By Rob Winkel
The Irish water charges ‘Expert Commission’ has reported back following a months-long review of how water charges should be implemented. The commission was established in response to an election in which the majority of Irish voters voted for parties that pledged in their manifestos to abolish water charges. The commission has essentially suggested that ‘a dedicated tax’ or ‘an adjustment to existing taxes’ will be left to the government to decide as part of budgetary policy. Effectively the long-awaited report, which was expected to give answers on water charging, has left it to future governments to decide instead — a nice (and predictable) outcome for those who set up the commission.
The ground is already being prepared in an attempt to soften public opinion for the implementation of new water charges following the report from the commission. RTE News reported yesterday that ‘the vast majority of people will not pay for water’, and that ‘normal household usage should be paid for by the State’. If the vast majority of households will not need to pay for water, it is worth questioning why the government sees it as such a priority to implement a charging scheme that most will not have to pay. This is little more than an attempt to make water charges more palatable to citizens, now that they have been given a veneer of ‘independent’ oversight.
It is worth reviewing the backpedalling that the government has had to do following the emergence of an anti-water charges movement. Initially in 2014 full water charges were be promised. This was followed by enormous protests throughout Ireland, prompting the government to offer a €100 conservation grant and a capping of the charges at €160 or €260 per household (until the end of 2018). The changes offered by the government did nothing to quell the anger, and after a year of Irish Water bills which were boycotted by the majority of people, the 2016 election saw water charges back on the agenda, with a fearful Fianna Fáil party unwilling to prop up a Fine Gael minority government unless they pretended to reconsider water charges.
A commission established by Fine Gael was never going to recommend the scrapping of water charges. Ideological opposition to water charges is just as important as it was in 2014. Any attempt to set up a household charging regime, whether it is called a tax or a charge, must be opposed.
Successive Irish governments have been operating within the political ideology of neoliberalism, which calls for cuts to public services, privatisations, tax-cuts for the wealthiest, and a rolling back of workers’ rights. It is within this framework that household water charges come on the agenda. This right-wing ideology is successful in widening the wealth between the richest and poorest. It is not successful in helping the majority of the population (nor does it purport to be). Propping up this ideology means that we hear all sorts of scorn towards people who refuse to pay a water bill, but very little outrage in the mainstream about the Irish state paying over €7.5 billion per year in interest on bailout debt, or its refusal to collect €13 billion owed by Apple.
The commission report, which leaves the door open for water charges (or ‘taxes’), shows us the intention of the government to politically manoeuvre through the issue of water charges without changing anything. Fine Gael promised in their 2011 and 2016 manifestos to implement water charges. No report commissioned by them was ever going to suggest their scrapping. Fianna Fáil clumsily want to be seen to be an opposition, while propping up the government, and may now be forced to choose a side. If they continue to oppose water charges, there will be huge problems at Leinster house. If they start now supporting the findings of the commission, they will lose swathes of their support. Already it looks as though they will support water charges of some form. Either way, it does not look good for the Irish establishment parties.
The fact that there has not been a meaningful government response to the water charges crisis after two years simply confirms the disinterest of Enda Kenny and his cabinet in running the country based on the needs of the population. We know where the interests of a government lie when they ask the poorest households to pay an extra €160/€260 per year, and then hand out millions in subsidies to private property developers who scarcely paid for their own irresponsibility the last time they crashed the economy. We see daily how little Fine Gael care about the poorest in the society they rule. A government that does nothing to end the homelessness of 2,400 children should not be deemed fit for purpose.
The general election of February 2016 showed that there is only minority support for parties who wish to govern in a way so at odds with the everyday needs of people. To exploit the weakness in government, communities will once again take loudly to the streets and voice their opposition to water charges in neoliberal Ireland.
The defeat of the water charges can lead to a further collapse in support for the weakened Irish right-wing parties who seemingly run the country on behalf of property developers and multinational corporations.Only in the absence of their vicious policies can we build a fair Irish society run in the interests of the majority.