Could Dublin tax protests break the dam of Irish politics?

Tens of thousands of Dubliners took to the streets yesterday to express anger over the proposed water tax. It's just the latest in a string of austerity moves that have put voters on edge. 

Peter Morrison/AP
Thousands of protesters congregate in Dublin city center, Ireland, on Wednesday to demonstrate against a proposed new water tax.

Tens of thousands of protesters are a rarity on the streets of Dublin. And when they have come out to demonstrate, the issue is traditionally more exciting than taxes.

Yesterday's protest, in cold, gray, windy, and wet weather, was ostensibly against a proposed water tax. In reality, the Irish anger was much broader and aimed at the policy behind the tax: five years of austerity mandated by the European Union

The peaceful demonstration had a distinctively anti-establishment feel. The “Right2Water” campaign groups a coalition of trade unions, Irish republican party Sinn Féin, and Ireland’s far left. Police estimated 30,000 people turned up, though organizers say 100,000. Either way, the streets of Dublin were packed, with many unable to get close to the stage to hear the speeches and performers, while traffic was backed-up well into the evening. 

Since the 2008 recession, Ireland has seen tax hikes, new income taxes, a new property tax and more, all part of the economic remedies ordered by the so-called “troika” of the EU, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund. And the mainstream parties that have implemented those taxes, have suffered accordingly. The popularity of the governing Fine Gael and Labor parties is near all-time low figures, with Labor, which traditionally draws support from trade unions, facing decimation. Ireland’s previous governing party, Fianna Fáil, has stabilized but not recovered.

The proposed water tax, part of the government’s plan to balance its books, ignited not only significant protest, but also inspired a widespread campaign of non-payment. Authorities say the tax is also needed in order to invest in an antiquated water network and as an environmental conservation measure.

But with the troika no longer directing economic policy, Irish lawmakers are now more vulnerable than ever to public pressure. Opposition politicians have called for a snap election. While that is highly unlikely, the government nonetheless has backtracked on the water tax, reducing the planned charges by almost 50 percent – the first significant policy climbdown by the coalition that took power in 2011.

The party that might benefit most from the anger is Sinn Féin, a one-time fringe party that now polls ahead of its rivals. However, a plurality of voters say they support “independents and others,” a group that includes the small socialist parties and independents of left and right alike. 

If a snap election were held and followed those numbers, it would be a watershed moment for Irish politics. A parliament elected according to recent poll figures would be Euroskeptical for the first time since Ireland joined the EU. And with the longstanding "two and a half party" system of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labor shattered, it would be more divided along left-right lines than at any time since independence. It may also be a lot less stable, given the sway of independents pushing local issues. 

Some commentators have argued this would force Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two broadly center-right rivals that have dominated Irish politics, to work together for the first time since they emerged from the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s.

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