Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Public protest over new utility charges has intensified to the point of widespread noncompliance.
Is it really worth it for Irish people to pay water bills that may soon be scrapped? The answer to this straightforward-sounding question is actually pretty complicated.
After over two years of rumbling strife over water supply, Ireland’s national elections last week have left the country in uncertainty. It’s not just that no one’s yet sure exactly who will run the place—this is a common post-election state in many typically coalition-led countries. It’s also that people don’t yet know whether or not Ireland’s exceedingly controversial utility company, Irish Water, will be abolished, along with the charges it levies from customers. With the future of all water charges hanging in the balance, an Irish newspaper can hardly be blamed for answering reader doubts as to whether to pay or not with a simple shrug emoticon.
At the issue’s root is a key quirk of the Irish system. Until September 2014, water supplies to Irish homes were entirely free at the user end. Faced with a public sector stretched by economic crisis, and infrastructure so dilapidated that half of Ireland’s treated water was lost to leaks annually, the Irish government nonetheless decided to introduce charges via a new company, Irish Water, during its last electoral term. By international standards, these charges aren’t especially high: €160 ($174) annually for a single adult household, €260 ($283) for homes with two adults or more. The change nonetheless caused a national uproar whose length and intensity might take outsiders by surprise.
Understanding the context is crucial. The charges arrived during a period of economic crisis, with Ireland still reeling from the effects of its burst property bubble. In a country where no one had ever factored water bills into their annual domestic budgets, many simply didn’t know where the extra cash would come from. And up until that point, water had of course not really been free. It had been paid for via taxation, spreading the cost across society and lightening the load on the poor.
The real pressure to introduce charges, meanwhile, came from outside the country. The move’s progenitor was arguably the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, which demanded substantial reforms and harsh austerity measures in return for funding an Irish bailout. For many lower-income Irish people, the water charge came across as yet another example of their livelihoods being squeezed ever tighter to bail out the banks who had pushed them into crisis in the first place. The sense that the new charge meant the poor were bailing out the rich wasn’t helped by the fact that Irish Water spent €86 million on consultants connected to introducing the charge, or that the company had a generous bonus culture.
The backlash goes still deeper than this. In a country where piped water didn’t reach many non-urban homes until the 1950s, a free water supply was seen as an essential badge of progress—a minor concession from a political elite that for decades arguably failed to deliver Ireland so many other forms of development. And to put it bluntly, Ireland is not exactly Death Valley. While Ireland may not be especially rich in natural resources, the lush and rainy country isn’t the sort of place that inspires anxiety about water as a precious, finite resource. As one anti-water charge protester commented to the BBC:
"We could supply the rest of Europe with water, we get that much of it. We're all wondering now what's going to happen — are they going to charge us for air?”
The fierceness of the public backlash still came as a surprise. Many residents fought attempts to install water meters in their homes, while repeated nationwide protests topped 100,000 people, some turning into battles with the police. Irish voters used 2014’s local elections as an opportunity to roast the country’s Fine Gael and Labour Parties, part of the coalition that introduced the charge.
The biggest protest of all was non-payment. Less than half of all households paid up in the first round of charges: out of 1.5 million Irish homes connected to Irish Water’s supply, only 675,000 complied. It’s no surprise that while campaigning for last week’s election, several Irish opposition parties promised to abolish Irish Water and scrap the charge.
Which brings things to this week’s stalemate. Ireland’s elections last week failed to produce a clear winner, and the most likely result looks to be an unlikely coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, traditional adversaries that occupy the ground between the right and the center. The problem is that Fianna Fáil campaigned to scrap Irish Water while Fine Gael headed the government that created it.
So who will prevail? Scrapping the authority and replacing it with a smaller national agency would have much popular support. At the same time, the change would cost as much as €7 billion, according to Irish Water’s own estimates. Meanwhile, feeling the pressure, Irish Water dangled the promise of massive new investment, promising to spend €5.5 billion in the next five years.
The ultimate decision matters for highly practical reasons. People want to know if they should bother paying their water charge or not, while those who have already paid also want to know if they’ll get a refund. In the meantime, as more people hold back on their bills to see what happens, the embattled utility company is leaking a whole more than just water from its pipes.