No issue comes close to water charges when measuring impact on the fortunes of political parties this year.
Before its inception, the Government had fair warning that it had to take a careful approach. New taxes are never going to win popularity awards, so compliance rates will be lower than desired if the Revenue is not involved. Look at household charges, or the TV licence, where the rates of evasion are still high.
The Government knew the hard-left Opposition parties had mounted a highly organised long-range campaign. Sure, it was a small group, but they had already backfooted the Coalition on the household charge.
In addition, Irish Water's rather "flaithiúil" approach to the army of consultants it brought in did it and the Coalition no favours. RTÉ's Seán O'Rourke got Irish Water chief executive John Tierney to admit that €50 million had been spent on consultants, which set the tone for the turbulence that would lie ahead.
And then, when you're already skating on thin ice, maybe it's not the best idea to ask Phil Hogan – all 6 feet 6 inches of him – to go out and do a reverse triple Axel for the cause.
In May, Fine Gael took a strategic decision ahead of the local elections to leak details about what the average cost per family would be. It reckoned that its core middle class base could live with €240 per annum. It reckoned wrong.
The water charge was soon perceived as the straw that broke the camel's back. On top of the USC, the property tax, higher income taxes, pension levies – and , for many, lower wages – this was seen as a tax too far. Not just among the usual group of protesters, but among core Fine Gael and Labour voters as well.
The more Irish Water and the Government kept explaining, the more they kept losing. The kind of padding the public hates – high executive pay, gilded consultancy fees, a bonus culture – all came to the fore.
Not only did the Government parties take a hit in the May elections, water continued to be a major factor in all other electoral contests. This was particularly true in Dublin South West, where Paul Murphy’s blunt anti-water charges message gave him a surprise victory over Sinn Féin. And then there was the nationwide protest in October, which saw an estimated 100,000 people take to the streets in different locations.
Change all around
The protests prompted political change. Sinn Féin hardened its stance. The Government announced a revised package of measures. The new Minister for the Environment,
, showed, if nothing else, that he is decisive. The new charge will be €160 net for most families. The Coalition now thinks the pricing level is enough to swing momentum behind it.
Still, the opposition hasn’t just faded away. Well over 30,000 showed up for the December 10th protest. There is a bloc that will oppose the charge tooth and nail.
Still, now that the law for the new charge is about to be passed, the Government believes it can put the controversy behind it. All will depend on how many will now be persuaded to sign up.