Overview of the anti-water privatisation campaign in Ireland

In her 2005 book Earth Democracy Dr Vandana Shiva said, "Without water democracy, there can be no living democracy." We see this sentiment echoed in water struggles all across the planet. Where citizens fight against water privatisation, against water poverty and for water justice, a common theme emerges, crisis's of democracy itself." Ireland is no different.


In 1985 the Government introduced a local-authority domestic-service levy. This included a charge for household waste and domestic water. Attempts by local authorities to reintroduce water charges were met with fierce opposition. There were public protests, a non-payment campaign, and many of those who refused to pay were jailed. In some parts of the country, groups of citizens organised to reconnect supplies where water supply was cut off for non-payment. The opposition continued and in 1996 domestic water charges were abolished entirely, and it was decided that funding for water services was to come from general taxation with £50 million to be ringfenced from motor tax for water services.

In the following years, investment in water services was minimal, and between 2008 and 2013 the Irish Government reduced water funding by 65 %.

Prior to the financial crash, Ireland had 34 local authorities (Municipalities) with responsibility for providing water services. In 2009, the then-Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government announced that water charges were to be reintroduced. They claimed the water infrastructure was in dire need of upgrading and domestic water charging would have to recommence. They contended that domestic charges would fund investment and encourage water conservation.

In 2010, the then-environment minister initially sought a referendum so that the Constitution could be changed to further protect against the privatisation of water services. This was rejected by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The department noted that two-thirds of all elected TDs had officially opposed the water charges. Also that year, Cabinet papers released to the state broadcaster, RTÉ show that the Government were in favour of metered water charges of €330 to €500 and the householder would also pay for the cost of the water meter. It was muted that a 'national water agency' would be established and that this new agency would keep directly employed staff to a minimum and outsource more labour intensive functions. This was two months before the Government formally requested financial aid from the EU and IMF

The Troika came to town

As part of the €85bn EU-IMF bailout, the Government commits to introducing water charges by 2013 and to moving responsibility for water infrastructure from local authorities to a new water utility. The Government was directed to sell state assets as a condition of the Troika bailout. Since Ireland's water infrastructure was in the hands of 34 separate bodies, the Government pledged to establish a State water utility company, to introduce domestic water charges and committed to eventually move towards full cost-recovery in the provision of water services. If Ireland had a public water utility at that time, we would have been forced to sell it.

Work began to set up the water utility company, 'Irish Water'. The junior minister who oversaw the project, Fergus O'Dowd, was to later state in the Dáil (Irish parliament) that he believed that there were "forces at work" with "agendas" to privatise the utility company and he said he was "deeply concerned at other agendas, they may be European… I don't know where they are coming from…" and said we have "real reason to be concerned about the possibility of Irish Water being privatised."

The sell-off of State assets, reduction in public service pay, tens of thousands lost their jobs, 400,000 emigrated, public services were slashed, and a general feeling of apathy descended on the country. Additional taxes had been imposed on the people, including a property tax and 'the household charge'. This was felt as being a step too far, and in November 2011, the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes was formed. The CAHWT became Ireland's most significant protest movement and was organised in every town and village in the country.

Simultaneously, 'Ballyhea Says No to The Bank Bail-Out' was formed. The 'Ballyhea says No!' campaign has a simple message, Ireland should never have been saddled with 42 per cent of the European banking debt. The Ballyhea group marched weekly for six years and became a 'hub' for activists. They still march once a month and have been the networking intersection for different campaigns, many of whom adopted the 'Says No' title.

The CAHWT was a failure, mostly because political parties used it for their own narrow agendas. The political parties diverted any interest in water charges/water privatisation away, and it was challenging to get the message out that, our water was under threat. Many activists became disillusioned, but the connections and friendships developed during that time were established and stable.

On January 26th, 2013, at the 100th march of the 'Ballyhea Says No' campaign, an anti-austerity group called 'Ballyphehane/South Parish Says No' agreed to work on water. We organised street stalls, collected signatures for the Right2Water ECI, produced information leaflets, began a crude' phone tree', held street meetings to raise awareness and organised small local protests. The main message was that, water meters were the gateway to water privatisation, and if a water meter cannot be installed, a bill cannot be issued.

Slowly, awareness was growing.

