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Opinion: When the people lead, politicians are forced to follow – so let's make our voices heard

We need a solution for our water needs – but one that doesn’t include creative accounting, cronyism, and possible privatisation.

Ruairí McKiernan Social innovator and campaigner

THE ONGOING NATIONWIDE protests are about much more than water charges. They are about trust and power, leadership and vision, and the people of Ireland finally standing up to be heard. They come at a time when the democratic disconnect needs urgent attention, and when promises ring hollow in the hearts of a jaded nation.

The water debacle on its own is enough to spur anyone to the streets. The mismanagement, inflated salaries and bonuses, and the incompetence in planning, communications, and budgeting are symptomatic of a wider systems failure. This was supposed to be about infrastructure and conservation, and tackling the 42% of water being lost to leaks. Most people were open to this, but we see now it’s also about creative accounting, cronyism, and possible privatisation. Yes, we need a solution for our water needs but the current plan is creating as many problems as it’s solving and is a step too far for many.

When it comes to the prospect of water privatisation, people aren’t buying it. Wherever the IMF have gone, they have pushed for open markets through privatisation. Promises about protecting water and other assets are made but politicians move on, pensioned up, leaving people dazzled in the headlights of spin. ‘Trust us’ we’re told, time and time again, in what is increasingly an abusive relationship where trust is in short supply.

The mass privatisation of public services

All of this is occurring at the same time the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), a secretive EU-US trade agreement, is in the pipeline. The TTIP puts the mass privatisation of public services firmly on the agenda. Under the TTIP’s investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, corporations can sue governments in secret courts for what they see as anti-competitive policies.

We now know, thanks to a leaked letter, that Minister Richard Bruton, has lobbied for the introduction of these courts. But why, and who is he representing? The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently warned that, under the TTIP, Ireland could end up being sued by US multinationals for increasing the minimum wage. Sound far fetched? Not if you consider that French multinational Veolia recently sued the Egyptian government for the same reason. Veolia also happens to be the world’s largest private water company and is involved in the installation of Irish Water meters.

It is this type of ideology that has resulted in the obscene figure of 1% of people now owning over 50% of the world’s wealth. This is a gap in income inequality not seen since the 1920s and is leading to unrest the world over. The mindset behind the TTIP and similar agreements is too often about finding ways of transferring public wealth in health, education, energy, housing, public broadcasting, transport and water over to investors who are unelected and motivated only by profit. It is about dismantling the collective commons that our ancestors built over centuries, and handing it over to private interests.

The people of Ireland aren’t supposed to concern ourselves with the TTIP, Irish Water or the house of cards tumbling around us. Reasonable people shouldn’t protest, we’re told. Reasonable people, it’s suggested, should behave themselves, go back to slaving day in and day out, and trust that our best interests are being taken care of. The reality is that protest movements, for all their weaknesses, have always influenced great change. As Henry David Thoreau said “disobedience is the true foundation of liberty”.

Authorities ridiculing, smearing, attacking and infiltrating protest movements is nothing new

We need to keep perspective on all the talk of the sinister fringe, the dissidents, and the people one government TD called parasites. Protest movements, like all groups of people, will always have their shadows, including people who engage in foolish actions. There have been scuffles and incidents, including attacks on demonstrators, but we’ve had no riots, no beatings, no smashed windows, or burnt out banks or cars. The emerging movement is made up mostly of peace loving people who are not affiliated to any party or group.

When discussing violence, it is also worth considering the economic, institutional, and psychological violence that is contributing to Ireland’s high levels of depression and suicide. Likewise, the policy decisions and inequalities that have led hundreds of thousands to emigrate, and which, according to Unicef, have resulted in an extra 130,000 children living in poverty in Ireland.

Ridiculing, smearing, attacking and even infiltrating protest movements is also nothing new. It helps create drama and noise, distract from the real issues, shift perceptions, and feed sensationalist headlines. Thankfully, in the era of social media and citizen journalism, people are starting to see beyond this. We can create, share, comment, and make up our own minds on what and who to believe.

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Find your voice – and use it

As 2016 approaches, we are entering a period of great upheaval, where the seeds for a new Ireland will be sown. It is clear that people are tired of waiting for promised reforms and aren’t prepared to just wait until the next election to have their say. Protest is shaking up the status quo, in the same way it has done throughout history.

Through community-led campaigning, people are finding their voice, claiming their power, and reminding politicians of who they are paid to serve. The protests might be unsettling for some but they are also about active citizenship and democratic participation at a time when people are calling out to be heard. When the people lead, the leaders will be forced to follow.

Ruairí McKiernan is an award winning social innovator, campaigner, Fulbright scholar, and member of the Council of State. He is on Twitter @ruairimckiernan and his website is www.ruairimckiernan.com


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About the author:

Ruairí McKiernan  / Social innovator and campaigner

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