The Irish Rebellion Over Water

In the west of Ireland, they say that if you can see the mountain, it’s going to rain. And if you can’t see the mountain? It’s raining.

Ireland may have its troubles, but drought isn’t one of them. Which may be why proposed charges for household water have brought tens of thousands into the streets in protests that have deeply unnerved the political order.

If the Irish are finally catching the mood of anti-austerity anger that has been rolling across much of the European Union, it may be a case not so much of the straw that broke the camel’s back as the drop that caused the dam to burst.

Until very recently, the Irish were the eurozone’s champion masochists. Since the banking crash of 2008, they have borne big tax increases, severe cuts in public services, mass unemployment and the large-scale emigration of their children. A 2012 study by the International Monetary Fund found that Ireland was in the “undesirable position” of owning “the costliest banking crisis in advanced economies since at least the Great Depression.” And it was “still ongoing,” imposing a huge public debt and dire fiscal costs on Irish citizens.

All of this has happened with a great deal of private grumbling but only sporadic public protest. In a general election in 2011, the center-right party blamed for the collapse was kicked out and replaced by a coalition led by another, almost identical, center-right party. The new government accepted and implemented the same conditions of stark austerity that had been imposed on the old one by the I.M.F. and the European Union.

If you were looking at Ireland from European Union headquarters in Brussels or from the European Central Bank’s offices in Frankfurt, this made the country an island of comfort in a sea of political turbulence. The European establishment is under siege from both left and right.

Greece has its left-wing opposition party, Syriza, within striking distance of taking power in next year’s elections. Spain’s populist protest movement Podemos has gathered impressive pace. France’s post-fascist National Front is polling strongly.

Even in Britain, the right-wing anti-European U.K. Independence Party is causing panic among the traditional ruling parties. Ireland’s apparent passivity suggested that these storms might blow over, that familiar political landscapes could survive Europe’s long, deep recession.

The Irish story looked, after all, like a tale of patience rewarded. The bailout program, which gave the I.M.F. and European Union effective control over the Irish government’s fiscal policies, was left behind. Having stoically taken its medicine, the Irish economy seems to be in a fragile but real recovery. Gross domestic product is expected to rise by between 4 and 5 percent this year and by at least 3 percent in 2015. Unemployment has fallen from over 15 percent of the work force to 11 percent.

For the first time since 2008, the Irish government was able this autumn to bring in a largely neutral budget, without broad tax increases or spending cuts. Dublin’s streets are full of Christmas shoppers. Its property market is almost as buoyant, with rapidly rising house prices easing some of the pain of the vast mortgages inherited from the years of the Celtic Tiger bubble.

So why are the Irish, who have taken years of punishment, suddenly in such a rage? It’s not just outsiders who are asking this question.

The government fully expected to be acclaimed for having steered the country safely through a historic crisis and to be wafted all the way to re-election in 2016 on the acclamations of the citizenry. Instead, opinion polls now show that the three parties that have dominated the state throughout its history have the support of less than half of potential voters. Sinn Fein, the populist and nationalist party that has traditionally been far weaker in the Republic of Ireland than across the border in Northern Ireland, has gained significant ground, as have far-left groups.

But the most popular political option in recent polls is, essentially, “none of the above.” Almost a third of the electorate says it will vote for nonparty or micro-party candidates.

This is a rare case of change actually falling from the sky. The catalyst for this transformation is plain old water.

In a recent Irish Times poll, 33 percent of people said they would refuse to pay the charges for domestic water when they become due in the spring (and less than half of those polled said they intended to pay). This is in spite of the government’s having already made huge concessions in the face of an earlier wave of protests by reducing the average effective charge to just 160 euros (about $200) a year per household, making Irish domestic water the cheapest in Europe. Compared with many of the other tax increases endured over six years, this seems too small a measure to have such large consequences.

As, indeed, it is. The current Irish political ferment is really a case of “add water and stir vigorously” to get a whole mess of trouble. All the ingredients for mass dissatisfaction were already present — they just needed something to bring them together.

There is a deep sense of injustice at being turned into one of the most indebted nations on earth in order to rescue international bondholders who gambled on rogue Irish banks. There is the way the pain has been inflicted most deeply on the poorest people — the last four government budgets have been regressive, hitting those on the lowest incomes hardest. There is the bitterness of yet again having to export the country’s greatest asset: its talented, highly educated young people.

Above all, there’s the gap between the Irish story and the Irish experience. The story is upbeat — austerity works. The experience is rather different. The impressive G.D.P. figures are at least partly unreal, boosted by the accounting practices of Irish-based multinationals.

Unemployment remains very high, and the figures would be much worse if people were not emigrating. Household debt in Ireland is still the second highest in Europe relative to disposable incomes, which have not improved.

While Ireland’s fearful sovereign debt has stabilized, it remains very high at 110 percent of G.D.P. These miseries actually feel a lot worse when everyone is telling you that happy days are here again.

Perhaps, in the end, there’s a religious aspect to it all. The Irish largely accepted austerity because they believed they had sinned and deserved to be punished. But the converse was that, having been good for so long, they should be rewarded.

They didn’t expect heaven to be a place where it rains all the time and the angels charge you for a drink of water.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times.

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