Two independent events occurred in April 2014. A member of parliament, a TD named Bríd Smith convened a conference in Dublin. "Our Water is Not for Sale" brought together activists opposed to domestic water charges, the trade unions' Unite' and 'Mandate'., environmental and anti-austerity campaigners from Ireland, South America and Europe to discuss water politics, water privatisation as well as climate change and other environmental issues. There was also a strong emphasis on developing strategies for resistance.

Meanwhile, 'Irish Water' entered a working-class housing estate in Cork City to install water meters. 'Ashbrook Heights' had been canvassed by the 'Ballyphehane Says no' group and one of the residents, Suzanne O'Flynn contacted the group for support to stop the meter installation. The water meter protest was met with a fierce police presence. There were arrests and intimidation, but the residents and campaigners stood steadfast and after a few weeks, 'Irish water' left the area, and no meters were installed.

To the outsider, the water meter protest looked spontaneous, but it had taken two years of awareness-raising to get to the point where somebody said no. The network that had been established through the CAHWT and the 'Ballyhea Says No' group, swiftly swung into action with support coming from across the country. The water meter protest in 'Ashbrook Heights' inspired and empowered thousands more to stand up, and the water meter protests began in every corner of the country.

Ireland had been battered by austerity and citizens had felt helpless. The water meter protests gave ordinary citizens a sense that they could take back their power. People began to become politicised; they developed social media skills, self-organised in their local areas and developed stronger networks. In Cork City, we had a small activist education program. This included workshops on self-care for activists, understanding local/national and European structures, global citizenship, necessary computer skills, craftivists workshops, positive activism, mindfulness training and non-violent direct action. We helped to facilitate a co-operative building workshop and experiential training on the Irish voting system. The Right2Water trade unions sponsored Political Economy training, and hundreds of activists attended.

The trade unions, who attended the conference in April, met during the summer of 2014 and the Right2Water campaign was born in Ireland. The abolition of water charges and 'Irish Water' as the primary objective. The. Right2Water trade unions facilitated 9 of the most massive protests Ireland had ever seen, with over one million people protesting. All of the Right2Water demonstrations were peaceful and good humoured. At the 3rd Rigth2Water protest in Dublin on December 10th 2014, the police brought attack dogs and horses, but the crowd of 80,000 remained calm in the face of provocation.

Local protests and water meter stoppages continued with significant police presence. There were arrests and intimidation, with Cork city getting a dedicated police unit to protect water meters.

Over the next couple of years, the Government waged a vicious propaganda war against the Right2Water campaign. In the Irish parliament, we were likened to ISIS terrorists. We were denounced as lazy nationalists (implying we were terrorists) who 'don't want to pay for anything'. National radio and television programs had biased reporting and played a significant role in trying to divide the citizens with callers to live programs saying we would 'bankrupt the country', did not have the national interest at heart, we would force the country to run out of water etc. Rural dwellers were pitted against urban, rural citizens have their own wells and bore holes. They said if they had to pay to have water, why shouldn't everyone else. The media neglected to mention that while rural dwellers were paying to have individual wells installed, urban households paid very high connection charges to the public system.

The more vicious attacks came from the Green party on national media. -It's worth noting that they were the party most in favour of domestic water charges and the party who prevented a referendum on water services in 2009-.

All this only strengthened the resolve of the protestors to continue.

The campaign forced several policy changes on domestic water charges including,

  • Reversing the need for PPS numbers. (PPS are a national identity number).
  • Changes in the charging regime included abandoning a standing charge of €50 per household.
  • Free allowances instead of per-litre charges.
  • Charging individual households for meters was dropped.
  • Bills to be capped at €260
  • Introduction of water conservation grant of €100 (a bribe) to encourage citizens to register as customers.
  • Reducing the per-hundred ltr price to €3.70
  • Revision of charging structure.
  • Temporary suspension of water charges.
  • 2017, refunds of water charges were issued.

NOTE: There has always been a fee to connect to public water and wastewater services. The charges ranged from €11,000 down to €7,000, depending on each part of the country. The connection fees are now standardised at €2,272 plus pipework, over ten meters, @ € 358 per meter for water, and € 3,929 plus pipework of € 442 per meter. A home connected to public water and wastewater, with pipework of 15 meters, will now pay €11,858. Irish people have always paid for water services.

