The water charges revolt here has now turned into a kind of mass hysteria.Photocall

The water charges revolt here – with tens of thousands of people protesting on the streets all over the country again last weekend – has now turned into a kind of mass hysteria.

Water has become such an emotive issue that normally quiet and well behaved people have turned into slogan-shouting protest marchers. The open revolt is so widespread it has developed a scale and momentum that is probably unstoppable at this stage.

It's a nightmare for the government. Having exited the bailout, getting the deficit down far enough to meet the three percent target next year and showing signs of recovery in the economy and even the property market, the government might have expected some payback in popularity. Instead the country is in turmoil and the popularity and credibility of the government parties are sinking like a stone.

They've even fallen behind Sinn Fein in the latest opinion poll. And all because of the single issue of introducing water charges.

The new utility company, Irish Water, has to be the most hated state entity ever created here. Over 90 cities and towns across Ireland had protest marches on Saturday, with around 150,000 people taking part. Respectable, middle-aged, middle-class people, the kind who uphold the law, pay their taxes and always act as compliant citizens, were out in force.

There were young singles, couples and families, old folk and toddlers. It was a cross section of Irish society, not just a minority protest by radicals and long term welfare recipients who never want to pay for anything.

This was middle Ireland in revolt, fiercely determined and openly angry, their voices shaking with outrage as they were interviewed on the TV news. "We've paid enough with the new property tax," one elderly woman said. "We've no more to give. Enough is enough."

The banners behind her carried messages like: "We Won't Pay,” "Enda Kenny, Not a Penny" and "Water Is a Human Right."

One left wing member of the Dail (Parliament), Clare Daly, explained what is happening by saying that the people were "up off their knees" at last. After more than five years of austerity, she said, the Irish people are not taking anymore. The attempt to introduce water charges is the straw that has broken the camel's back.

The same cliché about the poor old camel with the broken back was parroted again and again by protest marchers around the country who talked to reporters. It may be a cliché, but it sums up what so many people feel.

With a general election looming early in 2016, the government now has a major problem. The water issue has the potential to completely blow their chances of re-election.

They are trying to come up with a solution but ministers don't seem to know what to do. The more they try to lessen the impact of the new water charge, the more determined a very large section of the public is not to pay anything.

Irish Water and the government only have themselves to blame because this has been a fiasco from the very start. We were told initially that the average annual cost would be around €280 per household, if the free allowance for each home and each child under the age of 18 was claimed by registering with Irish Water.

Then it turned out that the cost to a house like mine where there are three adult children (all college students) could be anywhere from €600 to €800, depending on how many showers they take.

And it also emerged that registering was far from simple. It meant filling out a 20-page form supplying a lot of personal information, including PPS numbers (the confidential state ID number that everyone here has).

Big Brother had arrived, with threats of no basic allowances and therefore, much higher bills for anyone who did not comply. On top of that was the suspicion that Irish Water would quickly be privatized, probably leading to even higher bills in the future.

The whole mess caused widespread resentment, which snowballed in recent weeks into the flood of protests we have now seen nationwide. And the government is panicking, trying to get control of the situation.

They cannot believe that even though they marginally cut taxes in the recent budget – the first cut in years – and they have promised more tax cuts in the next few years, this has been forgotten already in the anger over water charges.

They are now desperately trying to find a way out of the mess. In the budget a few weeks back they announced some tax relief for water charges for those in work and an extra payment for those on welfare to help meet water bills.

This now seems likely to be extended so that every household in the country will have at least €100 taken off their water bill. There is also talk that the free allowance for children under 18 will be extended to 18 or 19-year-olds or even all children in college or all adult children who are living at home but unemployed.

Another move could be to change the system to a flat charge at a low level for a couple of years, instead of payment based on the amount of water used. The aim would be to get people used to the idea of paying for water, without squeezing them too much.

It would also give enough time to get every home in the country metered. Despite the rollout, a lot of houses still don't have meters so a flat charge for a couple of years could be justified on the basis that everyone should be treated equally.

A huge problem for the government is the refusal of so many people to register with Irish Water, despite this being necessary to get the free allowances. With around half the homes in the country failing to register by the deadline of the end of October, that has now been pushed out to the end of this month. But there is no indication that this will encourage more people to sign up.

The reality is that Irish Water is now so toxic that many people just want to see it scrapped. As outlined here recently, the revelations about the costs of setting up the new utility, its huge spending on consultants, the expensive offices, the bonus payments for staff and so on, have made it an object of public ridicule and even hate.

The public are seething with anger because all this money is being spent before a single leaking pipe is fixed – and 40 percent of all treated water here is lost though our antiquated system before it ever gets to a tap.

Government moves to improve the utility's image by appointing a new board and calling in executives to explain their poor performance are unlikely to make any difference. At this stage, the survival of Irish Water has to be in doubt.

But there are two major problems with dumping the new utility. Firstly, vast amounts of money have already been spent setting it up and metering houses.

Secondly, if that did happen the massive investment needed in our water system would be back on the Government's books, instead of being "off balance sheet,” and that would seriously mess up the state's finances.

A further difficulty is that introducing water charges was one of the conditions of our bailout from the EU/IMF, and Europe in particular would view any change to this as a very serious matter. Charging separately for water is EU policy, for conservation and other reasons.

Ireland is completely out of step on this because countries across Europe – and the U.S. and elsewhere – all pay separately for water.

The government has explained this, but not very convincingly. It has explained that a separate utility which charges for water will be able to borrow the billions needed on the markets without impacting the state's finances, and that charging for water is the norm everywhere else.

The weakness in the government's argument is that people here believe they are already paying for water through general taxation. When water rates were abolished in Ireland in the late 1970s (an election gimmick), it was accompanied by increases in VAT (sales) taxes, motor taxes and other taxes. The costs for the 30-plus local councils whose staff provided water services were transferred from local taxation to general state tax revenue and that has continued ever since.

The idea that we have not been paying for water up to now is ludicrous. Who has been paying the water engineers and maintenance staff in the local councils? The money has been coming from central state funds, and that comes from general taxation.

The real problem is that not enough money was coming back from central funds to local councils to be spent specifically on upgrading our water services. Instead the money was spent on motorways, welfare giveaways, big increases for everyone on the state payroll and the many other ways governments can waste money.

This failure to spend on updating water services has gone on for at least the last 50 years. And the result is that we now have a water system that needs huge investment, running into billions.

It's a conundrum for the government. In the past few days their panic is visible in new statements about reducing charges to much lower levels, about providing certainty and clarity on bills, and about reforming Irish Water to make it much more responsive to the views of the public.

They promise a new approach will be announced within a couple of weeks. Whether it will be enough to end the open revolt remains to be seen.