The water wars
Irish Water may have made a hames of the one job they had to do, but they’ve managed to do something unique by uniting protesters across class lines
The papers and radio shows are full of talk and chatter right now about an impending management shake-up at Irish Water. This can only mean two things. For a start, it’s going to happen – you don’t get sort of this spin without something coming down the pipeline. And secondly, we can prepare for another burst of public fuming when it becomes clear that any Irish Water executives leaving the pitch will do so with handsome pay-offs.
The Irish Water fandango has been a fiasco on every simgle level. The accounts which have emerged on shows like Liveline about meters measuring water consumption in the wrong house or people being unable to actually read the meters themselves tell the story of a badly run and managed utility company who are completely out of their depth.
The company’s twitter feed should become a test case for social media experts in how not to manage an online communications campaign. Every single time the company’s PR chief Elizabeth Arnett appears on a show like Drivetime or Today With Sean O’Rourke to defend the company’s bonus culture, you’re reminded of the larks which ensued when Joe Jacob went on the Marian Finucane show back in 2001 clutching his iodine tablets.
But it’s what happening away from the radio studios which is just as interesting. We’re seeing one of the very few examples of a popular protest movement since the recession kicked in which has transcended the usual class lines an issue of this sort usually produces. The attempts on various housing estates around the country to stop Irish Water installing meters did not gain much mainstream media or political traction because you won’t find mainstream media or politicians there. Indeed, the fact that gardai, not usually seen when they’re really needed in these communities, were policing Irish Water’s work in these estates also did not raise many mainstream eyebrows.
However, it was a far different matter when people started copping on to the fat bonuses Irish Water were paying themselves. Add in a couple of other realisations – such as the one that we’ve always paid for our water supply via our taxes, but are now getting hit with what is a brand new tax – and the middle class fury and fuming was clear to see.
Hopefully, the fuming about the bonuses to be paid to employees whose work “need improvement” will not overshadow the nasty, ludicrous call-out charges and fees which Irish Water hope to foist on the Irish public in return for doing their job. While it would be cheaper to get a plumber yourself to plug the leak, surely an utility company should be doing repairs on their infrastructure for free? Does this mean Bord Gáis will charge you €181 the next time you ring up to say you smell gas in your gaff?
It’s the sheer width and depth of the protests against water charges and that limping disaster of a company which alarms the government and permanent establishment. The country may not have seen the same angry and violent anti-austerity protests that we’ve seen elsewhere – bar the protests which take place at the ballot boxes every time there’s an election (it’s telling that Paul Murphy finally won an election on the back of water protests and gave the dithering and troubled Sinn Fein a kick in the nuts in the process) – but you could note the alarm the moment it became clear working class and middle-class concerns had coalesced. The move to sort this one out will be swift because Dail seats in 2016 depend on it.
What will be interesting to see now is if the protesters from across the social board who’ve found common ground in Irish Water will now find that they actually agree on a lot more than hitherto thought. There are a lot of middle-class families and self-employed professionals who are realising that quietly putting up with paying ridiculous made-up taxes like the Universal Social Charge (universal yes, but far from social) with nothing in return is not going to change anything. They know that those extra taxes and levies foisted on the Irish taxpayer over the last few years are (a) not going to go away and (b) going straight to pay for the mess we found ourselves in thanks to the the useless eejits in the banks and last government.
They may not feel the same angry disconnect with the mainstream that’s prevalent amongst many working and workless class communities, but that’s not to say that there is a similar disillusionment with how the country is governed and how the economics of the state are managed. While these beliefs may manifest themselves in different ways, the overall individual narrative arcs are very, very similar and, as the Irish Water protests have shown, can bring both sides together. Irish Water may be a calamity from overpaid executives on down, but it could well have provided a valuable service by providing a target for all of Irish society to come together and unite against.