What does the result of the water charges referendum say about Trinity students?

Despite a misleading campaign by the ‘No’ side, an encouraging number of Trinity students saw the need to challenge the injustice represented by the water charges.

2,110 students, out of a valid poll of 4,619, voted in support of the call for the SU to campaign against water charges two weeks ago. The ‘Yes’ side was 5% short of a majority. Considering the lack of debate on the issue within the college in the immediate lead-up to the referendum, a 46% vote in favour of the abolition of water charges is certainly far from negligible. The fact that there were six sabbatical elections and two other referendums held at the same time makes it understandable that water charges were not centre stage.

Encouraging result

This figure is encouraging evidence that, despite the supposed connection-deficit between Trinity students and the reality of broader society and national politics, there is massive potential for fostering economically progressive politics among Trinity students. It is now clear that within our college community an appetite exists for challenging the hardship and injustice forced upon ordinary people in this state over the past six years. While those who advocated a ‘No’ vote may be breathing a sigh of relief in the immediate aftermath of the vote, the reality is that they should be more worried than confident about the future. Instead of a future where neo-liberal economics becomes even more unquestionable than it is now, where there is no question of universal, equal access to living essentials, the size of the ‘Yes’ vote illustrates students can be a positive force for change. We should not and must not isolate ourselves or allow ourselves to be isolated by reactionaries preaching that austerity and water charges are not student issues, and that therefore we should not be concerned with these or similar topics.

Misleading ‘No’ campaign

On the point of the referendum campaign, it must be pointed out that the ‘No’ side engaged in misleading and disingenuous tactics. The leaflets and posters issued by the ‘No’ campaign were designed along a myth/fact type of structure. It was presented as being a myth that ‘Irish water will be privatised’. The corresponding ‘fact’ was that ‘only the Irish people can decide to privatise Irish Water through a referendum.’ This is far removed from the truth. The government has forcefully resisted all demands that the semi-state company ‘Irish Water’ be protected from privatisation by ensuring a referendum is provided in the case of any government wanting to sell the company. The Oireachtas, where a government majority is in-built, will be the place where any decision to privatise our water is taken. Irish people could not have less control over our water than as it stands with the current formation of water charges. If privatisation of our water was not on the agenda, then a referendum would have been guaranteed in the event of possible water privatisation. The blatant untruth that currently a referendum is necessary for water privatisation should not have escaped college media scrutiny and the SU’s Electoral Commission should have acted decisively to stop the dissemination of false information.

The second supposed ‘myth’ was that ‘water is a human right and should be free’. The ‘fact’ was that the UN ‘calls for affordable water for all, not free water’ and that ‘Ireland is the only country in Europe without water charges.’ Whether or not Ireland is the only country in Europe without water charges is irrelevant when it comes to advocating for human rights. A common tool of supporters of water charges is to argue that those who oppose water charges are only ‘populists’ with nothing to offer people and no coherent logic. What is actually populist is to believe that we should have pay-per-use water charges simply because other states implement similar schemes. Whether populism is good or not is a separate issue, but the ‘No’ side’s stance was contradictory. They tried to tell you populism is bad, but argued that because there are more European countries that have pay-per-use charges than don’t, we naturally should have pay-per-use charges too. No one on the ‘Yes’ side and no political representative outside Trinity opposed to pay-per-use water charges has claimed water should be free. We appreciate costs exist where water treatment and delivery is concerned. What we have said is that water should be treated and provided to all by means of progressive taxation and commercial water rates (i.e. charge those using water for profiteering, not those using it for day-to-day living).

Water is a human right

We believe that there are such things as human rights and that equal, universal access to clean water is a fundamental right. The UN, through Resolution 64/292, directly recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. The resolution urged states to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all. Until January 2015, this state provided a water service that met those criteria much better than the new ‘Irish Water’ system does. The old system was affordable and no one was cut-off the public water mains. Now we have a situation where many will not be able to afford water. In 2014 UNICEF found that 28.6 per cent of Irish children lived in poverty. That was before Fine Gael/Labour decided to make them and their families pay the same amount for water as Ireland’s richest. A person earning €100 per week is expected to pay the same for water as a person who earns a huge salary. Water is being turned into a luxury good, a status symbol, and that is repugnant.


The third ‘myth’ was that ‘water meters are just another method of tax collection.’ The ‘fact’ was that ‘water meters allow us to identify leaks in the system. They create an incentive for water conservation.’ Water charges have absolutely nothing to do with water conservation. Nearly half of Dublin’s treated water supply is lost through leaks. To conserve water, the focus has to be on new piping. Instead, a bloated quango was set up, costing a billion euro to date. This quango then embarked on installing water meters. The installation of water meters is far from conservation-friendly. Huge quantities of water are wasted when the ground is ripped up and meters are attached to pipes. This referendum was about the current formation of water charges. The current formation of water charges is more anti-conservation than the previous universal, equal access system was. Water charges have been capped at €260 until 2019. So no matter how much water you use, it’s rational to be liberal with your water usage to get your €260 worth of water. Upon signing up to ‘Irish Water’ you will be put on the list for a ‘conservation grant’ of €100, which you will receive in September, regardless of how much water you use. In the chaotic efforts to get people to register with the company, all words with a positive tone have been thrown around and have come to mean nothing. Outside Trinity, most people haven’t been fooled and inside Trinity more people are waking up. The reality is that water charges have been forced on Ireland by the Troika and willing government quislings. The whole thing is nothing but a revenue-raising exercise. The same as were the Household Charge, Septic Tank Charge, Property Tax, Universal Social Charge, and increases in transport fares, and stamp, cigarette and alcohol prices. The government is quite open about this. They have repeated that one of the reasons for the semi-state is that it can raise revenue ‘off-books’. The argument being that the state will not be burdened with providing water to its citizens, and the cost of this service will not appear on the government’s balance sheet. It is nonsense to say this is not a revenue-raising exercise.

Financial burden

The ‘No’ leaflet (pictured below) stated that a ‘family of four will spend €260 on water charges this year. A student will spend €3,000 just to stay in college. Which should we focus on???’ It doesn’t seem to have been glaringly obvious to the ‘No’ side that many families already struggle to pay student registration fees and that having to pay an extra €260 on a service which was until January provided by their VAT and Motor Tax payments will make them incur greater burdens. It is not a question of opposing student charges and not opposing pay-per-use water charges or vice-versa. It is a matter of resisting every charge and fighting every cutback. Whether money comes from your pocket to pay water charges or student fees, it does not matter. In these instances the right to water and the right to education are being attacked, and financially we are worse-off for it.

It is worrying to see a campaign run on the basis of a belief that it is a fantasy to believe access to water is a human right. That raises not only questions for our society as a whole, but for the individuals who believe people are not universally deserving of unconditional access to water. What the ‘No’ side believe is that you don’t have an unconditional right to use water for everyday purposes. If you don’t even have a right to water, you can forget about having a right to anything else. The government and the ‘No’ side believe only the market and your wealth should determine what you can have. A man of a similar mindset is the former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe who believes “Water is of course the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question of whether we should privatise the normal water supply for the population, and there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right. That means as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”

Looking forward

Thankfully a bleak future of no water rights was rejected outright by 46% of students. The priority is to win over those who voted the other way and the large number who didn’t vote, in order to transform the student body’s outlook. As long as pay-per-use water charges remain in place and austerity continues to be unleashed against people in Ireland or anywhere else, we must further our resolve to bring about radical change based on human rights, empathy, co-operation and solidarity. Raising awareness about water charges in Trinity has been a step on a long journey to end grotesque inequality.

Photo: Maurice Frazer