Water protests prove their power for bringing about change

Has the campaign against water charges opened our eyes to the power of protest?

The people of Ireland should pat themselves on the back this morning for putting manners on the Government like never before.

They might also want to ask themselves: had they done a little bit more, a little bit sooner, could the worst ravages of the austerity age have been avoided?

Water charges are obviously an emotive issue and that emotion has been relentlessly stoked up by political opponents of the Government who have rightly assessed it to be its Achilles’s heel.

But, as Arthur Beesley pointed out in this newspaper yesterday, difficulties of far greater magnitude have been encountered since the eruption of crisis six years ago.

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Had huge numbers marched in 2008 when the banking system effectively collapsed, then maybe our leaders in Government Buildings – and their overlords in Frankfurt and Brussels – would not have been so quick to bail out bankrupt financial institutions and saddle this and future generations with tens of billions of euro of debt.

And maybe if thousands of people had gathered outside Leinster House in 2010 in the days before and after the troika came to town we would not have been forced to endure the level of austerity that was imposed on virtually everyone in the State over the past six years.

Barely a whisper

But we didn’t take to the streets in big numbers back then. In

Portugal

,

Spain

,

Italy

and

Greece

the people were clearly and vocally up in arms as measures of austerity were rolled out. Here, however, there was barely a whisper.

A survey earlier this week found almost two-thirds of Germans believed Irish people did not protest enough in 2008, a view shared by many people in the US and UK. Most of those polled also said Irish people were too accepting of the crisis and its implications and reckless bankers had not been sufficiently blamed for plunging us into the mess we are still in.

It is hard to say why there were so few protests here back then. Perhaps we were afraid – the sense of fear as we ricocheted from crisis to crisis was certainly palpable – or maybe we felt powerless. Or maybe it was down to apathy and a sense that nothing would ever come of any citizen action.

The precedents were not good, after all. As a nation we have seldom protested in large numbers – the PAYE demonstrations of 1979 and 1980 and the anti-war marches of a decade ago stand out because they were so unusual. And while tens of thousands mobilised on those occasions, they made absolutely no difference to policy, so people could have been forgiven for asking what the point of protest was.

There is no sense the people are afraid or powerless or apathetic today after the major policy U-turn on water charges. And we have been given a master class about the point of protest.

Arrogance

Enda Kenny

has said the protest is not just about water and he’s right on the money. People have taken to the streets not just because they are to be billed separately for the water they consume. They are up in arms over the arrogance Kenny’s Government displayed when setting up

Irish Water

in the first place.

People have also been enraged by Irish Water itself. The consultants, the bonuses, the demand for PPS numbers and the fact that its very highly paid managing director, John Tierney, has been in virtual hiding all year, have turned it into one of the most toxic brands this State has seen. It is hard to imagine that anything can be done to redeem it .

Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy suggested this week that the success of the protest is the start of something bigger and more profound.

“People are no longer afraid of the Government. They’re increasingly aware that the Government is afraid of them,” he said.

It may serve Murphy’s interests to bring fear into the equation, but weariness might be closer to the truth. One of the comments posted online underneath Beesley’s article yesterday captured the mood of many people and shed a little light on what has driven people onto the streets this time.

“We are simply fed up with austerity, fed up with the troika, fed up with politicians telling us lies,” the comment started. “We are fed up . . . It has nothing to do with fascism, the Arab Spring, Isis, or any other ideology for that matter. We are talking here about ordinary people that have had enough.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor