Media commentators in Ireland and overseas are collectively scratching their heads about why Irish people have peremptorily started protesting, at a time when austerity is almost at an end and the Irish economy is showing early signs of growth.
After all, over the past 4 years of austerity, we have dutifully swallowed onerous taxation hikes, meekly complied with punitive benefits cuts and gamely forked out for a myriad stealth taxes introduced by the government. Not once did we mobilise en masse to voice our dissent.
And yet now, the past month has seen hundreds of thousands of citizens take to the streets, it has seen politicians heckled and harassed and it has seen support for the government parties crumble. All over the ostensibly reasonable notion that we should have to pay for a natural resource. Albeit one that we in Ireland possess an abundance of – water.
Why now? What has prompted this sea change?
Enda Kenny incisively noted “this isn’t about water charges”. And he is correct. But not for the right reasons.
He assumes people have developed recession fatigue, that this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. That the populace feel they have been bled dry and can’t or won’t pay more.
But that is not the case.
When it became apparent that the country was banjaxed. When the wolves were howling at the door and the state faced bankruptcy, Irish people accepted that we all had to pull together to effect its rescue.
We unceremoniously booted out the gangsters who had run the country into the ground and put our trust in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.
The contract was simple. They promised to get us out of the mire and to do so with a new politics – one free from cronyism and corruption. We promised to take our share of the pain and to do so willingly.
The Irish people are generally a perceptive bunch and could see the extent of the damage, could see that it would require a collective Herculean effort to fix, that it would take sacrifice and determination to stay the course.
And they did so successfully, to the point that the country is on the ascendant. Enda Kenny is basking in the heady glow of international acclaim as the saviour of a doomed state and Ireland is the poster-child of European austerity.
But things are beginning to fall apart, the centre cannot hold, the country is poised on a precipice and the peasants are ready to revolt.
The reason for this is that the government has betrayed its contract with the Irish people.
Instead of shared pain, over the past year we have seen one instance after another of how certain sections of society were entirely insulated from the burden of austerity.
We have witnessed a government that continues to protect and reward the already privileged elite. We have discovered that cronyism is alive and prospering while the country suffers.
The vision of collective effort was a lie.
From the CRC, Rehab and IMMA scandals, to political appointments and tax evasion, the government has been exposed to be as venal and corrupt as their predecessors. And the establishment of the institution of Irish Water is the final nail in the coffin.
Irish citizens understood that we were fated to inherit an organisation that was inherently rotten at its inception. Dogged by the same inefficiencies, over-staffing, bonus culture and disregard for its customers as the universally reviled HSE and that we were going to be responsible for its ongoing enrichment and that of its cosseted senior management, board and consultants.
That was the red line for the Irish. That is why people are protesting so vociferously.
Because the contract we tacitly agreed to has been broken.
Because the trust that we placed in the coalition’s new politics has been betrayed.
Because our pain wasn’t shared equally.
And that is why even the so-called reasonable people of middle Ireland will not capitulate on this issue, despite the government’s sop of reduced and deferred water charges. Because this isn’t about water; not really. It’s about the Irish people losing faith in a political class that has betrayed us, about opening our eyes and seeing that the ruling elite have no clothes. And that trust, once lost, can never be regained.