Dublin: The sight of 120,000 people on the streets of Ireland on a wet, winter-like day on Saturday reinforced the message that water charges is the critical issue facing the Irish government today.
With more rallies planned it remains to be seen if the government can defuse an issue that has exploded onto the front pages. That remains a massive question.
I was in Dublin the week before the massive protest, and rarely have I heard such agreement that the government could even fall on this issue.
Water charges appear to be the final straw for hundreds of thousands of people barely able to make ends meet after the Celtic Tiger collapse which has seen hefty new taxes levied on the population in order to help bail out the banks.
Now the banks seem back in business and thriving, housing prices are peaking once again, but the taxpayers, especially in the lower income brackets, are incensed that their lot has only gotten worse.
Enter the water charges, a few hundred dollars a year for most homes but the proverbial last straw for people taxed from pillar to post.
It reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s now infamous poll tax, which was the final straw in getting her kicked out of office in 1990. Then, as now with Irish water rates, it appeared to the general public that the less well off in Britain were being targeted the way water rates appear to fall more heavily on the working classes in Ireland.
The extraordinary anger in Ireland is very revealing. I had several people warn me that the protests could spill over into violence if the charges are not revoked.
We wondered during the height of the recession why the Irish seemed such model citizens while crowds in Spain and Portugal rioted.
It seems to be a product of all hands on deck and the government setting a good example of how to inch out of financial crisis.
Until Irish Water. The company was set up and immediately blew up any consensus.
Right from the beginning Irish Water showed lamentable public relations skills, explaining why Irish people needed to pay for a product that is more plentiful in Ireland than in almost any country on earth.
Irish Water management came across as aloof, arrogant and uncaring, determined to install water meters in every home and demand payment as soon as possible,
The fact that Dublin desperately needs a new water supply, that major infrastructure work must be done by removing ancient pipes, etc., was totally lost in the harsh messaging which essentially came across as “pay up or else.”
Well, it seems the Irish population has decided to go with “or else.”
So transparent is the anger that Sinn Fein, caught up in an IRA rape allegation that has burned the headlines for weeks, finds itself as Ireland’s most popular political party this week in the latest Sunday Independent opinion poll.
The passions this issue has raised have to be seen to be believed. To outsiders it may seem inexplicable as the amounts owed are not huge and almost every country pays for its water supply.
But like Thatcher’s poll tax, the issue ignited a long smoldering fuse of resentment against those who glided through the bad times and now appear to be thriving again.
Whether that anger can be defused may dictate whether this Irish government goes the distance or is turfed out of office.