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The five most memorable moments from the disastrous campaign to introduce household water charges

A new book by journalist Michael Brennan delves into the water charges debacle. Here are some of the moments that still stick out.

Micheal Brennan

A NEW BOOK delves deep into the disastrous attempt by the former Fine Gael-Labour government to introduce water charges.

In Deep Water by journalist Michael Brennan tells the real story of a controversy that divided the country in a way which had not been repeated since. Here are some of the most memorable moments, as described in the book.

1. Irish water’s €875,000 TV ad

The public needed to be convinced about the need for water charges. A beautifully filmed €600,000 television ad was developed showing water flowing down off the mountains to the swirling soundtrack of ‘The Arrival of the Birds’ by the British electronic group The Cinematic Orchestra. The voiceover mentioned how the water system had been built up ‘through our knowledge, hands and hard work’. That was a reference to council water service workers who were already running it, a tribute to keep them onside. ‘There was a huge debate over that,’ said an Irish Water source.

The ad went on to show a water meter being installed. ‘We need to change the way we pay for our water supply and wastewater treatment,’ it said. The TV ad was aired in September, October and November 2013 at a cost of €275,000. It was placed in the middle of programmes with the highest viewership like Cornation Street and Emmerdale on TV3, and RTÉ’s Six One and Nine O’Clock News bulletins. The ad had to be taken off air for a few days in November 2013 when the water treatment plant featured in it – Ballymore Eustace in Kildare – had to suspend water production. That left Dublin city centre without water for three days at a time when Paddy Cosgrave’s Web Summit was on. But one TV ad was not going to suddenly inform the public about the state of the water system or convince them to pay water charges.

2. Phil Hogan’s trickle down threat

Environment minister Phil Hogan turned up to make the water charges announcement in the Government Press Centre in early May 2014. He confirmed the average charge per household would be around €240, which was exactly what had been leaked to the Irish Independent a few weeks beforehand. Then he was asked what would happen to people who did not pay their water charges. ‘Water will be turned down to a trickle for basic human health reasons.’ He started to twiddle his right thumb. ‘And ah, obviously that won’t be too attractive for them.’

Those on the Labour side of government winced when they saw how Hogan delivered his threat. ‘He almost took pleasure in it. That didn’t help,’ a senior Labour source said.
The photographers in the Government Press Centre had their lenses trained on Hogan’s glass of water throughout the news conference. He kept them waiting for a while. Then he stretched out his hand, lifted up the glass and had a sip. The room exploded with the sound of every photographer snapping Hogan drinking his water. Hogan was grinning. He knew that was the picture the photographers had been waiting for. He had his next job as European Commissioner in the bag and now Irish Water would be somebody else’s problem. That was indeed Hogan’s last public involvement with water charges.

3. Joan Burton is hit by a water balloon in Jobstown

Tánaiste Joan Burton was visiting the local education centre in Jobstown for a graduation ceremony on the morning of 15 November 2014.
There was group of water charge protesters outside An Cosán’, shouting slogans as they waited for Burton to come out. An Cosán’s chief executive Liz Waters came outside to appeal to the protestors to stop ruining the occasion for the graduates. ‘It’s their day,’ she said. A female protester responded: ‘I don’t care. Tell her [Burton] not to come out to us.’ Waters bowed her head in disappointment, turned on her heel and went back into the centre.

The protesters started chanting ‘Out, Out, Out,’ and ‘Traitor, Traitor’ as the first graduates emerged in their black caps and gowns at 11.50 a.m. Then the protestors changed the chant to ‘Bring her out’, as it became clear that Burton was still inside the building.

Burton decided instead to walk with the graduates. She knew that there were protesters assembling but she was not worried about them. She was determined to carry on with the function. She was accompanied by Senator Katherine Zappone and her partner Ann Louise Gilligan, who had set up the An Cosán centre in Jobstown.

