If it’s not about the water, what is it about?

Opinion: ‘While the thousands who marched in protests agree on the opposition to water charges, to what extent do they share the wider agenda and views of these groups?’

"Well, it's not about water, is it?" So said Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday after facing the latest of the water protests. And the fact that it isn't makes the Government's job of addressing it all this week all the more tricky. Because, of course, to some extent it is about water, but it is about a lot more, too.

There is, of course, a large extent to which the water charge protests reflect the pent up anger of all the austerity impositions, as I wrote over the weekend. The whole controversy also feeds into the wider feeling that there is a class of people and organisations who have escaped the worst of the hit, while households have borne the brunt.

At a basic level people don’t want to pay a new charge. It remains to be seen what level of acceptance the lower charging structure due to be announced on Wednesday will get. The biggest “winners” from this – by which I mean those who will save most in comparison with what they would have paid – are families with adult children. The highest bill will be around €280 and, with €100 back, this will fall to some €180 net for a household. A big point that the Government will sell is also that most households will now gain more from the budget measures, than they will pay in water charges.

It would be a brave person who would forecast the impact of this on the turnout at the next protest on December 10th. But there is one issue under the surface here which is worth thinking about. The leadership of the protests has been taken largely by left-wing groups with a strong anti-austerity viewpoint. A lot of their case is based on the cost to Ireland of bailing out bank bondholders; some also call for wealth taxes and more tax on corporate and higher earners.


While the thousands who marched with them in protests agree on the opposition to water charges, to what extent do they share the wider agenda and views of these groups? Interestingly, Irish Water is itself a case study here. There has been criticism – much of it justified – of the bonuses and consultants' costs in Irish Water. However the fundamental reason for the high cost structure at Irish Water is that it was set up in a similar way to the HSE – taking on all the legacy staff on similar terms and conditions and sticking an organisation on top of that.

As a report by PWC pointed out, this has left Irish Water with a higher cost structure than other similar-sized utilities. The regulator, the CER, is trying to impose a regime on Irish Water to cut its costs. But this will take years.

The crunch issue here is that the prime driver in setting up Irish Water was not to deliver the lowest possible cost from day one. Everyone agreed the old local authority structure was not working, yet the initial strategy was just to change the names on the vans, set up a new HQ and hope that time would solve the costs issue. This wasn’t putting the consumer first – and I suspect this is a key factor annoying a lot of people – but this fundamental issue has been lost as the protest is driven by groups with different agendas.

Part of the Government’s job will be to persuade people that this whole structure can be turned around and work efficiently. Wednesday will be all about how much the bills will be, but a key issue remains the efficiency and value for money in what we are being asked to pay for.