Non-payment of water bills was a powerful tactic of the campaign. Many felt that they would instead go to prison than pay for a fundamental human right and with the media so interested in the campaign, the jailing of ordinary citizens would be too embarrassing for the Government. In 2015 the Government enacted a new law, the Civil Debt (Procedures) Act 2015. There had been a strong belief that the Government couldn't jail everyone for non-payment and now the new law meant anyone who owes more than €500 to services such as Irish Water could be forced to pay their debt through a salary or social welfare attachment order.

The company, 'Irish Water' has been drenched in scandal since it's creation. A company, which did not exist, was given a multimillion euro contract to install water meters. Exorbitant fees were paid to consultants, among the consultancy firms employed was a company expert on outsourcing. Initially, it was to cost €50 million to establish the water utility company, but that became €180 million. There were leaked reports of a massive bonus culture for staff, laughing yoga classes, a fully equipped gym and huge salaries and pensions for senior staff. The CEO was to be paid €200,000 + bonuses, and he later received a retirement payment of €573,000. Inferior water meters were being fitted with a life span of only five years; a company which did not exist-was awarded the contract to install the meters. We began to learn that our water services were being part-privatised through PPPs/Concessions. For years, Ireland has had a low level of investment in water infrastructure, and up to 2015 45% of such investment was delivered through PPP's (the 2nd highest in EU next to Greece (Dukelow 2016).

These and other scandals inflamed the temper of the Irish people and the protests grew.

Before the local and European elections in 2014, we worked extremely hard to raise awareness on water-related issues. Turning to candidates to highlight the problem was a mistake as most of them used it as a popular issue to get attention to themselves. Most of those who were elected in 2014 never mentioned water services/water privatisation again.

A general election was held in 2016. Water charges were the number one issue. Before the election in 2016, the Right2Water trade unions convened two policy conferences bringing together organised labour, political parties and community activists. A set of principles were agreed as a platform for the election. This included one policy on Right2Water and a set of policy principles, right2Jobs & Decent Work, right2Housing, right2Health, right2Debt Justice, right2Education, right2sustainable environment, right2natural resources and right2Democratic Reform. Soon after, without consultation with community activists, they created a new organisation, 'Right2Change'. There is a website where it states "Right2Change is about finding the policies that people want and then delivering them to the political representatives and candidates. It is then about educating the public about where candidates stand on those policies and whether they'd be willing to work together to have them implemented in a future government." Misinformation was spread online and the trade unions failed to communicate the message.

Most people didn't understand the concept.

There were town hall meetings around the country but there was still much confusion as to what Right2Change was. The trade union leaders were viciously trolled online and became very defensive when questioned by anyone. Lies and innuendos were widespread, and there seemed to be a concerted effort to muddy the waters of an already chaotic situation. Despite all the negativity, 36 people were elected to the Government on the Right2Water/Right2Change platform indicating that, perhaps, policies could come before personalities.

In fact, two-thirds of all TD's elected to the Dáil were elected on an anti-water charges platform. The two conservative parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, reached agreement on the formation of a minority Government. The deal included the suspension of water charges. An expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services was convened to examine the issue.

When the Expert Commission presented their findings, they questioned the rollout of water meters and recommended a constitutional referendum on the ownership of water services. Soon after, a government committee was charged with examining the report of the expert commission.

On April 6th 2017, after the leaking of a confidential DRAFT report from the Committee, the Right2Water TDs and gave a premature press conference declaring 'victory' for the campaign. Water charges were to be abolished entirely. The installation of water meters was to be stopped and replaced with district meters, and there was to be a referendum. A few days later, at the last Right2Water protest, one of the trade union coordinators said we had nearly won. He said ''We're on the verge of a really important victory'.

The protest was seen as a victory gathering without reaching its objectives. Our objectives are the complete abolition of domestic water charges, an end to domestic water meters, the disbanding of the water utility company and a referendum to provide constitutional protection against water privatisation. NONE of those objectives has been achieved yet.

A week later the Committee released its final report, but it was different from the 'draft'. Among the final recommendations of the Joint Committee were:

  • That public ownership should be enshrined in the Constitution as an extra measure of protection against any privatisation. A referendum.
  • Conservation efforts to include retrofitting; stronger building standards and regulations for all new residential builds.
  • Government consider how best to incentivise voluntary take-up of a free domestic water meter water meters to be installed in all in new dwellings and dwelling refurbishments that require full planning permission. Incentives to promote water conservation, including domestic water meters.
  • Household water charges were to return as 'excess use' charges, essentially putting into law water rations for the weakest in society.

