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Is it Stalingrad for Irish Water?


Is it Stalingrad for Irish Water? – Dave Carr opines about how the Irish Government as unsuccessfully lobbied the majority for support

There comes a time in any conflict, a Stalingrad or a Gettysburg when historians look back and say “that was the point it all ended”. Yes of course there were battles ahead; wars can, after all, drag on for years long after the losing side knows it can never hope to win, but in hindsight we can look back and safely say that once past that pivotal point it was downhill all the way. After that the story becomes that of an embattled leadership, behind lines or holed up in the bunker staring at defeat but praying for a miracle (time, a secret weapon…). Once that point is past every life lost is a needless waste.

That time may well have come for Irish Water. In the space of a few short summer weeks it was dealt a double blow and hit the canvas twice. The first knock was the revelation that most people had not bought into the charge with only 43% coughing up. The follow through came when Eurostat gave a gigantic thumbs down to the whole affair. We’ve now reached that point of the fight after the knockdown and the count has begun, when the victor stands over his levelled opponent, geared up and dancing from foot to foot, waiting in case his rival is foolish enough to take to his feet.

That first blow, non payment, is the killer blow. The fact is that 57% of people have not paid their water charge. We could grumble about this figure (and there are reasons to believe the true number could be even higher), but to do so would be to get sidelined. The fact is a switch has occurred, what had been thought of as a minority, a hardcore of “I- won’t- payers”, turns out to be the majority and vice versa. The world has flipped over, what was up is down, what was down is up.

Being part of a larger group changes everything. Majorities are the winners and everyone loves a winner. Minorities are losers, after all if they weren’t there’d be more of them and then they’d be the majority.  The Majority are ‘the people’ the minority are ‘those people’ or ‘you people ‘as in “the problem with you people is….”. Power is always creating minorities and then appealing over their heads to ‘the people’.

More than anything majorities need to be addressed, while the few can forever be held up before the many with the exhortation “what are we to do with these people?” the greater part of the public must always be respected. This very effort to address this majority, to keep them on board and then portray all opposition as a rump of malcontents is what may have proved Irish waters undoing.

Back in the autumn when faced with mass rallies on the streets the political establishment, reeling from shock, realised it had to change tack. It had assumed the public, that camel whose back could never be broken, would in its own weary Irish way, suck it up. They had after all endured years of austerity and for the most part rolled over, why should it have been any different this time? But different it was and the government found itself squaring up to its very worst fear, a majority. Tactics changed, a new softly softly “we- feel –your- pain” tone was adopted, massive reductions introduced and people were thrown an “if- you’re- not- in- you- can’t –win” €100 cash back offer.

What really mattered was turning protest, through a sort of political abracadabra, back into ‘those people’. Once it was confident this had been achieved, and the greater bulk of the public were bought off and now on side, the nice guy approach was dropped and the stick reappeared. Protesters were demonised or dismissed as free loaders, those people who just don’t want to pay for anything.  There followed the whole brouhaha that was the “Joanie at Jobstown affair”, high profile arrests and even jailings. The government parties could now sleep on again, free to sell on a vision of an Ireland in recovery.

In the long run, it was this “keep- them- on- board” giveaway that may well have unravelled the whole show. Right at its core, the Eurostat test decides if a publically owned company is independent of the state and capable of standing on its own two feet and it found that Irish water wasn’t even at the crawling stage yet.  It seemed that thanks to its crowd pleasing bribery and shenanigans never have so few, paid so little, for something they didn’t want in the first place. To add salt to the wounds amongst its unending ticking offs Eurostat questioned a conservation grant that didn’t seem to conserve anything, except perhaps the government’s grip on power.

Right now the ruling coalition look like rabbit caught in the headlights. They’ve tried everything. Good cop, bad cop, slander and slagging off as well as the usual tactic of ignore them and they might just go away. What to do when you’ve used up your full bag of tricks and they’re still coming at you?  Dig, appears to be the answer. And so we have a possible change in policy aired in the morning being dropped by the afternoon, future prosecution leaked to the media and the sense of a general head in the sand panic. Yet the whole slow motion car wreck trundles on.

The ruling parties need Irish Water like a drowning man needs a heavy rock. After all there’s an election in the offing, a narrative to be sold, a sales pitch story of a recovering economy and good times ahead. The whole water thing is just getting in the way. The thought of knocking on doors when people aren’t buying can’t be fun, but they’re in a bind, to let go would be political suicide, but keep hanging on in and they risk getting dragged ever further down.

The longer this dispute has dragged on the more questions are been asked, and more and more those questions are been asked not by the few, but by the many. So when a great many people march and then find their protest is ignored and misrepresented in the national media then a  great fat slice of the public are left asking, what else is been ignored and misrepresented? If policing of the anti water meter protests is perceived as heavy handed and skewed  towards private interests rather than the public good, then that same public are that bit less likely to ignore ever growing tales of Garda malpractice and corruption.

This very questioning has rippled ever outward to take in the homeless crises, the legal establishment, the health service and everything in between. There is a contagion at work here, a joining of the dots. What started as one thing is starting to take in the many. It’s this growing lack of trust in the institutions of power that should be of most worry to those upstairs. Easy to dismiss when only a few were moaning down below, but when that noise keeps getting louder….


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