Note: A version of this article was originally published on 28 February. It’s being reposted this morning, in light of this afternoon’s planned ‘Right2Water’ rally.
BELIEVE IT OR not – it’s just over a year-and-a-half since the TheJournal.ie was publishing articles with headlines like ‘Why don’t the Irish protest more?‘.
Since then, of course, we’ve seen a significant protest movement build-up against the imposition of water charges.
The turn-out for the first mass Right2Water protest in Dublin City Centre surprised many. In the months since then, we’ve had a series of well-attended demos on the same subject.
And despite predictions that numbers would fall back after the Government’s climb-down on water charges in November of last year – turn-out for the last Right2Water rally, back in March, showed there were still significant numbers willing to turn-out to protest.
Another major demo is planned for this afternoon, on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Again, organisers have said they’re expecting tens of thousands of people to turn out.
So how did we get here? What have been the defining events?
We take a look back at some of the key moments in the campaign against water charges since the start of last year – examining what kicked-off the movement, and how it developed…
1. John Tierney speaks…
The water issue had been (if you’ll pardon the expression) bubbling-under ever since the Government came to office.
However, the waste-water really hit the fan at the start of 2014 after CEO of the utility John Tierney said on RTÉ radio that €50 million of its set-up costs had been spent on consultants.
It emerged at an Oireachtas committee meeting the following week that, in fact, just under €86 million was slated to be spent on consultants, contractors and legal advice as part of an overall budget of up to €180 million to establish Irish Water.
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said Environment Minister Phil Hogan had either “deliberately lied” or accidentally given “a gross underestimation” to the Dáil about Irish Water costs.
2. The Cabinet row…
Months of uncertainty over charges followed – with Labour attempting to put clear distance between themselves and Fine Gael on the issue in the run-up to May’s local and European elections.
The Government was accused of treating the public “with absolute contempt” as the Taoiseach told the Dáíl that nothing had been “signed off on” after yet another Cabinet meeting on the issue.
Eventually, on 6 May, Phil Hogan announced in a press conference that the average household would pay €240 per year – and said that those who didn’t pay would be faced with reduced water pressure.
People with disabilities, carers and the elderly would receive an allowance of €100 a year, he said – but details had yet to be finalised.
3. Meter protests…
Against that political backdrop, stories from anti-metering protests – in Dublin and Cork, in particular – began to appear in the news media more frequently.
Gardaí attended an action at an estate in Togher in April after locals refused to allow contractors to install meters in the pavement – and we began to see scenes like this develop for the first time…
From the same week, in the capital – protests organised by ‘Dublin Says No’ and other groups were staged, targeting meter installations in Raheny, Kilbarrack, Edenmore, and surrounding areas.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said he couldn’t understand why people were protesting the metering process “because in fact the water meters are being installed to enable households to reduce what they will have to pay”.
4. First arrest…
On the political front – the local elections came and went, with Labour being dealt a drubbing.
Meanwhile, Trim resident Tony Rochford – who staged a hunger strike outside the Dáíl the previous year – became the first person to be arrested for blocking meter installation.
Rochford had parked his blue Isuzu jeep across a road in the Steeple Manor estate. Protesters on the street had earlier been warned they would be arrested if they didn’t allow workers access.
5. Metering protests grow…
There was an upsurge in the number of protests against meter installations throughout last summer – both in Dublin and elsewhere.
Hundreds of social media groups began to spring up – with activists organising local meetings, and arranging to block off access to streets, as workers arrived.
At an event in Raheny, one man was arrested after protesters confronted the Taoiseach at the opening of a specialist hospital.
In what would be the first of several angry demonstrations protesting the presence of a senior politician, around 20 people shouted ‘traitor’ as scuffles broke-out around Enda Kenny’s car.
6. PPS uncertainty and data issues…
Irish Water, it seemed, couldn’t go a week in 2014 without some sort of controversy cropping up.
The fact that the semi-state planned to asking for PPS numbers had many householders worried last summer.
It was essential, in order to ensure people receive the allowances they are entitled to, the utility’s head of communications insisted.
Independent Catherine Murphy raised the issue in the Dáil as TDs returned after their break, telling the Taoiseach people had “huge concerns about handing over PPS numbers to what is in effect a private company”.
Around the same time, Irish Water had to apologise after sending more than 6,000 letters with incorrect names to customers.
7. October 11th happened
As public opposition to charges in general (and, after their disastrous year, Irish Water in particular) grew throughout the summer – left-wing groups began to get organised, forming the umbrella group ‘Right2Water’.
Their first national ‘day of action‘ in October confounded the expectations of many.
Organisers had initially estimated that around 10,000 people would show up, but figures late on the day put the turnout at at least eight times that.
The same day, former Socialist MEP Paul Murphy – who had run a focused anti-water charges campaign – claimed victory in the Dublin South West by-election, taking Brian Hayes’ old seat.
The Budget was just days away, but it was clear that – unless the Government did something drastic – water was going to dominate the agenda for months to come.
