The Irish Water debacle: why the State is heading towards being ungovernable

Opinion: The public revolt against water charges is about injustice, and it’s justified

‘The public revolt against water charges is not, for the most part, a rebellion against the eminently sensible idea that a small State should have a single public utility to develop its water system.’ Above,  water charge protesters  in Crumlin, Dublin on Saturday  as part of the national water charge protest. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

‘The public revolt against water charges is not, for the most part, a rebellion against the eminently sensible idea that a small State should have a single public utility to develop its water system.’ Above, water charge protesters in Crumlin, Dublin on Saturday as part of the national water charge protest. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

It should be so easy. How much political brilliance does it take to persuade the population that it is necessary to change a water supply system that leaves whole cities (Galway) and almost entire counties (Roscommon) without drinkable water for long periods? That wastes through leakage half of all the expensively treated water it produces? That the State can’t do this tells us something about much more than the debacle of Irish Water. It tells us about the governability of the State itself. It would be hysterical to suggest that the State is ungovernable. But it would be naive to deny that it is heading gradually in that direction. And heading there for good reasons: a very significant part of the population has ceased to feel that the State is theirs, that it tries its best to treat them with care and dignity.

The public revolt against water charges is not, for the most part, a rebellion against the eminently sensible idea that a small State should have a single public utility to develop its water system. It’s an expression of anger about bigger things: command-and-control politics; trust-me- I’m-an-expert arrogance; rotten, feckless disregard for the realities of life at the bottom of the heap; the feeling that nobody gives a curse how you live or what you think.

It’s about injustice, and it’s justified. The recent budget was the fourth regressive budget in a row. Four times, the Government has coldly and deliberately decided to hit the weakest and poorest hardest. This has nothing to do with “austerity”. The “austerity” budgets under Fianna Fáil between 2008 and 2011 were mildly progressive – they hit the better-off harder than the worst-off. But every budget under Fine Gael and Labour (Labour!) has quietly reversed this trend. In last month’s budget, the average combined impact of the tax and welfare measures and of water charges on the lowest income households is to reduce their income by about 1 per cent. For the one-fifth of households with the highest incomes, there is a gain of about 0.5 per cent.

I use the word “quietly” with deliberation. The budget was greeted universally in the media as the end of austerity. There’s a reason for this: the Department of Finance refuses to release with its budget documents a distributional analysis of how all the combined measures will affect different income groups. This is a deliberate political policy. One of the clearest promises made in the Programme for Government was that “We will open up the budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny”. The Government may really have intended to do this – until it realised that opening the budgetary process would have revealed how decisions were being slanted against the poorest households. Better to keep it quiet and let a few eggheads do the sums afterwards.

But if you’re in a poor household, you’re going to feel that you’re living in a lie. You will hear commentators on the radio and TV saying repeatedly that poor people don’t pay tax – in fact, because of VAT (a regressive tax increased in recent budgets) the bottom 10 per cent of households pay almost the same percentage of their incomes in tax (28 per cent) as the top 10 per cent (29 per cent). (SeeTotal Direct and Indirect Tax Contributions of Households in Ireland – Nevin Economic Research Institute)

You’ll also hear that the last budget was the end of austerity – but it wasn’t for you. Your income is still being reduced by Government decisions right now. And of course a 1 per cent cut in the income of someone on the breadline has a vastly bigger impact on day-to-day life than on someone who’s comfortable. For those who matter least, money matters most.

Such people are quite right to feel that they live in a political world whose “reality” excludes them. This “reality” is a rhetoric of shared sacrifice that masks a deliberate programme of increasing the gaps between rich and poor. It is massive consultancy fees paid out by Irish Water and justified by Phil Hogan with the inanity that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. It is bonuses for those who “require improvement”. It is being preached to about how we must all stop thinking of ourselves as citizens and start thinking of ourselves as customers – except, of course, when we expect actual customer services like someone to answer the phone when we call.

And if you create a political world in which many citizens are right to feel these things, the State slowly ceases to be able to function. This is what we’re seeing with the Irish Water debacle. There is nothing wrong in itself in having a single national utility to invest in a dilapidated water system. What’s wrong is that the State can’t articulate with any conviction the idea that a project like this (or any other) is being done fairly, openly, democratically and in the public interest. And in this Irish Water is a warning – a democracy that hollows out a sense of genuine common purpose slowly moves towards ungovernability. Too many people don’t believe that the State has their interests at heart. They don’t see the give-and-take of citizenship because they have experienced too much take and too little give.

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