“Well it’s not about water, is it?” was Enda Kenny’s response to a question about the Irish Water protest in which Joan Burton’s car was blocked and she was struck by something that was fired at her by an angry protester. Burton herself chose to focus on how terrified she was that the proverbial children might have been hurt. She later accused Paul Murphy TD, who was involved in the protest, of failing to understand the significance of a graduation ceremony for those who didn’t receive a third level education.
For Kenny and Burton, the less it’s about water the better. The more it’s about vulnerable children put in harm’s way by “violent” protesters and opponents who can’t comprehend the importance of a“sense of achievement for disadvantaged people” the better. When in doubt, make it about the decorum and respectability of the discourse, rather than whatever is actually being said. Within the limits of “respectable” discourse, smearing shit on Aodhán Ó Riordáin’s door is more damaging to the fabric of Irish society than another tax on people who can’t pay it.
Respectability politics also reared its head last week with a government sponsored video promoting the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The video was criticised for shying away from the violent aspects of 1916. Stripping the Rising of any sense of urgency or disruptiveness, its centenary was made to look very respectable, like a careers fair that spurred people to be more dynamic and energised. The people who fought in the Rising were not “respectable”.
The water dispute that the government are currently engaged has the potential to turn very volatile. It follows from this that the last thing they can afford to do is highlight a cultural heritage of disregarding the respectable rules of engagement. Non-trench warfare? Attacking the empire while its back is turned? The Rising clearly did not follow the “respectable” discourse of how to achieve change.
Neither must the Irish people if Irish Water is to be buried. But Kenny and Burton will use every excuse to make it about respectability. Paint them as animals then you can tax them as animals, just like the British could shoot us as animals. The ideal commemoration of the Rising from the government’s perspective would be one that painted the rebels as savage dissidents who got what they deserved.
The government’s line on Irish Water, as it is everything, is we’re respectable because we’re respectable and if you disagree with us then you’re not respectable.