Protests in Dublin. Photos via the Dublin Says No Facebook group.
After years of passivity in the face of austerity, anger in Ireland has finally spilled over into public protest because people are going to have to start paying for their water.
Yes, Ireland is set to become one of the few countries in the world with mandatory water meters. This means its residents will be paying more than most Europeans do for water, whereas before it was paid for by taxes. It wouldn't be quite so outrageous, people say, if Ireland's water didn't routinely fail testing by the country’s environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In some places, the water is so unsafe that drinking it will see you expelling it out of one of your orifices at high velocity for days. So people aren't too keen to pay for the privilege. Demonstrations are being attended by crowds who park their cars and bikes in front of proposed sites for water meters, and the police have been guarding workers who are installing the hated things.
But it’s not just the meters that are pissing the Irish off—it’s the deluge of shit that came beforehand. “These charges are the straw that broke the camel’s back," says Derek Byrne from the Dublin Says No protest group. "We’ve just had all the austerity we can take. The government is pushing us into action.”
The charges—which will average out to an annual charge of €278 ($355) for a family of four—were a condition of the EU-IMF bailout to Ireland in 2010. The austerity measures that were imposed resulted in muted protests, but the water charges seem to have inflamed people's anger throughout the country.
Police guard workers from protesters as they install water meters
“We brought the metering to a standstill in Dublin, and people are out fighting," says Byrne. "The management of Irish Water is a joke. There’s a huge distrust of politics, so we’ve made sure our group is not politically led. I didn’t start protesting until a year ago, and there are lots of people like me who’ve just had enough." Sadly, Byrne had an injunction put against him, so he can't attend any of the protests himself. "That's how they treat us here," he says.
He feels the police tactics are heavy-handed and unnecessary. “The Gardaí [police] are now out in full force at the protests. They’re forcing meters on residents and attacking protesters. They’re also using Gardaí from other jurisdictions so Gardaí won’t side with their neighbors. It’s cynical tactics."
The company in charge of managing Ireland’s water supply—Irish Water—is hugely unpopular, for good reason. While Irish people have put up with increased taxation, sinking salaries, and rising rent, stories abounded of Irish Water consultants' huge salaries and mismanagement.
The contract to provide the expensive and mandatory process of metering was given to a company called Siteserv, despite Siemens offering to do the job for free. Everyone found this pretty baffling. Siteserv is owned by Irish media mogul Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s third-richest man. He has a history of dodgy dealings—a tribunal found "beyond doubt" that he had made payments to a former communications minister, who then influenced the bidding process for mobile phone licenses that O’Brien’s company, Esat Digifone, then purchased. So he's also pretty unpopular, and the assumption is that the meters will further enrich him.
Despite phrases like "new economic growth" being thrown around, a lot of Irish people feel left behind by improvements to the economy. The country seems to be returning to the greedy days of the Celtic Tiger—the local name for the pre-crash boom—with newspapers dedicating huge spreads to real estate and smug analysts saying we all "did the right thing" by bailing out our toxic banks.
The question is, if we’re all rich again, why are people taking time off work to protest water charges?
The "What’s Left" tracker carried out by the Irish League of Credit Unions found that 1.8 million people in Ireland—close to half the population—have less than €100 ($127) left every month after paying their bills. Most people are utterly disconnected from those newspaper real estate supplements. By trying to heap yet another bill on struggling families, Irish Water has hit a nerve.
A protester tussles with the police
More than 14 percent of Irish drinking water fails to meet safety standards. Irish water has a high level of trihalomethanes—carcinogens that are byproducts of chlorination. In Eastern Europe they're banned. In Ireland? They are ignored. Irish drinking water also includes cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea. Bacteria like E. coli can be found in Irish water, which means there's fecal matter in the supply. That can cause gastroenteritis and kidney failure.
Many Irish people have to boil their water before they drink it so it doesn't make them ill. For those, Irish Water has promised a whopping 50 percent discount for the first three months, which obviously hasn't done much to silence the outrage.
Oh, and almost half of water in Ireland is wasted in transit as it leaks out of pipes.
For Byrne and those like him, having to pay for this dreadful service has finally catalyzed into action. Years of joblessness and low salaries have exhausted the nerves of those who decided not to emigrate. Something had to give, and it seems like the crappy water summed up the shit the Irish have had to swallow over the last few years.
Follow Norma Costello on Twitter.