2014 review: Water charges give politicians a super-soaking
2014 was the year both Coalition parties received a good dunking from a public who were mad as hell and – on this one exceptional issue, at least – weren’t going to take it anymore. As a result, the next election is all to play for
Supersoakers: water-charge protesters make it clear they aren’t for turning. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
They all saw it coming, but one saw it clearer than most – and, politically, lost much more than most. Eamon Gilmore, now a backbench Labour TD for Dún Laoghaire, repeatedly told those around him that water charges would be the issue to cause maximum damage to the Labour Party and to the Government. “Gilmore was going around at the beginning of the year saying this will be the thing that will f**k us up eventually,” says one well-placed source. “This will be the thing that will eventually kill us.”
In a year when Fine Gael and Labour faced wave after wave of political controversy, one issue crystallised voter anger: 2014 began with Irish Water and ended with Irish Water. At the beginning of January the semi-State’s chief executive, John Tierney, told Sean O’Rourke of RTÉ that his organisation had spent €50 million on consultants, igniting the first political controversy of the year.
Tierney himself almost didn’t last the next 12 months, surviving an internal move against him inside Ervia, Irish Water’s parent company, in October. Ministers were even told that Tierney was to be removed. But he stood his ground.
Then, on a cold Wednesday earlier this month, you could almost see the huge breath of relief being blown into the cold December air by Fine Gael and Labour. The latest water-charges protest turned out to be smaller than anticipated and was dominated by Sinn Féin and the hard left.
A political U-turn in November had, the Coalition believed, convinced middle-ground voters.
Still, the Government’s poll figures are worse than ever. Sinn Féin and the Independents surge while Fianna Fáil plods along, a tortoise that could yet win the race to lead the next government.
In Leinster House and in the media, the big question is whether we are seeing a fundamental realignment of Irish politics and a fracturing of the previous system, or just a severe case of midterm blues.
Portrait of incompetence
It didn’t help that, at numerous times in the first half of the year, the Government seemed at war with itself.
Many in Fine Gael believed Labour was adopting a strategy of being the Opposition within Government. The senior party was bemused by what it saw as fake Coalition battles being waged through media briefings.
Labour members saw things differently, unsurprisingly. “Our friends in Fine Gael sometimes thought that if you weren’t taking the Fine Gael line you were speaking untruths,” says one.
But water was the issue that led to the Coalition’s greatest row, when Enda Kenny bounced Labour into an average figure of €240 per household in April. He threatened to put the issue to a vote at Cabinet, which would have brought down the Government.
Gilmore objected, which led to a direct clash with Kenny around the Cabinet table. A final, altered package was announced the following month, but the €240 still stood.
Kenny had promised that the public would know the average charge before the May 24th elections; Gilmore wanted it pushed well down the line.
The Labour leader knew how sensitive it was; he had had a “visceral” opposition to the issue all his political career. Anti-water-charges flyers from his Worker’s Party and Democratic Left days were thrown back in his face, as were pre-election Labour jibes about how Fine Gael would charge you for every last drop.
Gilmore believed, according to many in Labour, that if he could only kick the can as far down the road as possible, water charges wouldn’t have to happen. Others closer to him disagree, but all say he could see huge danger ahead.
He was told by TDs and even Ministers to drop the charges entirely. There had been loose talk at the start of the Government’s term about combining water and property tax into one charge.
“I think there might have been a feeling that, once we were out of the bailout, we wouldn’t have to do it,” says one figure. “There was always that ambivalence on the Labour side. On the Fine Gael side it was always full steam ahead.”
Fine Gael felt that its junior partners were going back on a promise to announce an average charge before the elections. It also felt that Labour was more than willing to abandon Kenny on the issue, forcing him to go back on a promise he made in the Dáil. That was not something Fine Gael would allow.
Both sides of the Government were astonished at the organisational mess.
Phil Hogan, as minister for the environment, had finalised issues such as the pay structures at Irish Water and the deals struck with county councils. These came to the attention of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste only later. Hogan’s attention also began to drift to Europe, leaving Kenny to be the public point man on a hugely unpopular issue.
Some claim that Kenny and his officials didn’t realise until late how politically significant an issue water was becoming. Suddenly, the economic figures became much better, allowing for a €1 billion package of tax cuts and spending increases in the October budget.
Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin sat down and assessed the political landscape. “They had a conversation, and Noonan said this Government will be re-elected and the only thing that will stop this Government being re-elected is water,” a source says. “And Howlin said we have to do something to neutralise water.” These discussions led to the “half-arsed” water tax credit announced in the budget.
But water began to dominate parliamentary-party meetings. A huge protest was planned for November 1st.
The Government was spooked by those who marched. Middle-class, middle-ground people were among the 150,000 or so who tramped past constituency offices in provincial towns and made noise in the cities and the suburbs.
It was now evident that water had become the issue people used to express the anger they felt after seven years of uncertainty, crisis, bailout, emigration, heartbreak and stress.
During the troika years there was a sense of social cohesion as the country soldiered to the end of the bailout. Water ended all that. “People have just got fed up with the national mission,” says one Coalition figure. “ ‘We’re all in it together.’ We’re not in it together any more, to a certain extent. When you think about it, it’s been nearly a decade. And in a decade people’s lives change an awful lot, and they can’t put their lives on hold. There’s a pent-up thing with people: they want to get a new job, buy a house, do whatever it is, have kids. You are definitely seeing that in the public view of politics and the polls.”
Others in Government circles characterise 2014 as the year of “post-traumatic stress”. People felt that they couldn’t panic when they were at the edge of the abyss in the bailout, the thinking goes, yet water presented a safe opportunity to express anger about all that had happened.
The movement was an emotional reaction to years of hardship, and emotions can’t be reasoned with. Emotions of that strength can do serious political damage, and it was going to take a phenomenal political U-turn to calm it down.
The lead in recasting the water-charges plan was Labour’s brusque Alan Kelly – nicknamed “Big Balls Kelly” by party colleagues. “Unlike an awful lot of our people, he is comfortable in the exercise of power,” says one Labour source. “He likes being a Minister, and he likes making decision. We like to be hurlers on the ditch, and he’s not.”
The new Minister for the Environment is said to have constantly emphasised that the issue was now about politics, not conservation or economics or energy. So the charges had to be brought down to the lowest acceptable levels yet still stay within EU rules about keeping the semi-State off the balance sheet.
A jaded public has probably yet to fully digest the new charging structure (effectively €160 for families and €60 for single-adult homes). But the convulsions caused by water may have fractured Irish politics for good.
Great leap leftward
The Independents are unlikely to poll as high in the general election in 2016, and the formation of the next government will probably focus people’s minds as polling day draws nearer.
Was 2014, then, a great catharsis or the great rupture, and was water the issue that helped redraw a new political landscape?
The Irish electorate has rarely shown itself to be radical; even in a moment of great stress in 2011 it turned to parties it knew well. Those in Government maintain that while water and a general air of incompetence delivered a torrid year, all hope of re-election is not lost.
They say their key moment was not the Justice controversies, or medical-card cock-ups, or John McNulty, or even Irish Water.
Rather, it was the publication of the quarterly national accounts in September, which showed that the economy expanded by 7.7 per cent in GDP terms in the year to the end of June. Suddenly, they have money to “do things” for the first time in years – and much rosier prospects for 2015 if they can significantly improve their political management.
If 2014 was the year social cohesion broke down, with people now demanding to know what’s in it for them rather than what’s good for the country, the Coalition has just over a year to play to this new reality.