“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” So said the 2005 film V for Vendetta. Right now Enda Kenny should be very afraid of his people.
When the Fine Gail/Labour coalition came to power they faced an onerous task. The banks were bust, the economy was in ribbons and some tough decisions had to be made in order to clear up the mess left by the previous Fianna Fáil administration. The electorate knew this and left them to get on with the job.
To be fair, the Government made a pretty good job of it for a while. Yes, austerity hurt, but sacrifices had to be made and the people uncomplainingly acquiesced. Wages were cut and taxes raised. As a result things slowly seemed to be getting better.
And then came Irish Water.
Whatever any one person might think about the merits of water metering, the state of the infrastructure and the necessity of paying for its refurbishment, the roll-out of Irish Water was a farce on the grandest scale. It provides the ultimate textbook working model on how not to go about setting up such an institution.
The NAMA sale of Siteserve, a bankrupt company with debts of €100m, to Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s richest man, was the first of a long litany of controversies. That €100m was immediately written off and the debt foisted on to the taxpayer. A few months later Siteserve was awarded, by the Government, the very lucrative contract to install the new water meters.
Shortly after this every household in the country was sent an ‘Information pack’ inviting them, with a deadline, to apply for metering. This without any indication whatsoever at the time of how much they were agreeing to be charged for the service.
PPS numbers were demanded, not just for the principal occupier, but for every man, woman and child in the house. Bank details and email addresses were also requested.
The arrogance of the Government and Irish Water was breathtaking. What right had they to expect people to sign a legally binding contract for water without even being told how much it was going to cost? And to then demand their personal details and PPS numbers to keep on file into the bargain? Who in their right mind would ever agree to such a thing?
Unsurprisingly the people were outraged and took to the streets in protest. Some marched; others blocked the installation of the meters themselves. Many filmed themselves doing so.
Joan Burton, in a further show of Government arrogance, subsequently complained in the Dáil that if people could afford expensive mobile phones to film with then they could certainly afford water charges. Who pays for your phone Joan? Answer: the taxpayer.
The people have continued to march and plan to march again.
All of this means that the country is rapidly becoming ungovernable. A government rules by the consent of the people and the people are withdrawing that consent.
Enda Kenny says that the only alternative to water charges is to raise income tax on the upper four per cent. What is so very wrong with that?
The poor and lower income earners of Ireland have borne the brunt of austerity for years. Cuts in incomes and Social Welfare have been mirrored by increased taxation. A little trimmed off here, a little taken from there. They have given up to the point where they have nothing left to give. Meanwhile the rich have escaped and become progressively richer at their expense.
If this Government is to survive it must win back the trust and confidence of its people. To do this it must first admit it has made mistakes and then redress them. An admission might be humiliating, but it will be telling no-one anything that they don’t already know. It is their only course of action.
And it is to be hoped that they succeed.
Never in the history of the Irish State has the electorate been so divided. If an election were to be held tomorrow many Irish voters may decide not to vote at all or lend their support to non-party candidates.
Voters have always had notoriously short political memories, but even they are not yet ready to forgive Fianna Fáil. Labour has all but disappeared off the bottom of the opinion polls and the various socialist parties never seem able to pull together in a coherent way. Green is gone; if anyone even remembers them.
The rising star in the Irish political firmament is now Sinn Fein; despite all the controversy regarding alleged IRA killings and the moving of sex offenders south of the border. Ordinarily it would be more than reasonable to expect these allegations to damage the party; but this does not seem to be the case now. Could it be that the people are so desperate for a party to vote for that they are prepared to overlook these transgressions?
In any case, for all its political posturing Sinn Fein has no experience of government at national level and experience is what is needed now.
Much the same can be said about the only other option: Independents. While there are many laudable and honourable such politicians out there, and I for one would be tempted to vote for some of them, a rainbow coalition of Independent TDs is not what a strong government is about.
Ireland needs a strong government, now as much as ever. Fine Gael can still be that government but it is absolutely essential that it gets back on track and becomes a government for the people; not against the people.