The Irish and Water: Why the Water Tax Protests Matter

Irish society has taken a real hammering. The media is filled with stories about the Irish economic situation and little is printed about what is happening in Irish homes. The family was once seen as the bedrock of society, yet in Ireland it now receives little attention. In a 2013 study the majority of Irish families – a staggering 67 percent – reported that they were experiencing difficulties making ends meet; this compares to 43 per cent of families five years earlier. In addition, by 2013, 43 per cent of all families with young children had cut back or could not afford the basics, 17 per cent were behind on utility bills and 14 per cent were behind on the rent/mortgage [1].

These are averages and the situation is worse in the poorer sections of Irish society. Less educated and lower income families have been hit hardest. Lone mothers for example, saw a sharp rise in their risk of poverty; by 2011, it was estimated that between 30-32 per cent of lone mothers were income poor and between 44-49 per cent were materially deprived, following a sharp rise in both indicators since 2009. This is no surprise given the substantial reductions in social welfare payments enacted by the Irish Government under austerity. In addition, the collapse of the construction industry hit cohabiting couples and separated/divorced men hardest as both groups experienced the steepest rise in unemployment [2].

But the picture darkens further as the Irish lost faith in traditional sources of support and comfort. In times past, for many Irish people, the Church provided important consolation. According to the European Value Survey, mass attendance and faith in the Catholic Church in Ireland continues to fall – although both are high in Ireland when compared to other European countries. The Church provided an important role in society, a place for people to turn to in times of need or at least something to believe in. For many Irish men and women, this belief in the inherent good of the Church has been seriously questioned following a series of scandals.

Another source of support was the local pub, the epicentre of social life in many communities. Despite numerous problems with Irish drinking culture, pubs often provide a central role in a community as a site of social interactions and support. This is particularly the case in rural, isolated parts of Ireland. From 2008 to 2012 however, it is reported that 950 pubs closed in Ireland at the same time as Ireland saw rises in off-license sales. Both factors have decreased the social role inherent in the Irish drinking culture.

These factors point to a worrying trend. Where do Irish communities now turn to in times of need? With religious faith declining and a growing distrust in the Irish political and religious system, Irish communities are coming together to protest about a new water tax. In the main, these protests have not been instigated by local politicians, but instead they are organised by local people, for local communities. By taking to the streets and protesting a water tax, the people of Ireland are breaking their silence, mitigating against social isolation and their feelings of powerlessness. In short, the protests are not just good for the cause, but for the wellbeing of the people of Ireland. Water just happens to be the uniting factor.

Notes:

1 “The Family Circumstances of Five Year Olds” (2014) Growing up in Ireland Report Number 4, pp. 5-7.

2 McGinnity, Russell, Watson, Kingston and Kelly (2014) “Winners and Losers: The Equality Impact of the Recession in Ireland” Equality Authority Report, pp. 22-26.