We replaced 'domestic water charges' with 'charges for domestic water'. We have not won, yet.

Confusion, lies and discontent

"We hold the power of Gods in our hands, but we squabble like little children" Darren McAdam-O'Connell.

One of the trade union coordinators called for water meters to be incentivised at the press conference for the last Right2Water demonstration. This caused deep division and confusion, After the launching of the report of the 'Joint Committee On The Future Funding of Water Services', he and other trade union leaders began to talk of 'victory' and use the past tense (implying the campaign was over) when discussing the campaign. The politicians who had been elected on the Right2Water platform also claimed victory and encouraged people to use the power of the water movement for other causes. Online bickering ensued. Many activists believed we won, many more felt betrayed and many more just disappeared.

The Right2Change trade unions called another conference of activists and politicians in November 2017. Although they were bringing political, union and community activists who had been involved in the water campaign, water was not on the agenda. The conference was poorly attended, primarily because of more online misinformation and trolling. Many water activists felt betrayed even though water had been added to the agenda a couple of weeks beforehand, as an afterthought. Most community activists boycotted the conference.

Through-out the last few years, in-fighting, back-biting, online trolling, personal attacks and political hijacking has infected the campaign. This has also caused many activists to fall into obscurity and vow to never get involved in political action again.

The Right2Water campaign gave a voice to most societal problems, not just water. Issues, such as debt, housing, workers' rights, health etc were represented at all Right2Water demonstrations and events. No other campaign has achieved anything like that. Rigth2WAter joined the voices of the victims of the worst crimes of neoliberalism and could have been the catalyst for positive change in Ireland. It brought academics and community groups together with the trade union movement. This writer believed that the trade unions could have been the bridge between civil society and academia, and policy could genuinely be developed, informed by communities for the common good and implemented by politicians. However, it did not happen.

Water services today

The utility has commenced a program of upgrading the pipework, but leakage has increased. In Cork City leakage increased from 55 per cent to 58.26 per cent. About 400,000 people are drinking water with cancer-causing THMs. The utility company was prosecuted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for breaking the European Union (Drinking Water) Regulations 2014 requiring remedial action at water treatment plants providing drinking water, and The European Commission has opened an infringement case against Ireland.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has also found that Ireland has failed to uphold EU law in relation to almost 30 wastewater treatment schemes across the country.

Over the next few years, there are to be job loses in water services as a cost-cutting exercise.

Much of the work in water services, such as drain and sewage monitoring is to be outsourced.

Up to 2015, 45 per cent of all investment in water services has come from the private sector through PPP type contracts.

The water meters that were initially installed, at the cost of €560 million, have a life span of 5 years and water meters are now being replaced.

Billions of euro of public money have been pumped into the utility company, only to be pumped out the pockets of water privatisers. Meanwhile, our water infrastructure is not fit for purpose.

Democratic deficit

After the last general election, two-thirds of all TDs (members of parliament) elected were officially opposed to water charges, and there is 100 per cent support for a referendum on water services.

Most of the TDs who were opposed to water charges no longer mention the issue.

Although there is unanimous support for a referendum, the issue is being diluted in committees within the Irish parliament and has been referred to the attorney general, just as it was in 2010, and there it will remain.

In Ireland, the water campaign has pointed to the fact that political promises are diluted when it comes to water and Government commitments get washed away when it comes to our Human Right To Water.

Here, as elsewhere, the struggle for water is the struggle for democracy, accountability and integrity.


The campaign, in spite of all of it’s non-wins and non-loses, is probably the most fertile soil on which to grow something new. It shows how people who would normally not associate can work together. It shows how, the trade union movement can, if it learns from mistakes of the past, become the glue that joins all voices and facilitates real change in Ireland. If we can do it once, we can do it again. With proper objective analysis by all of us, community activists, political parties and trade unions, our true experiences can be used to build new, more sustainable movements.

Text by Norren Murphy dated 16 May 2019

Noreen Murphy is a Right2Water community activist, founder of the Water Democracy Movement Ireland. The opinions expressed here are her own.