Colliding with water seems harmless – it’s soft and gives way easily. Usually.
Hit it hard enough though and water becomes as tough and unforgiving as concrete.
An estimated 150,000 people protesting on Irish streets this weekend against water charges suggests something similar has happened with the Irish public.
After bearing over six years of austerity cuts, high unemployment, rocketing emigration, and greatly reduced social services with nary a whimper, finally a reaction.
Who would have expected this to happen because of water charges and not the major issues that came before? And why now when recovery seems to be in the air? Just as the Government seemed to have negotiated treacherous waters unparalleled in the history of the state, what started as a low rumble of dissatisfaction transformed slowly but surely into a full-throated roar of dissent.
Poll numbers for both parties in the Coalition make grim reading – translated into seats after the next election, one estimate suggests Labour might have as few as 2 TDs.
Fine Gael’s Mayor of Drogheda, Kevin Callan, has resigned from the party in protest and Fergus O’Dowd, the (former) minister who oversaw the creation of Irish Water, now opposes his own legislation. It may well not be a coincidence that these two men are in the same constituency as the next election approaches, but apart from this tactical jockeying for position, these events suggest the ramifications of hostility to water charges – and being associated with water charges – may be far-reaching. Puns involving rats and sinking ships have already surfaced.
The car crash aspect of the whole affair continues to become clearer with closer examination and raises the question of why such close scrutiny was deemed unnecessary by the government earlier.
Details of the charges have been vague and slow to appear; rumours and paranoia have outpaced fact and rationality, not difficult when the latter have been in such scarce supply.
A scheme premised on investment in Irish water infrastructure has been revealed as planning to spend a huge share of its funds on Irish Water insiders instead – giving birth to an overstaffed, overpaid, overweeningly arrogant Leviathan with its boot on the parched throats of its ‘customers’.
Every effort to counter this impression has been a dismal failure – a comical carrot interspersed with a flaccid stick, sound and fury signifying nothing.
Except perhaps the end of the Government.
The much quoted Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville perhaps sums up this state of affairs in Ireland best; he might have been writing about this very situation, and indeed his words may be the best insight into why such vehement protests are happening now – at the end of the crisis. They will give little comfort to this government:
It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.(Letter to Pierre Freslon, 23 September 1853 Selected Letters, p. 296 as cited in Toqueville's Road Map p. 103)