‘Twas World Human Rights Day and, all through the centre of Dublin, the streets were awash with colour. The city was stirring on 10 December – it was alive with chants and laughter. From pensioners to babes in pushchairs, thousands assembled at Merrion Square for another mass demonstration against water charges. There was no sign of the ‘weather-bomb’ forecast the previous night – blue skies and crisp sunshine boosted the high spirits of the protestors. Not much evidence of trouble either. A few minor altercations with Gardaí caught the media’s eye, but these occurred beyond the main gathering. Marching from O’Connell Street, women tried to cajole police officers to join and, although their invitations were declined, the exchanges were good-humoured.
The overall mood of the protest was jovial and welcoming. While certain political elements sought to score opinion poll points from their involvement, they couldn’t monopolise this display of public dissent. Community groups were by far the most vibrant participants, with their handmade placards and wit. Taking part, even for a short time, felt empowering. And meeting an ‘old flame’, demonstrating on his lunch-break, was a tiny bit nostalgic. Though amid a throng of folk who hailed from Cork, Clondalkin, Dundalk, and all the way from Detroit… there’s a fair chance you might find a lad from Sarajevo!
Large protests on this issue, which have been held across Ireland since the autumn, have forced the government into making concessions. In November, it promised that water bills would be capped until the end of 2018. But our leaders would be ill-advised to think that the problem is solved or to dismiss the concerns of the electorate. Demonising those who continue to object to these new charges is destined to backfire. Unlike prominent politicians, most families in Ireland don’t consider €160 a negligible sum. There’s also widespread fear that while payments for water may initially be fixed they will inevitably increase in coming years.
People can’t trust an evasive, arrogant government. They’ve lost confidence in the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Although his view, however cynically expressed, that the protests aren’t just about water is essentially true. They’re about all the penalties imposed on the population of Ireland over the last six years of austerity. Repaying international lenders for the recklessness of bankers has been the official priority. Our ministers are now taking (faking) a sudden interest in the environment and conservation. After they poured taxpayers’ money – more than enough to repair every leaking pipe in Ireland – into the sewer of a bailout that has drained the country. Water charges are the latest in a series of cuts to household income which has impacted most severely on the poorest. Funds for public services have been slashed. The health of the nation has been jeopardised. Education has also been targeted, with children from Traveller and immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs among the worst hit.
The human cost of Ireland’s deepest ever recession is enormous. Its toll can’t be calculated in euro alone. Yet the government has the audacity to tell us our situation is improving, based on figures of little relevance to daily life. It crows about employment statistics without acknowledging that these disguise the frustration of thousands of capable people whose options are limited to internships and precarious positions that are often nothing more than exploitative. Meanwhile it woos multinationals with lucrative tax incentives. It boasts of job creation – in software, in finance, in financial software. The property market is buoyant again. Rising rents are forcing families into homelessness. But for landlords ‘tis the season to be jolly…
Is this the most our country can aspire to – the glorification of greed and the growth of inequality? Events over recent months suggest a hunger for new ideas. Post-colonial politics, peddled by twentieth century parties for their own gratification, has failed. Approaching the centenary of the founding of our state, perhaps it’s time for reflection. Especially when, for many people – despite reports of booming sales – tidings of comfort and joy remain distant dreams.
There’s a well-known Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas. It’s worth remembering, though, that it originated from our history of oppression – it was once a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Maybe we need to revive this custom in our hearts. To fan flickers of inspiration which can reach out to others and kindle a brighter future for us all.