A staff member at An Cosán started to clap the graduates in an attempt to encourage them as they walked out past the protestors. Burton’s special adviser Karen O’Connell immediately joined in. So too did a garda standing beside her. Gradually, the protesters clapped too as it dawned on them that their chanting might be getting to the graduates rather than Burton. ‘Well done, lads,’ shouted one of them.

The protesters starting booing and shouting as Burton emerged behind the last of the graduates. O’Connell quickly moved to her side, as did her plainclothes garda protection officer. The protesters pursued them along the footpath. The protestors surrounded Burton as she walked and some of them were sticking phones in her face.

At this stage, Burton was an easy target because she was making such slow progress down the footpath. She was hit by a small object on the back of her neck. She thought it might have been a small ball. It was actually a plastic water bottle.

Then she was hit by a red water balloon on the right side of her face. She flinched from the impact and the water soaked her white jacket and the bottom of her hair.
Burton checked briefly with her garda protection officer and then carried on walking. At that stage, her aim was to look as calm as possible rather than show the protesters that she was actually frightened.

4. Street poet Stephen Murphy’s star turn at the Right2Water protest

The Right2Water protest march that took place in Dublin city centre in early October 2014 was about much more than water. It was a way of telling the government to stop – not just water charges, but also any further cuts or tax hikes.

The Right2Water organisers had ordered two stages: one outside the GPO on O’Connell Street, and the other close by outside the Garden of Remembrance on North Frederick Street. The star performer on the GPO stage turned out to be the young Leitrim poet Stephen Murphy, who bounded up to perform his poem ‘Was it for this?’

He had written it just a few months earlier, as part of a project to give a ‘more modern twist’ to WB Yeats’ ‘September 1913’. He decided to get it out on the Internet because his first child Rowan had just been born and he would not have much time for any live performances. ‘By the time I’d finished it and recorded it up at the cottage in Leitrim, Rowan was already two weeks old and napping in the car around the side of the barn,’ he said. The poem had gone viral. Before he started reciting it on the GPO stage, he shouted out to the crowds: ‘Let’s see how many people are here’ and then started to chant: ‘From the River to the Sea.’ The crowd responded: ‘Irish Water will be Free’. This was an Irish version of the Palestinian slogan – ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ Murphy did the chant again. The crowd got a bit louder. ‘Ah, that’s bollocks. Can you not do better than that? One more time,’ he asked.

His poem was an attack on the garda, the Catholic Church, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the ‘dogs in our government’, the bank bailout and emigration. It also included a section about water privitisation, which the crowd really responded to.

5. Russell Brand tells Irish people to take the day off work to protest

The British comedian and actor Russell Brand had already made a video about Irish Water which had gone viral. His team offered Dundalk-born trade unionist Brendan Ogle an interview with Brand in his townhouse in London’s East End while he was over there on business. ‘It was to appeal to young people,’ Ogle said.

Brand put in a typically flamboyant performance in his interview with Ogle. ‘You, the Irish people, fought to kick the British out of your country. Now your own government are ripping you off over water. Get on to the streets,’ he said.

Labour special adviser Ed Brophy, who was working for Tánaiste Joan Burton, could not resist sending a text message to Ogle after this unusual liaison. ‘What was it that first attracted you to the millionaire comedian Russell Brand?’ he asked him. Mandate trade union official Dave Gibney, who was working with Right2Water, thought at first that it was a ‘nightmare’ when he got the video of the interview from Ogle. ‘I find some of these things that Russell Brand and other people do a bit cringeworthy. But in fairness, it gets attention and the media cover it, so it worked,’ he said. The headline on the Irish Times’ story about the video was: ‘Russell Brand urges Irish people to take day off for water protests.’ Digital analytics showed that it became one of the newspaper’s top ten most viewed stories about Irish Water.

These are edited extracts from “In Deep Water- How people, politics and protests sank Irish Water” by Michael Brennan, which is published by Mercier Press.

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Micheal Brennan

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