Water world: meet the protesters

Who are the people fighting the water charges, running the protests and taking to the streets to object to the installation of meters?

It’s Wednesday afternoon in court 14 at the Criminal Courts of Justice, on Parkgate Street in Dublin, and a motion is being adjourned until Monday. The four respondents allegedly broke an injunction taken out by the company GMC Sierra to keep protesters at least 20ft from its workers as they installed water meters.

Afterwards Derek Byrne, one of the four, pretends to smoke a comically large cigar. “I’m celebrating,” says Byrne. “Win, lose or draw, we’ve already won.”

“He got it from a friend who was in the Dominican Republic,” explains another of the respondents, Bernie Hughes, who recently ran for United Left in the council elections.

They didn’t necessarily expect to be walking away free today. “We brought our suitcases,” says Byrne.


Byrne, Hughes and their supporters then leave the building, get on a bus and go back to Donaghmede to protest against a fleet of installers who arrived earlier in the week.

There are anti-water protesters across the city and country, many organised locally under banners like Tallaght Says No to Water Metering or Templeogue Says No to Water Charges. It’s a network of people ready to drop everything and go to block a road when a text-message call-out lets them know that water-meter installers are entering an estate.

The installers used to give notice, according to John Lyons, a People Before Profit councillor who was at the court. "More recently the vans are just turning up."

The anti-water protesters have been on the news agenda for more than a week, after Tánaiste Joan Burton was hit by a water balloon and stuck in her car in Jobstown, in Tallaght, by a sit-down protest on November 15th and the Taoiseach’s car was targeted at an event at Mansion House in Dublin the following day. Widely shared YouTube footage from the Mansion House protest showed gardaí roughly fling a young woman off the road.

Some argue that these incidents have tainted the anti-water-charges campaign. The Fine Gael TD Noel Coonan likened the protestors to the Islamic State.

The protesters themselves feel misrepresented but are undeterred. John Lyons says that, despite the involvement of unions and some political parties, this is a grassroots movement.

After speaking to almost 40 people involved with protests in recent days, and observing many more at events, it’s hard to argue with this. And the 50,000 to 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin for the march on October 11th can hardly be called a rent-a-crowd.

Lyons also says it would be foolish for politicians to think they could direct it. The best they can do is to offer “help and support”.

As well as being outside the control of politicians, the protesters operate outside of mainstream media. Eamonn Crudden, a lecturer in creative media at Dundalk IT and a protest organiser in Boyle, Co Roscommon, says the widespread use of new technology for protest is unprecedented in Ireland.

He talks about the whirl of smartphone-shot videos and blog posts disseminated on social media. “They’ve bypassed the mainstream media,” he says. “It’s no accident Joan Burton mentioned [the protesters’] smartphones.”

Across Facebook, videos of interactions between protesters and gardaí and politicians proliferate. More importantly, news of meetings and spontaneous protests spreads at a speed unimaginable 10 years ago.

Tea and sandwiches

At Wednesday’s protest outside the Dáil I meet Ger O’Brien. “We knew about the water vans in Donaghmede at eight o’clock this morning,” he says. This protest is timed to coincide with Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly’s announcement of new information about the charges.

O’Brien is a carer for his mother and, when he has time, an activist with the Crumlin Says No group. “We have tea parties,” says O’Brien. They turn up and block workers from entering the site. They bring tea and sandwiches. “Then we drink tea with the workers.”

“This is a new revolution,” says his friend Eve Brackin.

“But it’s a peaceful revolution,” says O’Brien. “There’s no place for violence.”

There’s not a huge crowd outside the Dáil. Then again, it’s a weekday and there was confusion about the assembly time: some have been here since 12.30pm; others arrive at 3pm. The mood is buoyant.

There are placards: “We are ruled by dictators,” reads one. There are chants. “Stick your €100 up your arse,” is the rudest. A TV3 reporter asks them to sing it again for his camera. Some do.

“Ah, stop!” says Ciara O’Reilly. “They want us to look like thugs.”

