Like old times… meeting at a protest. On this occasion, Irish water charges have proven zadnja kap u punoj čaši vode. ‘The last drop in a full glass of water’ – Bosnian has a more aquatic way of saying ‘the final straw’. The smug commentators could add that phrase to the stream of metaphor effervescing from their descriptions of the largest demonstrations Ireland has seen for quite a while. It’s easy for them to make puns when they’ve never been trapped in the sinkhole of austerity. They don’t know the reality… that fear of another bill.
After six years of financial torture, the cuts which had scarce impact on the rich are garroting the rest of us. But Ireland was Europe’s poster-child for bearing unequal pain. We weren’t like those bolshie objectors who took to the streets in Greece and Spain. We tended to vent our anger in private. Apart from a few who phoned radio chat-shows… as if presenters on fat salaries could empathise with their woes. Or those who shared their discontent on the internet and often had their honesty savaged by heartless trolls. Most of us just lay awake at night, worrying.
Now the powers that be are pouring acid on our wounds with their spiel that things are improving. For whom? Not for those of us who didn’t ‘lose the run of ourselves’ during the boom. We, the people, who aren’t implicated in any Luxembourg leaks… we, the ones who never wrecked this country. Unlike our former leader who’s been appointed by a national tycoon to the board of his petrol company. Mind you, the same mogul is also dabbling in the water debacle alongside the present government. Ah, the links forged by liquidity!
Meanwhile we’re still submerged in hardship. Our penance for the bailout into which, the ECB letters reveal, Ireland was blackmailed. Stoically, we wore the hair shirts thrust upon us. We struggled for work. We got extorted – both by the banks and by the state. Water charges, the Troika’s legacy, are the latest in a swathe of penalties. From the ‘Universal Social Charge’, which hit low earners hardest, to a property tax that exacerbates the nightmare many face. The latter is allegedly required for local services – like repairing potholes, like supporting libraries. Like providing water? Not any more. Our H2O has been gifted to a quango that hires expensive consultants and promises hefty bonuses to its top brass. Finally, the people are saying no.
A huge demonstration in Dublin on 11 October was followed by protests against the water charges all over Ireland on 1 November. These were expressions of widespread public frustration and most of those involved were simply frightened citizens. Many were demonstrating for the very first time – the elderly, families – declaring that we’ve already borne too much austerity. Inevitably, some opposition politicians tried to exploit the event by shining the spotlight of attention on themselves. But, as a speaker in our town stressed, this was an issue that went far beyond political parties. It was about people who’d reached breaking point. About human rights and solidarity…. Our common despair coalesced in this act of defiance.
It was lashing rain in the square. My husband had walked from the start with the gathering crowd. I’d driven back from Dublin, where I’d been that morning with our two younger kids. I’d been thinking about going to one of the city demos – there were plenty to choose from – when he rang. Instead, I headed homewards. Hoping no roadside cameras deemed my sense of urgency to be slightly over the limit. Getting yelled at by a man for ‘scaring his horse’ because I honked at his pony-towing car when he dashed into a newsagent’s at the traffic lights on the main street. As the lights turned green… then red again. The things you do to make it to a protest! And we got soaked. Although the multitude of umbrellas seemed appropriate. In our town alone, the figures ran to thousands of protestors. Estimates say about 150,000 people came out altogether, across Ireland. Perhaps more…
What will this achieve? Well, the government has been plunged into disarray. Still clinging to its plan for charges, it’s trying to appease the public with unspecified concessions. In recent days it’s also warning of a ‘sinister fringe’ to the popular movement because the installation of water meters has led to isolated skirmishes with the law. A typical tactic employed by those in power when the, usually passive, masses dare to voice their wrath. One that was used, for example, in Bosnia in February, when people who protested in their thousands against economic misery were dismissed by politicians as ‘hooligans’ after a minority rioted. However, given the unexpected strength of resistance in Ireland, the water controversy may have significant electoral consequences.
Whether the waves of dissent rippling through regions of Europe worst affected by recession will lead to any fundamental change is less certain. It’s clear though that, twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the continent is not a paradigm of successful democracy. In many ways, Europe is more divided than ever. Diehard capitalism has evidently failed us. We citizens need to come up with alternative ideas.
1989 may now be remembered as a historic ‘watershed’. But those images of Trabants traversing a border that had marked the Iron Curtain were soon followed by scenes of bloodshed in the Balkans. Though, as with the brutal conflicts of 2014, it was easier to tune out and ignore this. For the few who found that impossible, the least we could do was protest. November 1994. A small group holding placards and candles, we tried to remind Dublin of the horrors that were occurring in Bosnia. I’d stepped out from college and, along with a handful of Irish friends, some of the injured Bosnian lads arrived. And, yeah, I noticed a tall, black-haired fella as we displayed our posters. Apparently, he made enquiries – discovered that I was a student and, fortunately for him, over sixteen. I heard the whole story afterwards. That night we just stood in the cold, outside the city centre branch of the Bank of Ireland. An institution which would become our nemesis – saved at the expense of the country in the crash of 2008. Yet I’ll always associate that place with a special person…
So fancy having a date with the same guy, at a protest, two decades later! Under the woolly cap he was wearing that afternoon, his hair has receded a little but it’s still pretty dark. And being there reignited our first flame of unity – a belief in speaking out against injustice. Finding what we’d cherished long before we were swamped with the trials of austerity. At a demonstration, in a downpour… Who knows what might happen?