Sinn Féin's failure to make ground at the expense of the Government parties during the recent furore over water charges can be attributed to the party's handling of allegations of rape and cover-up made by Mairia Cahill. Public support for the party fell by two points at a time when it should have risen and satisfaction with the performance of Gerry Adams, who directly challenged Ms Cahill's version of events, fell by nine points.
A worrying aspect of this controversy, from Sinn Féin's point of view, is that one-third of those questioned in the latest Irish Times/ IpsosMRBI opinion poll are less likely to vote for the party because of the way the Cahill case was handled. The strongest negative reaction came from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael supporters. But one in ten Sinn Féin followers also expressed reservations. Instead of consolidating recent gains, a loss of public trust caused a surge of support towards Independents and Others.
The damaging public reaction to Ms Cahill's shabby treatment probably reflects the nature of the offence; its immediacy and the self-serving quality of the denials. By contrast, the questioning of Mr Adams some months ago in relation to the decades-old murder of Jean McConville had no impact on party support. But the justifications offered by Mr Adams and Sinn Féin in the Cahill case – and the handing of sexual crimes involving other IRA members – chimed in the public mind with previous Catholic Church scandals. In those instances, the effects were both corrosive and persistent.
Sinn Féin has its troubles, but water charges are likely to cause a serious drag on Government support as it prepares for an election. Fewer than 50 per cent of householders have indicated a willingness to pay the charge, in spite of a series of reductions introduced by the Government parties and a capping of the charge for a number of years. One-third of those questioned said they will not pay and resistance is most entrenched in Leinster and Munster.
Those who say they “can’t pay” inflate the figure for those who insist that they “won’t pay” in this exercise. Nearly 70 per cent of top earners are willing to fund water and sewage services, compared to 40 per cent at the lowest income level. Eleven per cent of households remain undecided. The financial viability of Irish Water and its ability to meet EU rules regarding Government subsidies could be threatened if this level of resistance persisted for a number of years.
Participation in public protests has been high, but there is obvious concern in relation to militant action. While one-quarter regarded a protest involving Tánaiste Joan Burton at Jobstown as peaceful, some 60 per cent did not. Women, in particular, took a negative view of what happened during the protest.