Leo Varadkar did not look a happy man last night. But then he was lined up on Prime Time opposite Ruth Coppinger, and Ruth eats people like Leo for breakfast. Without missing a beat she brushed aside Leo’s charges of ‘socialist revolution’, orchestrated violence and all the rest of it. The irony is that if Leo is right – if there was orchestrated violence – then the government comes out looking even muddier than they presently are.
Because if what we’ve seen at Tallaght and Sligo was orchestrated violence then it’s been very successful orchestrated violence that achieved its objective. Mary Lou McDonald’s sit-in in the Dail last week bounced the political agenda back into the water charges arena: this was denounced as a stunt and disrespectful of Dail protocol. The events of Tallaght, Sligo and elsewhere built on that and made it clear that indignation wasn’t confined to Mary Lou. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to be sure, but you can bet your Auntie Maggie’s plumbing system that the water can will be kicked down the road. Leo babbled out news we knew already – that the government had decided to reduce drastically the bills for household water. Further to that, there’s talk of no bills until April, when it’s hoped people will have got bored or tired or fallen back into their obedient posture. What there can be no doubt about is that the combination of Mary Lou’s sit-in and more precisely the scenes in Tallaght and Sligo succeeded in making the south’s government do a hand-brake turn and gun all engines to get out of the political danger-zone.
Unfortunately, they’re still in dilemma-land where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they enforce the water charges, there will be civil unrest throughout the state and Fine Gael in the next election will make Fianna Fail’s results in the last election look good. If on the other hand they abandon water charges, they’ll have shown publicly that they haven’t a clue about running an economy and will do a backwards flip if they think it’ll save their political skins. So it looks as if they’ve opted for this third way: cut the amount charged and kick the can down the road as far as April, and promise you’ll keep the charges low for a few years anyway.
Will all that be enough? Hard to know. My bet would be that a sense of determination has gripped people in the south. An awful lot of people – including Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald – have said they won’t pay their water charges. People viewing the ‘violent’ scenes in Tallaght and Sligo, rather than recoiling from such demonstrations of discontent, will take heart. They may well decide the jails won’t be big enough if everyone sticks together on this. Faced with that kind of unyielding opposition, the government’s water plans – maybe the government itself – will collapse like a dodgy deck of cards.