbling, unpopular, incompetent government and elect a whole new cast of characters or chancers? Or will something else, something completely unprecedented, happen?
Yesterday, Fintan O’Toole wrote about how “Ireland could and should be a great testing ground for new ways of doing democracy in the 21st century” because it appears to him that “the evidence is piling up that if the people don’t own the system, they’ll break it”. Democracy here has always been about elections and votes and sending people to Kildare Street. It’s clear that many out there don’t think that’s enough anymore and something else, something currently unwritten, needs to happen. The genie, it would seem, is well and truly out of the bottle.