After passing by an angry gathering on his way into Dublin’s Mansion House on Sunday night, the Taoiseach sardonically commented on the motives of protesters: "Well, it’s not about water, is it?"
Whatever about the nature of the increasingly fractious demonstrations witnessed in recent days, Enda Kenny knows that for his Coalition and its chances of seeing out its full term in office, it is all about the water charges.
Little else matters so much at this critical juncture of Irish politics as the issue of water bills, which, for many struggling families, represent the last straw of seven years of austerity. For others, have become a focal point of general discontent with a government that appears not to listen.
When the Cabinet agrees on a revised charging plan at its weekly meeting today, ministers will know that this is the last big chance ahead of the next general election to reverse a decline in support for both parties, and to take back control of the political agenda.
The stakes are high. If they get it right, Fine Gael and Labour can put the latest crisis behind them, start focusing minds on the economic recovery and start the process of convincing the electorate that they have fulfilled their mandate in bringing the country back from the brink.
If they get it wrong, then they have more or less blown any political capital from their significant achievements in securing an exit from the IMF bailout, and safe-guarding economic recovery.
The Coalition is pinning its hopes on what the Finance Minister, Michael Noonan described yesterday as the “reasonable people” who, ministers believe, represent a majority who are not against water charges in principle, but are fearful of how high costs might rise.
The package to be agreed is widely expected to involve a charge of €176 for a single household and €278 for a dwelling of two or more adults. There will then be a €100 universal allowance give to each family, thus reducing the annual cost to €76 or €178.
The fixed rate is set to remain in place for at least three years in an effort to assuage fears about future costs, and ensuring that further changes are pushed well past the next general election. There are parts of the jigsaw that have not yet been leaked and could trip the Coalition up, such as the treatment of households with septic tanks.
The political calculation is to ensure that, come next year, people will see that the measures announced in last month’s Budget, such as cuts to income tax and a slight rise in children’s allowance, will outweigh the cost of domestic water bills. The Government believes there will always be people who will be against water charges, but is convinced this is a minority, whose support it never had in the first place. While cutting this group loose, they will focus on bringing the middle ground on board.
This is why ministers have been eager to draw a clear distinction in recent days between the tens of thousands who turned up to protests around the country earlier this month, and the more hardened opponents involved in aggressive skirmished over the weekend.
Commenting on her experience where she was hit by a water balloon and blocked in her car for more than two hours by protesters, the Tánaiste Joan Burton said the people involved “were nothing to do with the people who took to the streets on different occasions right across the country, who were absolutely peaceful and who were exercising their democratic right to put across their point of view.”
This was echoed by the Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who said it was important to distinguish between the protesters who barricaded Ms Burton into her car for two hours on Saturday and those who took part in peaceful demonstrations in recent weeks because they were worried about affordability, privacy and privatisation.
“I think the Government will be able to answer those concerns in the next couple of days,” he said. “For people who are ideologically opposed to water metering and want to bring about a Marxist Leninist Republic in Ireland, we’re never going to convince them, quite frankly, and we’re not going to try.”
Minister Noonan said he did not think that the revised water charges to be announced tomorrow will stop protests, but hinted that there were some people who will never be brought around to the charges.
“I mean, some people are protesting because they don’t want to pay at all,” he said. “But we govern for the centre, we govern for the reasonable people, and the reasonable people were upset by the way in which it was handled,” he said.
This time last year, as the country was about to leave the bailout, the opinion poll ratings for both parties rose. This was a clear sign that the public were willing to recognise the Government’s success in exiting the programme, regaining economic sovereignty and restoring the country’s battered reputation.
It has spectacularly squandered that hard-won support and blown all its political capital in a series of blunders. From the medical card fiasco, to the treatment of whistle-blowers to the John McNulty appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art — it all paints a picture of a Coalition which has not listened. After today, there will be no more opportunities to go back to the drawing board on water charges. There is a sense that this is the last chance to get things right.
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