Water charges: the story trickles on…

Whatever the ongoing Irish Water debacle may yet throw up, it has so far provided some memorable quotes.

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Still not happy, the protest goes on. Photo: Charlie Heasman

Tánaiste Joan Burton was first off the mark when, at the beginning of October, she made her infamous statement in the Dáil condemning protesters who filmed Garda handling of demonstrations on their “expensive phones, tablets and video cameras.”

Given the circumstances it probably ranks as one of the most ill-advised comments ever made by a serving Irish politician, and her opponents fell upon it gleefully. She might not have actually said that if they can afford iphones they can afford to pay for water, but this was the meaning inferred from her words and her tone. It immediately appeared to turn  her into a figure of hate for the anti-water movement.

Since then she has been booed and heckled wherever she goes, with protesters sharing and mobilising through social media in order to keep track of her movements.

The culmination of all this so far was the fracas in Jobstown, Dublin.

Allegations and counter-allegations have been made as to who did what and who was to blame for it, whether it was a peaceful protest or a riot, who should apologise and on what basis to who, but what is not disputed is that Burton was trapped in her ministerial car for two hours by angry demonstrators.

This led to Enda Kenny bitterly complaining in the Dáil that the protesters had “descended on her like hounds after a fox”. One organisation responded immediately.  Sensing an opportunity, The Irish Council Against Blood Sports stated that if Mr Kenny felt that strongly on the subject he should…

… Ban fox hunting.

Meanwhile as far as the demonstrators are concerned it is still open season on politicians.

At the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork, Fine Gael citing “security fears”, pulled out of a planned regional meeting which Mr Kenny was due to attend.  Perhaps in part because Enda himself attended a function in Dublin where he was confronted outside the Mansion House by a group of some 50 protesters.

When asked to comment on their concerns he replied: “Well it’s not about water, is it?”

His response might have been off the cuff but nevertheless it happens to be the most succinct and insightful comment he has made so far. It is not just about water any more; it is about the Irish people saying enough is enough, and a significant portion of them bringing the Government to account.

Unfortunately Enda’s moment of lucidity did not last long. Two days later, appearing on RTE’s Nine News to discuss changes to the water charges, he managed to iterate “The average worker, a single worker on the minimum wage of €35,000 is going to get back €400 in the income tax returns starting in January…”

Once again the mob bayed for blood; the man’s so out of touch with the people he thinks the minimum wage is twice what it actually is. No wonder himself and Joan think that people can afford to own mobile phones and pay water charges.

To be fair to Enda, it was probably simply a slip of the tongue, which is something we are all occasionally prone to. The difference is that when we suffer one it is invariably either ignored or immediately forgotten; a politician, and a Taoiseach at that, must always be on his guard or regret it. Like Joan Burton’s faux pas earlier, this one did him no favours.

Meanwhile the Government has been forced into a massive climb-down. PPS numbers are gone, a €100 Water Conservation Grant promised to every household that signs up, rates reduced and capped until 2018. Opposition TDs are accusing the Government of “buying votes for the next election”,  and in a way they are correct in saying so.

But the simple fact is that the Government had no choice. To carry on regardless against the will of the people would have been political suicide at the next election.  For the time being at least the situation has been defused, but there is still a long way to go.

What happens after 2018? Will charges inevitably go up? People still remember the introduction of the Bin Tax: recyclables free and “You only pay for what you throw away.” The service was to be Local Authority run and not to be privatised.

What happened to all those promises then? Can we expect the ones we are getting now to be broken in the same manner in three year’s time?

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