A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine the other day depicted a man on a couch talking to his shrink: "I had to stop watching the news – it was making my problems seem insignificant." The hysteria over the water charge has precisely the same effect. I had to stop watching the news.
After weeks of non-stop noise, the question arises as to whether reasonable discussion is possible any more. Between them, a dithering Government and a tactless Irish Water made a thorough mess of this one, their fumbling mistakes too numerous to count.
A big angry public protest followed, perhaps inevitably, the numbers greatly magnified by general weariness at relentless fiscal retrenchment for more than half a decade. But this sorry episode has been blown out of all proportion. Some campaigners seem determined still to cast the whole thing as some kind of a national emergency. This is simply ridiculous.
Ireland has encountered three emergencies since the outburst of crisis and this is not on a par.
The first was in 2008 when the banks fell over, prompting the misjudged guarantee over all banking liabilities.
The second was in 2010, when private debt markets decided the State was not worthy of their credit, which led to the EU-International Monetary Bailout bailout.
The third was the wider euro zone malaise of 2010-2012 when it seemed the single currency might collapse, something which would have created political and economic chaos around Europe.
Lamentably, hardly anyone has been held to account for all that. So we continue to pore over the entrails in an endless game of blame, more blame and yet more blame. In terms of the overwhelming uncertainty and risk prevailing in each of those events, however, the present row over water does not compare. Yet the most strident protesters are going around as if conditions are somehow ripe for an Arab Spring right here or a dose of class warfare: febrile agitation on the street; intimidation of water workers, Ministers and others; death threats etc – all of it accompanied by a coterie of TDs seeking a boycott of a tax enacted by the parliament in which they sit.
On radio yesterday, Paul Murphy TD invoked the language of fear. “People are no longer afraid of the Government. They’re increasingly aware that the Government is afraid of them.” Again, ridiculous. The time to be afraid was when the banking system nearly collapsed, raising doubt as to whether there would be any cash at all in ATMs or whether deposits would be lost.
Fear was appropriate too when the State could not fund itself, which could have led to the closure of hospitals, schools and the like. Not now.
The water charge – as amended – is is not particularly large. Like all taxes, it’s hardly conducive to merriment. People who cannot pay it won’t. No one will go to prison. The bill will be added as a charge on the property, meaning any resolution will come only later. Yet, as politicians shriek and bray on the airwaves, some would have you believe the end of the world has come.
By the start of next year, the Government and its predecessor will have executed €29.8 billion in tax increases and spending cutbacks since 2008. The €270 million to be raised from water is tiny by comparison, even if the battle over the charge merely serves as a lightning rod for other pressures and a lever for some peoples’ political ambitions.
No family in the State is untouched by this. It’s been a miserable experience for pretty much everyone, and the gargantuan national debt built up will be with us for generations. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping that trap. The way out lies in the long, hard struggle to create and maintain growth and the jobs that come with it.
To accept that premise, however, is to run the gauntlet of claims the recovery effort is cast merely to make marionettes of the Irish people to serve the interests of global capitalism, the EU, the Germans, bankers, bondholders, the Washington consensus and whatever else you’re having.
The crash was huge. It will still take a long time to fix it. Watch the news at your peril.