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Dublin: 11°C Monday 26 July 2021

Unbearable pressure: How water drowned out everything

Massive protests and Clouseau-esque political mistakes in 2014 meant that two years on, the issue HAD to be dealt with.

Water, water everywhere – so let’s all have a drink.


After weeks of wrangling on Irish Water, no doubt plenty of voters would go along with that sentiment. TDs – even some within the ranks of Fianna Fáil – have also been bemoaning the fact that the water ended up being the main focus of the post-election talks between the country’s two largest parties.

Take a quick look at the minority government agreement signed off by the two parties in recent days and it won’t take long to work out why we were hearing for days that water was the main sticking point between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

After everything that’s happened in the last two-and-a-half years, there was little chance of the issue going away in the wake of such a fractured election result. Many of the other proposals set out in the (brief) document published last night are uncontroversial – but for Michéal Martin it was imperative he was able to claim a win on water alone to offset any future outmaneuvering on the issue by the likes of Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP.

It now looks like the charges will be scrapped altogether, after first a water commission and then an Oireachtas water committee examines the options.

How things have changed…

In the early days of the anti-charges campaign, of course, left-wing politicians like Paul Murphy were doing most of the running. In recent weeks, the issue’s essentially been blotting out the sun for much of the political establishment.

As our politicians are so fond of saying (and I promise to use this phrase only once) ‘we are where we are’.

Here – briefly – is how we got where we are…


2014 and all that… 

A combination of austerity fatigue and Clouseau-esque clangers by experienced political operators led to water charges being the issue of the year in 2014.

The growing local protests as the metering project was rolled out were no picnic for the Fine Gael-Labour government, but they also caught Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin on the hop to a certain degree.

Let’s not forget, Fianna Fáil was for water charges before it was against them. As we addressed in detail in a recent FactCheck article, then-finance minister Brian Lenihan announced a plan to bring in charging in his 2010 Budget speech – and the issue was also covered in the Troika’s deal with the Brian Cowen-led government.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

As the water controversies of early 2014 (remember Phil Hogan’s water pressure threats?) kept coming and coming, Fianna Fáil tackled the government on elements of the charging plan – but even in October, just ahead of the first of the large-scale Dublin protests, the party was still still merely proposing a “fairer way” to charge.

Sinn Féin, at the time, was pledging to abolish charges if elected to power – but senior figures like Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty said they still planned to pay their bills.

Adams’ party was blindsided by the success of the AAA’s Paul Murphy in the Dublin South West by-election days later. The former MEP, who backed a boycott of Irish Water and campaigned assiduously in the poorer areas of the constituency, snatched a seat from the Sinn Féin favourite, Cathal King.

Speaking on count day, King said his party’s plan to keep Irish Water but scrap charges had confused voters.

Massive protest 

The first national ‘day of action’ against water charges happened on the same day as the by-election result was announced. Turnout at the Dublin protest confounded expectations, as around 80,000 people filled the streets of the capital.

Fine Gael and Labour were forced to respond swiftly, announcing a major climbdown on the scale of the charges weeks later.

But Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féín were also forced to sit up and take notice.

FF’s John Lahart, who topped the poll in Dublin South West in the general election, said the lack of a clear policy on water had done them no favours in 2014.

And within days of the by-election result, Adams, McDonald and Doherty all said they had changed their mind and now wouldn’t be paying their bills. 

Sinn Féin stepped up their opposition to Irish Water throughout 2015, with the party’s star performers making regular appearances at the Right2Water mass rallies, and keeping up pressure on Fine Gael and Labour in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil didn’t get involved in the Right2Water movement but set out a plan to abolish Irish Water and bring in an over-arching national body on water similar to the National Roads Authority.

Charges would be scrapped if Fianna Fáil got into power, the party’s environment spokesman Barry Cowen told TheJournal.ie – but they might be brought back in, once the water system was fixed, in “seven, eight, ten years”.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The election  

By the time the election campaign proper rolled around, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and the AAA-PBP were all promising to scrap water charges if elected.

You’ll recall, however, that water was by no means the main issue in February’s short and brutal election campaign. In fact, an RTÉ exit poll found water charges were the issue of most importance for just 8% of voters.

That hardly mattered when it came to Fine Gael striking a deal with Fianna Fáil however. It may have come up only intermittently during the campaign, but Irish Water had been – for good or bad – the main political issue of the past five years.

After the journey it had made, Micheál Martin’s party would have been pilloried by Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP if it hadn’t struck some kind of a deal on water as the price for allowing Enda Kenny back in as Taoiseach.

Martin and his negotiators held out until Fine Gael eventually caved, agreeing to a convenient political fudge that will likely see charges abolished completely once TDs get to cast their votes on the issue, following the aforementioned commission’s report.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Was all of that wrangling between the two Civil War parties worthwhile?

Not for us to say really. But given the precarious set-up of the current Dáil, it may not be all that long before we can all weigh in (again) at the polls.

People who have paid water charges won’t get their money back – Fianna Fáil TD

Poll: Will you pay your next Irish Water bill?

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