There are two major stories in Ireland at the minute. One is the tribulations of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and something of a crisis in the Fine Gael party. The other is the introduction of water charges through Irish Water.
Most of the attention is dedicated to the first story. Kenny’s attempt to get a failed county council election candidate for Fine Gael elected to the Seanad, via an appointment to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, has blown up in his face. This is the kind of story that gets political correspondents frotting their laps in excitement. Disarray in the court of King Kenny, that sort of thing. More broadly, it exposes the gap between the promises made by Fine Gael and Labour for a ‘democratic revolution’ and ‘political reform’, and the sordid reality: patronage, cronyism and disregard for transparency and accountability. So it provides good ground for earnest denunciations of low standards in public life.
Coverage of Irish Water deals largely with the effectiveness of its implementation, and the anticipated costs to the consumer. The fundamental political question arising from Irish Water -whether it is right to ration water on the basis of wealth- was seldom posed, bar the token allowances made for radical dissenting voices.
Irish Water, by these lights, is an established and inalterable fact. The legitimacy of its introduction at the behest of the Troika was, from this view, always self-evident. The role of the public, according to Ireland’s media, is now to calculate how best to minimise the cost of water to their household, how to maximise consumer value.
Outrage about Irish Water appears as legitimate when it stems from the principle of consumer sovereignty, but not when it stems from the principle of democratic equality. So Irish Water’s spend on consultancy may give cause for scandal, but on the basis of value for money, not because it is symptomatic of kleptocracy: of private interests seizing hold of public goods in order to mine rich seams of profit.
To put it another way, the Irish Water public relations campaign, which explicitly sought to change people’s mindsets regarding water from that of a citizen to that of a consumer, gets plain sailing in Ireland’s media.
What makes for plain sailing is not just the coverage of the story itself, but the general absence, in Ireland’s media, of any concern with democratic entitlements, beyond the right to vote (though not the right to expect that one’s vote should have an effect). You only have to look at the size of the business or property sections of the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, and compare them to the amount of space devoted to the concerns of wage workers -salary levels, employment rights, public services- to see where the interests of these institutions lie. You see these interests also manifest in the coverage of politics: politics is a professional activity subject to the occasional scrutiny of a sedentary electorate, not everyday people taking to the streets.
The concern with ‘political reform’ and with whatever happened to the ‘democratic revolution’, so much to the fore in recent days, is helping to cast a veil over what is really happening with Irish Water.
In reality, Irish Water is the appropriation of public resources for private ends. As Gene Kerrigan noted in the Sunday Independent this week, the legislation establishing Irish Water specifically allows for privatisation, at the behest of the Minister for Finance. Given that Ireland’s Ministers for Finance act in reality as Finance’s Ministers for Ireland, Irish Water is intended as a crucial step towards full-blown privatisation.
A more rigorous questioning of the term ‘democratic revolution’ might be: since when did democracy entail selling off public resources in the interests of profit, at the behest of unelected international entities? And, as a consequence, what kind of action is legitimate when such things occur?
Well, if you think politics is a matter for men -and occasionally women- in suits, and the only worry is whether such figures are behaving appropriately, you don’t need to worry your head about the likes of that. More time to spend on working out how much it costs each time you flush your loo.
If, on the other hand, you think that upholding basic principles of equality and solidarity requires more than expecting Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach who opens private hospitals, to do it on your behalf, then you have to take matters into your own hands.
That, in essence, is what protesters on estates across Dublin and beyond have been doing, driven by the unbearable financial pressure that the imposition of water charges will entail. In response, the Gardaí have been deployed to ensure kleptocracy goes unimpeded.
The central figure of the ‘democratic revolution’, Enda Kenny, tried to claim in the Dáil today, when challenged about Garda arrests of peaceful protesters, that the protests were the work of nefarious outsiders who were disturbing the locals who merely wished to get on with their lives and let the Irish Water contractors get on with their work. The kind of people, one imagines, like the man featured in yesterday’s RTÉ radio report, who was recorded receiving the gift of a half dozen free range eggs from an Irish Water contractor.
The reality of Ireland, right now, is that the people who are actually maintaining the kind of democratic resistance that gave Ireland some semblance of democratic institutions in the first place, are being criminalised by the government.
What is more, they are ignored, when not bitterly condemned, by middle class liberals who dribble on interminably about standards in public life but take fright whenever the public actually materialises on the streets. It is ordinary people in estates across Dublin and beyond who are acting to restore some element of democracy to life in Ireland, whereas conventional wisdom would be happy to see it flushed down the toilet. For a reasonable fee, of course: these things have to be paid for, after all.