In Deep Water: How People, Politics and Protests Sank Irish Water by Michael Brennan
Review: a book that reads like a political thriller yet informs like an academic text
Protesters take part in a water charges protest in Dublin city centre. Photograph: Eric Luke
In Deep Water: How People, Politics and Protests Sank Irish Water
It takes a certain kind of bravery to write a book about the politics of Irish Water. It requires even greater skill to do so with balance and empathy. In Deep Water proves that Sunday Business Post political editor Michael Brennan has both attributes in spades.
The book chronicles the ill-fated attempt by Fine Gael and Labour to introduce domestic metered water charges as part of a broader reform of the State’s crumbling water and sanitation system.
The book is based on 66 interviews with key protagonists including Government ministers, opposition politicians, civil servants, water protesters, trade unionists and others.
Added to Brennan’s own extensive coverage of the events themselves in real time, In Deep Water offers a comprehensive and considered account of the twists and turns of what was the most contested Government policy for decades.
Brennan takes the reader through a vast array of information, events and personal reflections. He deftly mixes the back story of key characters with normally dry policy detail into a narrative that is illuminating and engaging.
There is a certain economy in the author’s writing, with short chapters and efficient use of fact, that gives In Deep Water a pacy feel that belies its 300 pages. The result is a book that reads like a political thriller yet informs like an academic text.
Brennan brings two main qualities to the book which mark it out from many more standard journalistic chronologies of recent political events.
He displays a real empathy with all of his characters, but particularly those less well known figures who played such an important part in resisting the Governments water plan.
The role of “ordinary people” in the emerging protest movement is dealt with in chapters on the anti-metering protests in Cork and Dublin. The author pays particular attention to the role of women in this spontaneous resistance to what was widely perceived as the last straw in decades of austerity, cutbacks and tax hikes.
Brennan also makes the astute observation that at the heart of the protests was not just opposition to austerity but a rediscovery of meitheal – that traditional Irish communitarian spirit – binding people back into communities that had been fractured by both the Celtic Tiger and the great recession.
The other main strength of In Deep Water is the significant volume of new material shining light on previously opaque elements of the Irish Water story. Chief among these are a series of documents and opinions which were ignored by Government.
The decision by Cabinet to locate Irish Water within Bord Gáis – now Ervia– and the introduction of domestic meters are two cases in point.
A substantial body of opinion offered to then minister for the environment Phil Hogan – whether from state agencies, local authorities, civil servants, water engineers and some high-profile Ministers – was brushed aside in a rush to please the Troika and get Irish Water off the Government’s balance sheet. Despite the warnings that these were not the best policy options and carried substantial political risks, Fine Gael and Labour proceeded regardless and with heavy consequences.
That Brennan was able to access such a volume of new source material is a testament to his reputation as a balanced and fair-minded journalist.
In Deep Water has its weak points. There is more to the back story of water charges, both in terms of Fianna Fáil and European Commission policy during the 1990s and 2000s, that deserves attention. So too does the outworking of the post-2017 Water Services Act and the upcoming charge fo so-called excessive use.
But to be fair to Brennan these are peripheral to his main story, which is the rise and fall of universal domestic metered water charges.
Most of the commentary on In Dept Water to date hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to engage in some “confirmation bias” and this review will be no different.
Successive Irish governments failed to invest in water and sanitation services. Contrary to the often cited explanation, this was not because our water system is out of sight under the ground. Rather, the social and economic model promoted by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for decades perpetually underinvested in key public services.
The result was a 19th-century water system in a 21st-century advanced economy. But rather than invest in a fully public, world-class water service the oh-so-clever people advising Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore concocted a scheme that appeared to allow the Government to have its cake and eat it. If only Irish Water could be kept off the government balance sheet then we could have a world class service without direct public investment.
But as In Deep Water demonstrates, the plan was sunk by political ineptitude and popular protest. While the story is not over yet, if the outcome is a fully public, non-commercial water utility, funded through low-cost Government borrowing and protected by the Constitution from privatisation then even the darker moments covered by Brennan in his book will have been worth it.
Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD