The problems the Irish public have with the introduction of Irish Water are varied. From questions about the awarding of contracts to the government’s own report which suggests future privatisation and “competition in water” and the direction from the body to hand over PPS numbers to be stored for undetailed amounts of time, the objection to Irish Water doesn’t simply come down to ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ politics. The organisers of Saturday’s right to water rally hoped to combat the government’s plans and combine the smaller, localised demonstrations at water meter installations around the country into one large protest in Dublin. Coming at the end of a week that saw another inane comment from Joan Burton about the legitimacy of water meter protests and the insinuation that these people were professional protesters and a mass burning of Irish Water application packs in Clondalkin, I hadn’t a clue what the turnout would be.
On Twitter and other social media platforms, many were predicting tens of thousands, but I held on to my doubt, not least after another less than satisfactory USI protest the previous Wednesday. Over time however I saw organisers go from somewhat crude posters and promotional materials to sleekly designed uniform graphics. As it happens, my mother had planned on going into the march, and I was heading into town to work on this very newspaper so we both walked to the bus stop and hopped on the 25A from Lucan. My mam was disappointed that the bus wasn’t full to the rafters, but was confident that she’d be joining a large contingent. “I’d reckon about 5,000 will come out,” she said.
Upon reaching the quays, I knew she was right and both of us had underestimated the draw of the march. The last stop on the bus that normally terminates at Merrion Square was on Ormond Quay, and no cars were allowed past there either. The Garda helicopter screeched overhead as I left my mam and headed into College.
When the crowds started moving off and marching past College, they kept going for hours; there was a buzz in the city, one that I haven’t ever felt no matter what rally or assembly I’ve ever been on. From our office in Mandela House, we looked out every so often at the endless river of banners, flags, placards, bicycles, men, women, children, musical instruments and crucially, communities. You could see where a group from the country or outside the city had bussed up together, assembled together and held their own section in the procession. College Green became an epicentre, as the trail went past Trinity and up around the Dáil, around St. Stephen’s Green and into Aungier Street before spilling back down George’s Street, onto Dame Street and back to the GPO. The sun shone down as chanting, singing and the sound of drums filled the air.
After some documenting of the day’s events from the lofty perch of House Six’s second floor, I felt that I had to go down onto the ground and get some photos. The tranquillity of Front Square was breached by the whirring of the helicopter above and the crowd all around, making the decision to leave my colleagues and hop amongst the crowd all the more irresistible. I saw Gardaí – hopelessly outnumbered but also realising that there was no risk of danger – smile and resign themselves to facilitating the march as best they could. The AAA branded banners along with those of PBP and homemade posters were carried high and the atmosphere was one of harmony. Though these people were fed-up and angry, their temperament was friendly and relaxed, and their infectious mood was hard to resist. I wandered around like I have at festivals when I first arrive – mouth slightly open, trying to take in everything at once and feeling both an immense sense of hope and peacefulness.
This protest was important. The subject of the water charges is important for many, and this march proved that beyond all doubt. But it was also the point where a large proportion of the public decided to follow the endless jeering remarks about the placid, downtrodden Irish and their aversion to protest. Both on the streets and at the by-election count centres around the country, the government had a bad day. The combined efforts of both coalition parties in Dublin South-West and Roscommon South-Leitrim was not enough to come close to stopping the election of two opposition TDs – the AAA’s Paul Murphy and independent Michael Fitzmaurice respectively – with first preference votes for the Fine Gael and Labour candidates in DSW combined falling well below those of other candidates.
That the mainstream Irish media reacted in a predictable way to both these events isn’t surprising, however. The Independent described the election victories as an “upset”, while the Irish Times also left something to be desired during the run-up to the march, with political reporter Mary Minihan musing that the “Troika thing is a bit of a red herring” when talking about why the government is introducing Irish Water, even though all available documents show that even the initial Troika Memorandum of Understanding signed in December 2010 had clear provisions for the transfer of water services from local authorities to a water utility. This is not the media of those who were protesting on Saturday, as evidenced from the cheers on Twitter when the march drew out so many numbers through organic means.
Saturday’s show of solidarity on the streets is something that will stay with me for a long time. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for another of its size.