Civil unrest and demonstrations have sprung up across Ireland this year as a result of the government’s newly imposed “water charge” on household water use.
New “Water Charge” Imposed As Part of Ireland’s Ongoing Austerity Measures.
In October of last year, the Irish government announced plans to levy a new fee for household water use. The government commissioned “Irish Water,” a state owned utility service, to implement the new usage-based water fees. The fee is among a number of recent austerity measures. Other examples include implementing new taxes, increasing existing taxes, downsizing the government workforce, and withdrawing government employment benefits. These measures were taken in an effort to repay the debt Ireland assumed during the 2010 International Financial Bailout. The austerity measures have had a successful impact on the economic recovery in Ireland, whose national economy is now the fastest growing in Europe. The Irish people have largely accepted the financial burden of the recovery effort, but it seems that the new water fee has put them at wits-end.
Proponents Tout the New Measure as Necessary to Fund Critical Improvements
The current coalition government, led by the Fine Gael and Labour parties, initiated the measures. They argue that the new charge is an essential means of funding the national effort to rebuild infrastructure for delivering drinking water. The existing infrastructure has long been in disrepair, and currently leaks nearly half the water intended for delivery. In addition, many out-of-date water treatment facilities are unable to remove harmful bacteria from the drinking water. In several areas of the country the municipal water is undrinkable, and requires boiling prior to drinking. Many Irish citizens are infuriated with the prospect of paying an additional fee for already sub-standard water.
Public Response To The New Charge Has Been Resoundingly Negative.
Approximately one-third of the households in Ireland have simply refused to pay the charge, or participate in the program voluntarily. The government has attempted to remedy the widespread refusals to participate in the program by offering a monetary incentive equivalent to about 100 U.S. dollars for households who register on time. The due date for registration has been extended three times since initially scheduled, which serves to illustrate the lack of public acceptance as well as the level of government desperation to implement the program. On numerous occasions throughout the country, utility workers installing the program’s new water meters have been forced to flee under threats of violence from disgruntled area residents.
Recent protests throughout the country embody the public frustration with the new measure. Some events have garnered attendance of more than 100,000. Photos of protests depict the opponents wielding colorful signs with messages like “Ireland Will Topple These Traitors,” “Water = Life, Not Profit!” and “Irish Water Can Flush Off,” among others. The protests have gained a substantial social media presence as well, with an estimated 22,700 recordings of the protests appearing on YouTube alone. Among those attending the protest was Éamonn Campbell, guitarist for the Irish-Folk giant The Dubliners. He told the press: “these taxes that have been forced by the greedy… and paid for on the backs of the needy.” This sentiment is common among protestors–that lower income households are the hardest hit by the newly imposed charge. The charge amounts to the equivalent of roughly 500 U.S. dollars a year, an amount increasingly difficult for those already struggling to make ends meet under the harsh economic conditions facing much of Ireland’s population. Opponents also argue that charging additional fees for water use is effectively a double tax, because the existing income tax covers municipal water.
The Opposition Includes More Than Just Angry Protestors
A number of activist groups have organized specifically for the purpose of opposing the tax. These include groups with names like “Right2Water,” “Forgotten Farmers,” the National Reform Movement, and “People Before Profit”. Among the opposition are leftist political groups, namely the Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party.
Vocal Opposition To The New Charge Has Proven A Smart Political Move.
Another vocal opponent of the water charge is Sinn Fein – a prominent political party with origins as the political offspring of the Irish Revolutionary Army. This issue has had political impacts as well. In 2015, Sinn Fein rose to twenty percent in the polls, twice the number of votes the party received in 2012. The growing political support for parties whose platforms include opposition to the measure has not gone unnoticed by the current government. The growing political threat posed by opponents of the measure could influence the outcome of elections in Ireland next year. The threat of losing political support over the unpopular measure is an added incentive for the current government to modify or even scrap the program in order to maintain its political support amongst the people of Ireland.
While public opposition to the newly imposed water charge shows no signs of lessening, the government is left scrambling to turn public perception of the new measure.
The title image features an original well in Northern Ireland “free to every one.” This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license to Kenneth Allen who does not endorse this blog.
Suzanne Daley, A New Irish Rebellion, This Time Against Water Fees, N.Y. Times, (Mar. 27, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/27/world/europe/many-in-ireland-vow-not-to-pay-a-new-water-tax.html?_r=0.
Harry McGee, Water Protests First to Go Viral on Social Media, Irish Times, (Mar. 2, 2015), http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/water-protests-first-to-go-viral-on-irish-social-media-1.2122292.
Jason Douglas, Irish Protest Government Plan to Charge Households for Water, Wall St. J., (Dec. 11, 2014), http://www.wsj.com/articles/irish-protest-government-plan-to-charge-households-for-water-1418234984.
Tracy Connor, Water Unleashes a Rebellion in Relentlessly Rainy Ireland, NBC News, (Nov. 15, 2014), http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/water-unleashes-rebellion-relentlessly-rainy-ireland-n247551.
Diarmaid Fleming, Anger at Irish water charges reaches boiling point, BBC News, (Oct. 1, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29426733.