A deal between the two main right-wing parties on water charges in the 26 Counties has reignited the controversy, despite claims that the charges have been scrapped “for most people”.
After a series of dramatic u-turns on the issue over the past six years, Fianna Fail made another astonishing switchback at the last minute to back plans by the Fine Gael minority government to once again charge for “excess use” .
The move came despite another giant protest in Dublin last weekend over reports of plans to introduce water charges by the “back door”.
In one of the world’s rainiest countries, the scheme to charge householders for water supply was originally introduced as a means of funding the financially disastrous bank bailout of 2008. Since then, scores of protests have brought up to a hundred thousand people out onto the streets at a time, as well as direct action campaigns aimed at stopping the installation of the hated water meters.
The plan seemed to have been finally dropped following last year’s election setback for Fine Gael, but a parliamentary committee on water charges this week resolved that households would be required to pay for ‘excess use’ of water, and that water meter installation would continue.
In a related development, it was also revealed that staff at Irish Water, the state-run firm which bills for the charges, are to receive bonuses of about five thousand euro each.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said the moves sought to subvert the will of the people.
In heated exchanges in the Dublin parliament, Ms McDonald told Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny: “The people faced you down on water charges. They called a halt to your plans, your privatisation agenda.”
In a sharply worded attack on both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, she said Tuesday’s report confirmed the parties’ agreement to operate a minority government was really a deal for “connivance and cute-hoorism”.
The Taoiseach accused Ms McDonald of “cynical outrage”.
“I come from a part of the world where hundreds of thousands of people welcomed and waited for access to water for a very long time and have always paid for it,” he said.
“You live in a world where when the tap is turned on somebody else has paid for it,” he added, without explanation. “You want everything for nothing”, he added.
Ms McDonald said the Taoiseach should not be worried about her outrage but of that of people who paid their taxes and paid for everything.
“There is nobody is looking for something for nothing,” she said. “What was at issue was who prevailed in a democratic society.”
She said what they had seen “is a text book example of parliament, of the Dail, of elected representatives conniving to abandon their democratic mandate and rather than seeking to represent the people, seeking to face the people down.”
Some 20,000 water charges protesters marched in Dublin on Saturday in what some called the “final push” against the charges. However, it now seems certain that protests and direct action will continue.
Carrying placards and banners with such slogans as “Waterford and South Kilkenny Say No to Water Charges”, “Ballybeg Says No” and “Lough Garman Against Austerity”, two groups marched along the north and south quays, before converging on Parliament Street and walking towards College Green, where speakers then addressed the crowd from a stage.
Unions at the event included Unite, the Communication Workers’ Union, the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union, and Mandate. Members of Sinn Fein, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats, Solidarity, the Communist Party of Ireland, and the Workers’ Party were also in attendance.
One demonstrator, Padraig Connolly, from Connemara, County Galway, said he was on his 10th anti-water charges protest.
“A lot of people didn’t come today because they think it’s done,” he said, prophetically.
“But I don’t trust these politicians, especially Fianna Fail. But if they don’t abolish the charges, well, we’ll be back in our hundreds of thousands.”
“I think this march is part of the last push. The government needs to act now, finish this and stop taking the piss. What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand.”