For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the Republic of Ireland steamed ahead with its economy to the extent that its GDP per capita exceeded that of the old colonial master, the UK.  Inspired by the ‘tiger’ economies of the Pacific Rim, it became known as the Celtic Tiger.  But it was an artificial boom inflated by the exchange rate fixed by the European Central Bank through Ireland’s membership of the Euro and when the Sovereign Debt Crisis struck, Dublin was ill-prepared.  The Celtic Tiger became as precarious as the Siberian Tiger and as durable as a paper one.  The rolling financial crisis that engulfed Ireland from 2008 left local politicians confounded and their austerity measures provoked protests while dissent intensified by the prescriptions from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund as the price of a bailout.  In one form or another, discontent rumbles on to this day.  Ireland exited the bailout strictures a year ago and the economy is set to be the fastest growing in the Eurozone but this has yet to filter through to the majority of the population.

The most recent protests have erupted over the government’s plan to charge households for tap water, the last major measure of Ireland’s austerity programme, where previously provision had been paid out of general taxation.  On the 1st of November, more than 100,000 people across 100 locations demonstrated.  Irish Water, the utility company created by Act of Parliament in 2013, reported that two-thirds of the public were refusing to have water meters installed and was forced to extend the deadline for registration.  On the 12th of November, anti-water ‘tax’ protestors mocked the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, at Dublin’s General Post Office. Three days later, activists, prevented the car of the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Joan Burton, from leaving an event at Jobstown, with other campaigners repeating that action with regards to Kenny two days later at Sligo.

On the 10th of December, at least 30,000 marched through Dublin and gathered outside the Dáil (Parliament) in an event organised by the campaign group Right2Water.  They were joined by representatives of the Detroit Water Brigade, a group pushing back against what it calls ‘aggressive water shut-downs’ affecting 15,000 households in the US city.  Socialist and nationalist politicians sharing a temporary stage urged the public to boycott their water bills.  ‘No way! We won’t pay!’ was the primary chant.  Mostly peaceful, one garda (policeman) was injured in the face when a section of the crowd tried to topple security barriers and launched small missiles at police lines, spurring a reaction from the riot police.

An unofficial breakaway set of around 1,000 agitators occupied the main junction of Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill for over three hours – some commuters in the evening rush hour abandoned their vehicles and walked.  In a fashion reminiscent of the strike-breaking tactics on the eve of World War One related in James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a large gardai group moved in formation up Burgh Quay accompanied with a public order unit and the dog squad. Scuffles broke out as gardai removed people by force to clear the thoroughfare, with three men and a woman arrested on public order offences.

Ahead of the march, the government sought to calm the opposition to the water meters by proposing smaller, more clearly defined water charges due to come into force on the 31st of January.  Acknowledging the protest, Environment Minister Alan Kelly insisted that there would be no further concessions.  Meanwhile it emerged that the Department of Social Protection vigorously opposed supplying Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers to Irish Water, particularly those that belonged to children for whom child benefit was paid.  The utility said it needed these identifiers so it could apply government allowances for water charges, expecting the department to verify the numbers once they were handed over.  The department demurred, citing data protection issues, while also being unimpressed by the casual, almost arrogant way Irish Water communicated with the department.

The Detroit Water Brigade did not limit themselves to Dublin, with members touring Cobh in Co. Cork, as an act of solidarity with residents.  The visitors were impressed by the ‘military-like precision’ of protestors, with the latter even operating a ‘command-and-control post’ out of a horse box equipped with heating and a gas cooker.  Every day at dawn for the past few months, surveillance teams drive out to the only two entrances to the area – a bridge and a cross-river ferry terminal, waiting until Irish Water contractors arrive. They then send group text alerts to their 300 members indicating the direction of travel of the trucks and the estates most likely to be targeted, with campaigners converging on these estates to prevent the contractors installing meters.  The resistance continues.

The water meter protests are symptomatic of wider anger across the Eurozone at the demands by Germany for austerity programmes to rein in ‘offenders’.  The Irish public has drawn the blood of the government in the last six years and can’t be so easily mollified as in the past, but the Irish government has to press on with the water meter programme having committed too much political and economic capital in its implementation, not to mention the third of households that already have a meter hardly being impressed should the rollout cease.  This will be a long fight.

Protests Correspondent, Europe