8. Climb-downs and controversies…
Local protests continued throughout October, with the Government’s budget announcement that most people would be entitled to €100 tax relief on their bills appearing to have little or no effect on the national mood.
Amidst the continuing drip-drip of revelations and controversies, nothing encapsulated the communications difficulties at the beleaguered semi-state more than the confusion over whether tenants or landlords would be liable for the charges.
The company said that tenants would have to pay, but in the event of them not registering with Irish Water the landlord would be contacted (more legislation is planned on the issue this year).
Meanwhile, veteran Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said he would be refusing to hand over his PPS number to Irish Water, saying they had given “no reasonable explanation” why he should.
9. November 1st happened
Around 100,000 people turned out for the second mass ‘day of action’ against water charges on 1 November.
Speaking that evening, Enda Kenny defended the charges – saying they had been put in place “as an alternative to increasing income tax”.
The issue continued to dominate the political agenda, and within days Tánaiste Joan Burton was telling reporters that she imagined a family of four would likely face an Irish Water bill of less than €200.
A spokesperson for the Labour leader later said that she was expressing her own view and that work on the exact figures remained “ongoing”.
As she attended an event at a college of further education in the south-west Dublin suburb of Jobstown, the Tánaiste’s car was surrounded for hours by a group of angry protesters, who banged on her vehicle and chanted ‘peaceful protest’.
TD Paul Murphy took part in the demonstration – and a tense stand-off developed over the Saturday afternoon, as more and more gardaí were sent to the scene, including the Public Order Unit.
Burton was eventually escorted away – and two people were arrested that evening.
The incident sparked a long debate over the tenor of the continuing demonstrations. Events attended by the Taoiseach were also met with protests, and Alan Kelly said his constituency office had dealt with a bomb threat.
11. The climb-down
After numerous leaks, the Government finally confirmed its revised charging structure to the Dáil on 19 November.
The charges were reduced considerably, with two flat rates introduced – to be in place until the end of 2018.
The Dáil voted to back it the following day.
Soon, however, Government TDs were back to shooting themselves in the feet. Fine Gael’s Noel Coonan came in for major criticism after he warned that Ireland faces “an ISIS situation” if the more extreme elements of water charge protests are not “nipped in the bud”.
12. The world takes note…
More and more international media outlets began running stories on the protest movement in the wake of a third Right2Water protest, outside Government Buildings, on December 10th.
Channel 4 News reported the Garda estimate of 30,000 protesters, quoted Gerry Adams and Paul Murphy, and emphasised that the charges were seen as “double taxation” by opponents.
Attendance was down on the previous mass actions – although turn-out was still impressive for a weekday afternoon.
The protest was marred by some sporadic violence – a garda sustained facial injuries outside the Dáil, and officers clashed with demonstrators on O’Connell Bridge as they attempted to reopen the thoroughfare to traffic, following a break-away protest.
13. ‘Midget parasite’
After a quiet few weeks at the start of the year, the meter protests were back in the headlines at the end of January after footage emerged in which a water protester could be heard calling President Michael D Higgins a ‘midget parasite’.
It later emerged that the protester in question was one of the main campaigners behind the ‘Dublin Says No’ group, Derek Byrne.
Byrne later apologised for using the word ‘midget’.
Despite speculation that the controversy might put some people off attending a rally organised by DSN and other grassroots groups the following Saturday – the Dublin action (which wasn’t organised by Right2Water) still attracted a large turn-out.
Other rallies around the country were also well attended - showing there were still huge numbers of people willing to turn out to voice their opposition to water charges.
14. Return to Jobstown
The arrests of more than 20 people - including Murphy – by gardaí investigating the false imprisonment of Joan Burton, meant the issue of water protests stayed in the headlines again, for days.
Locals activists claimed the gardaí were “terrorising” the community and questioned why groups of up to ten officers were turning up to make the early-morning arrests.
Responding to accusations of political policing, Enda Kenny insisted investigations were purely a matter for gardaí.
And – regarding his own security arrangements – he said that he didn’t feel extra protection was needed, despite gardaí being “more than anxious” to provide it.
It was reported two weeks ago that charges were about to brought in relation to the south-west Dublin protest – but so far, none have materialised.
15. ‘Free the 5′
Alongside the Jobstown arrests, the jailing of four water protesters – including DSN’s Byrne – for breaking a court injuction, provided a new focal point for some anti-charges campaigners.
It followed the latest in a string of court hearings on the matter.
The protesters had been told to stay at least 20 metres away from GMC Sierra workers tasked with installing the meters – but evidence showed they had broken the terms of that order.
The protesters were sentenced to between 28 and 56 days in prison – however they were all freed early, after a surprise ruling from President of the High Court Nicholas Kearns, who found there were a number of errors in the warrant of committal, ordering their detention.
Weekly rallies took place, each Saturday afternoon, while the protesters were in prison.
For more of TheJournal.ie’s coverage of the water charges debate, click here >