The Irish water protest outside Government Buildings in Dublin last week.Photocall

Christmas is coming -- but there's not much Christmas cheer here.

There's a distinctly muted air to the preparations for the big day this year, a sense that people are just going through the motions rather than really celebrating. There's too much to worry about, you see.

Of course Christmas FM is on the radio as usual, the charity station that plays Christmas music around the clock at this time every year in the Dublin area. So every hour we have Mariah Carey warbling “All I Want for Christmas” and Chris Rea still on the road “Driving Home for Christmas.”

The Christmas lights are up and the carol singers are in front of the GPO. Henry Street and Grafton Street are full of shoppers.

But there's no real frenzy, no outpouring of joy, no mistletoe and wine feeling. We're just not in the mood, given the year we've had.

We're told that unemployment is steadily going down, and it is, from almost 15 percent after the crash to under 11 percent now. We're told that the recovery is genuinely underway and that we're now the fastest growing economy in Europe -- growth here was an impressive 4.9 percent this year. And that is true.

The problem is that we don't really feel any better.

That feeling of dissatisfaction is widespread. It's true that the budget this year was largely neutral, the first budget in ages that did not impose yet more taxation and spending cuts.

But the cumulative effect of the last six or seven years of cutbacks and tax hikes is still very much with us. Despite the slight easing of the income tax burden this year, we're all somewhere between 10 and

20 percent worse off than we were back in 2008.

That's due to the hated Universal

Social Charge (an additional new income tax), the new property tax and other new charges, with the new water charge coming next year to add to the pressure people are feeling. It's no wonder the national mood is so grumpy.

Apart from the money in our pocket, a major worry for people here at the moment is the feeling that no one is in charge. The government may be in power but it no longer seems to be in control.

Despite the "best small country in the world to do business in" rhetoric, it's drifting. It's reactive rather than proactive, giving out a sense of confusion and weakness at a time when we need strong leadership.

The government can point to the fact that we are now out of the bailout. They can claim, as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny did last week in the Dail (Parliament) during a confidence debate on his leadership, that they rescued the country from the brink of an economic collapse which could have seen the banks run out of money and state workers like

police and teachers being unpaid.

And there is some truth in that, although part of the credit has to go to the policies started by the late Brian Lenihan, the Fianna Fail finance minister, policies which have been continued by the present government.

There is a general awareness here, however, that the government deserves a lot of credit for the recovery now underway, particularly since it meant sacrificing its own popularity by following an austerity agenda designed to get the state finances under control again. But it is how this austerity program of tax hikes and spending cutbacks is now being perceived that has landed the government in so much trouble.

The general perception now is that the austerity program has been applied in a way that is deeply unfair to the average person. It has taken some time for this perception to crystallize and gather strength. It's only now, seven years into the program of tax increases and state spending cuts, that it has surfaced.

And that is down to the explosion of public anger over the government's latest form of extra taxation, the decision to start charging for water, which turned out to be a final step too far. As many people here have said, it was the straw that finally broke the camel's back.

This is quite a change. In recent years commentators frequently referred to the fact that the Irish people had quietly accepted the cutbacks that had been imposed on them, in contrast to countries like Spain and particularly Greece where there were huge demonstrations and even riots on the streets over austerity measures.

But the mood here has now shifted and people are beginning to vent all that pent up frustration and anger. And it's not just the people who have been out on the streets taking part in the marches against water charges in recent weeks.

The polls show that there is a large silent majority in the background who are also unhappy with the government even if they don't appear on the streets. The sense of unfairness that is driving all this begins with the decision to bail out the banks and their bondholders and dump the cost on ordinary people here.

People are conscious of the massive debt we shouldered in doing that, and they are also aware that we were forced to do so by the European Union, which was afraid that if Irish banks failed there could be a banking collapse across Europe.

So almost all the bondholders and foreign banks who had taken a gamble by investing in the Irish banks during the boom got all their money back.

Paying all this back and refinancing our banks almost bankrupted the country and led to us having to take a bailout from the EU/IMF. The interest bill on the €67.5 billion bailout is now costing us billions every year, money that is being vacuumed out of the country and out of the pockets of ordinary taxpayers here.

This is going in despite the fact that the ordinary taxpayer had nothing to do with these debts. And it is going on despite the fact that EU policy has now shifted so that in future massive banking debts in a country will not be socialized (transferred to the citizens) via a bailout.

Yet we are being told this cannot apply retrospectively to Ireland. There is deep resentment over all this here, something that the government parties have seriously underestimated.

People here know that a big chunk of the heavy taxes they are paying now is going to repay the bailout. All the talk of turning the corner to recovery is well and good, but it does little to assuage the anger that most people here feel, particularly since the squeeze is continuing and the very slight tax reductions that are on the way are being negated by new charges.

Disillusionment with the government does not end there, however. This government took office promising a new kind of politics which would bring fairness to Irish society, get rid of what Americans call pork barrel politics and tackle all the interest groups (like the medical and legal professions) that have managed to insulate themselves from the effects of austerity.

But little or nothing has changed.

The new kind of politics turned out to be the old kind of politics.

Things have continued much as before, with a whole privileged section of Irish society (including many on the state payroll) carrying on as they always have.

There have been lots of cuts in state services for ordinary people, but almost all the government organizations and quangos that we were supposed to get rid of are still there, with their multi-layered staffs on big salaries and pension plans.

At certain levels in Irish society, particularly in the public sector, there is only mild discomfort caused by the austerity program.

In contrast, those in the private sector, the real economy of companies and businesses fighting for survival, have had to take pay cuts and watch the value of their pensions plunge.

The government avoids any intervention to correct this situation because it is afraid of the unions, the state sector being the only part of the economy here now where the unions maintain a stranglehold.

The so-called left wing liberals try to justify the fact that on average people on the state payroll are now earning around 40 percent more than people in companies and businesses here. We can't have a race to the bottom, they say!

The mess that is government policy on water charges kind of sums up the whole problem. There are very good reasons why we should have a new utility to run water services here, as we have said in this column already.

But the government made a complete mess of setting up the new utility which immediately began to behave like other highly expensive state organizations, with lavish offices, big salaries and golden pensions -- and of course a call center to protect them from the public.

To get the unions on side, the state guaranteed that the thousands of workers who have always provided water services through local councils would keep their jobs for the next ten years at least.

So the promised efficiencies cannot be achieved and duplication will continue. As open revolt against water charges spread across the country and tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets in protest, the government began to run scared, announcing capped bills and a state grant to people who register to help them pay.

What we are left with now is an unmitigated disaster. Capping water bills means that the water meters being put outside every home in the country are now unnecessary.

Giving back money to people for the next few years to help them pay the reduced bill undermines the finances of the entire project. It is now estimated that the costs involved in setting up Irish Water, putting in meters, and giving a water grant to people who register will mean that it will be up to 10 years before there is any money left over to start fixing the leaking pipes and the sewage plants.

Which of course was the point of the whole project! You could not make this stuff up.

For many people it's a symbol of everything that is wrong here. It shows gross incompetence, weakness and confusion.

Since "only" 30,000 people marched in last week's water protest in Dublin instead of the 100,000 or so who were out a few weeks earlier, the government is hoping that the worst is over and they can claw back their reputation in the

New Year. It might just be possible if they smarten up their act, because the alternative is so appalling.

But the problems are much deeper than water.