Water charges are now water under the bridge – it’s all about housing

Campaigners struggle to exert pressure on Government as Minister keeps low profile

In the latter half of 2014, Irish politics was dominated by water charges. Right 2 Water, a campaign group, drew hundreds of thousands of people on to Dublin's streets between late 2014 and the general election in early 2016. The numbers on the street was reflected in the general election, with strong showings for Sinn Féin and other left-wing parties.

Nearly five years on the priority is no longer water, but housing and homelessness. Even European election candidates identify it as the biggest issue.

On the face of it the conditions seem ripe for a popular movement. A campaign group, Raise the Roof, has sprung up comprised of activists from political parties, housing and homelessness charities, trade unions and students.

Last October a protest near Leinster House drew 15,000 people. A week later the Dáil passed a motion, by a huge majority, containing all of its central aims: a legal right to housing; more social housing; action on affordable rents and housing; and security of tenure.


Significantly, the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, supported the motion. So too did all of the other non-Government parties and Independent TDs and Senators, including one of its architects Frances Black.

By January, Raise the Roof had morphed into a national campaign. The housing crisis worsened, yet the crowd expected at Saturday’s march in Dublin will not approach the 100,000 seen during the anti-water charges battle. Some of those involved predict 5,000.

So has the campaign lost momentum? Those involved say no, but argue it is more complicated. For one, they say housing affects people in a different way, some very directly, but many more people indirectly. Water charges directly affected everyone.

Secondly, students featured prominently last October but many are already on holiday or in the throes of exams.

Thirdly, campaigners argue that the better comparison is not water charges but the marriage equality campaign.

Political pressure

However, numbers matter. A smaller turnout will have an impact, but it will not exert political pressure on the Government, or on the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, as the water charges protests did on his predecessor.

Murphy has been out of the spotlight in recent months. Controversies elsewhere have put housing into the background on occasions. Equally, Murphy has deliberately maintained a lower profile than he once did.

Still, he is under pressure, facing charges that he is struggling with his vast departmental portfolio. While accepting that protest is legitimate, he obviously disagrees that the Government is failing to tackle the crisis.

Neasa Hourican of the Green Party argues that protests matter, but so too do votes. "If Fine Gael had a good result in the elections we did not want that to be seen as acceptance or sign-off on their housing policy."

Housing is not water, though. “Housing is facing all kinds of people from rents, to evictions, to homelessness. It’s cutting a swathe to all sections. We also know a huge proportion of Irish society are home-owners, and it is not affecting them.”

Saturday's s numbers are a challenge, admits Sinn Féin's Eoin O Broin, "Students who played a big part in October are doing exams at the moment. Housing is a more difficult issue to mobilise people on because it affects people in different ways."

Irrespective of the numbers who turn up on Saturday, O Broin believes Raise the Roof has a future. “It’s not going to be the last event. You see what you get, you revise it afterwards, and you plan for the next one.”

The local elections on Friday were “part of the reason” why the march was scheduled for Saturday, but “the bigger target” is to influence public debate ahead of the general election. “The experience is you have a slow build until you get a critical mass.”


Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, like O Broin, points to the unity of the trade union movement, unlike the splits that emerged during the water protests.

“It’s not as politically driven by party politics as the water protest was. That was pretty vicious against the parties that brought that in.”

Fianna Fáil is the only opposition party not a member of the movement. It did, however, support the Dáil motion. Some say the campaign forced Fianna Fáil to change. Fianna Fáil says it always backed the core principles.

"Within the movement there is an element who want to keep it very far to the left," says Fianna Fáil's housing spokesman Darragh O'Brien, "They are using Raise the Roof for their own party political gain."

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times