O’Reilly is a midwife, and this is her second water protest. “It shocks me at the level of my profession that a child could be born into the world where his nutrition, health and wellbeing is going to be affected for life depending on the ability of his parents to pay for water.

“Middle Ireland – my friends, my colleagues and people in my family – I’m still surprised how disengaged they are. Their opinion is based on how the media are spinning things . . . That’s why I was talking about that chant. Keep it moderate, and let them see that it’s reasonable people out protesting.”

Ger Byrne is also relatively new to protest. When I ask why he was never politically active before, he says that until relatively recently he couldn’t read or write. This put him on the margins.

He survives with the help of handouts from the Capuchin Day Centre. “If I invited you to my home we’d be lucky to find a tea bag,” he says. He has one full set of clothes, which he washes every two days; he has to wait for it to dry before going out. “Actually, I’ve two sets of [tracksuit] bottoms,” he adds, correcting himself. “But I have nothing else to give. Do they want me to start wearing fig leaves?”

Bank bailouts

A lot of themes recur in conversations at this protest – water as a human right, corrupt politicians, bank bailouts, media bias, cutbacks, conspiracies (Photoshopped news photographs and Garda agent provocateurs are mentioned) – but personal stories are the ones that stick.

For Phyllis Carroll, a Shankill woman in her late 60s, water charges are “the last straw”. She looks after a son with cancer. “Last year they took away his medical card. I had to take out a credit-union loan to pay for his medication.” (He eventually got the card back thanks to his oncologist, the professor and Senator John Crown.)

She’s proud of the corporation estate in which she lives. She’s proud of her neighbours. But she feels demonised and ignored. Her first foray into politics was during the campaign against the property tax. It didn’t affect her personally, “but some older people were so worried”.

Not everyone is new to protest. Liam Norton, who lost his business a few years ago, shows me a photograph of himself on the ground, injured and surrounded by police, during the Lock out the Dáil protest last year. “But I arrived today and didn’t recognise anyone. These are all new people.”

When the Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy and the Socialist Party TDs Ruth Coppinger and Joe Higgins emerge from the Dáil to address the protesters they're treated to people chanting, "Paul for Taoiseach!" "Ruth for Tánaiste" is also attempted. I don't hear a chant for Joe.

Not everyone is impressed. “If they think Paul Murphy is going to be the solution they’re completely deluded,” mutters a former Occupy Dame Street protester called Dave. “This isn’t [his] circus.”

Shortly afterwards the protest disperses. “If you want to understand this movement,” Bernie Hughes had told me, “you should come out to Donaghmede.”

So on Thursday morning I find myself on Grange Road in Donaghmede, where about 50 people are gathered around some GMC Sierra vans. They’ve been here since 6.45am. Ten gardaí are standing about. Motorists beep their horns in solidarity. At the entrance to the estate a sign reads: “Fianna Fáil: Robbers. Labour: Liars. Fine Gael: Fascists.”

They’ve been keeping the vans out of the estates, Hughes says, but they did a deal whereby the workers could go in and “clean up” where they had been digging before.

All the women are in pink high-visibility jackets, originally designed for Cancer Awareness. “In support of cancer awareness,” says Hughes, but also “to highlight to the guards that it’s women they’re pushing around.”

People have started calling them the Pink Ladies, says Hughes. There’s a bit of a routine now, where if the vans turn up and residents are out in force the workers just park and settle in for the day.

Everyone here is distrustful of the media. “I rang the TV licence people,” says Antoinette Moore. “And I asked why I had to pay for this propaganda.”

A young woman called Caroline says, “I saw Joan [Burton] imprisoned in that car for two hours . . . I’ve been imprisoned in hotels for the last eight months with my kids and my partner, because we got a house sold out from underneath us.”

Caroline, who has been politicised by her homelessness, wants the movement to grow. “Hopefully, when we get the water charges abolished, we’ll move on and do something for the homeless.”

People stand vigil wherever work and life allow. Spur-of-the-moment gatherings are organised via text alert and Facebook when someone sees a water van.

There’s a sense of community at this event. Someone brings sandwiches and tea. The taxi drivers from a nearby rank pay for coffee for everyone. People talk about waking up politically.

“I never felt like I could contribute anything, because I hadn’t got an academic education or anything like that,” says one women.

“I’m proud to stand with the Pink Ladies,” says Antoinette Moore. “My child is in that school” – she points towards it – “and he’s really proud of this, and you’re never going to knock that off these kids.”

Tom Delaney is a printer. He tells me that he went from griping “from his chair” about his huge mortgage and banks and government to getting politically involved. “In the last few months I’ve really educated myself,” he says.

Delaney is here with his little daughter, Lara, who has a high-vis jacket of her own. “The ladies got it for her,” says Delaney. “Every morning she says, ‘Ladies! Ladies!’ She doesn’t have many words, but I know where she wants to go.” He laughs. “She wants to come here because they’re always giving her chocolate.”

Meters installed

Things are a little more hectic on nearby Donaghmede Park, where protesters have just realised that workmen have apparently installed meters despite the deal that they should only clean up after previous work.

The road fills with angry people. One protester leans over a plastic divider to poke around at their work. “Don’t touch that. It’s not your property,” says a garda.

“I’ll touch it if I like,” says the man, angrily, but he backs off.

Along the street various combinations of protesters, workmen and gardaí gather in huddles. There are heated exchanges. A few people are very loud, but I see nobody being abusive.

“What’s going on?” says a resident as she walks by.

“They’re digging holes, and then they’re filling them in again, and then they dig them again,” says an older man called Anthony Byrne, who’s leaning on his gate, looking out at the drama.

Byrne is a former marathon runner. “See him?” he says, pointing at a protester. “I trained him to run the marathon. And see him?” he says, pointing at a garda. “I trained him as well.”

What’s his view of the water issue? “It’s costing us a f***ing fortune. The whole lot. The delaying. The messing. Paying the gardaí.”

“What do we want?” chants the marathon-running garda. “More overtime. When do we want it? On Sundays.”

“I don’t like the idea of the water meter,” says Byrne. “But I don’t like the way the protesters are going about it any more than I like the way the Government is going about it. F***ing pair of them in it.”

On a parallel street, Donaghmede Avenue, where the GMC Sierra men have also, apparently, put in meters, two small groups of protesters are loudly, angrily arguing about what to do next. They agree to let the workmen finish their clean-up but not to let them install more meters. About 15 gardaí are here.

Bernie Hughes is stoical about the alleged deal-breaking. “I believe that, just like the tooth fairy, there’s a meter fairy, and he comes and takes [the meters] away when they’re after being bold,” she says.

Before I leave, things calm down. A tray of sausages is produced. There are loud, annoyed voices, but there is nothing approaching violence.

Thuggery and heavy-handedness

The protesters I speak to feel demonised. Every claim of thuggery made against them they match with a counterclaim of Garda heavy-handedness. A man called Gerry shows me his bruised shins and says that gardaí pushed him against a barricade last weekend.

Some protesters justify the barricading of Joan Burton’s car in Jobstown. More, however, do not. In general, people don’t like the idea of anyone – Joan Burton or Pink Ladies – being hurt or intimidated.

Two different media, traditional and social, are documenting the water wars, and they often tell very different stories. Whatever you think of the specifics of water charges, the movement is really motivated by a troubling fact: some people have too much and some people have too little.

Most of those I spoke to this week have too little. Most are newly politicised and unaffiliated with political parties. They’re angry.

Politicians often say the public should engage more with politics. Well, now they are. The idea of charging for water has activated people in a way nothing else has. They’re protesting, organising public meetings and having political discussions.

It might develop into a new politics. It might devolve into a disappointing new political party. The tactics might be self-defeating (particularly if some people continue to spin them as the antics of a mob). Things might fizzle out. We’ll have some sense of the trajectory at the next big march on the Dáil, on December 10th.

One big question is whether establishment politicians are listening. Phyllis Carroll, who I meet at Wednesday’s protest, worries that they’re not. She has a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, she says. “I want to get a hold of them and shake them and say, ‘Wake up. Please wake up. We’re struggling out here.’ ”