For students struggling to find the money to cover their ever-increasing registration fees and surviving on grants that seem to decrease every month, the water charges are just another source of financial hardship. Tomas Heneghan reports from the protest.

Up to 100,000 people wound their way through Dublin city last Saturday on a demonstration against water charges and Government austerity.

Children, students, the middle-aged, pensioners and whole families came out in force on the day. The clear and united message coming from all attendees was a resounding, “We’ve had enough.”

Protesters occasionally held their phones up en-masse in response to Tánaiste Joan Burton’s comments the previous week regarding protesters and their seemingly expensive phones.

Speaking before the march, Dette McLoughlin of the Right2Water campaign in Galway explained why she was there. “Of all the campaigns that I’ve ever fought in since 1982, I’ve got to say that this right to water is the one global issue that is just so essential to every living person on this planet.

“Water is a human right; it shouldn’t depend on whether you can or can’t afford it. It’s just so vital that no one person, or no one company, has the right to charge another human being for that basic essential resource. I’m here today because if we don’t stop this agenda now, it is going to be the end of our society.”

McLoughlin was also optimistic about the turnout, saying: “I’ve not known a turnout like this from Galway city for quite a few number of years now, so that in itself speaks volumes.”

“I hope it’s the straw that’s going to break [the Government’s] back,” she added.

Other protesters commented that they had not seen a march of that size since the anti-war marches of the early 2000s.

Protesters chanted from Parnell Square, down to Kildare Street, around the edge of St. Stephens Green, through Dame Street and right back to O’Connell Bridge. The sounds of, “Can’t pay, won’t pay”, echoed through the city for more than two and half hours. A second chant brought the demands of the protesters back to the issue: “From our rivers to our sea, Irish water will be free.”

The only lull in the chats came as protesters’ voices began to fail. On hand were bottles of water to clear the throats, the irony of which was played on by the marchers.

As protesters stood at the entrance to the Garden of Remembrance word came from the organisers that the front of the march was standing over a mile away, outside the gates of Leinster House on Kildare Street. Ninety minutes after the march began the tail end was crossing O’Connell Bridge. The two sides of the protest passed each other at the bridge and again at Trinity College.

Socialist Party TD, Ruth Coppinger explained why she felt the need to march. “This is now the number one issue in society really; it affects every single household, young and old. I’ve had students actually who’ve contacted me who are living at home, their parents are being charged for them potentially in their water bills, and they are really up in arms about it, and then of course this has united people, it’s given them confidence to challenge six years of austerity that’s gone on.”

On the turnout, she said: “It looks like it’s going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I don’t know, the numbers here could be even up to 100,000. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been on a march where you just sling along, it’s that crowded.

“When the bills arrive in January I believe that we can, based on today, based on the past number of weeks, build a mass non-payment campaign, similar to what was built in the 1990s, where people have the confidence to take on the government and to face the courts. If needs be, we will build legal defence for people. We can deal with any threats that they put.”

Coppinger explained that the mood of the people had changed, saying young people were now turning out to community meetings against the charges, where they may not have with the Property tax. “Now we’re getting young people, young women in particular. It’s really noticeable,” she said.

Melisa Halpin, a recently elected Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Councilor, explained her anger at the water charges and other government austerity policies.

“I’m here because the water charges are an utter rip-off. We have paid, in the last eight austerity budgets, the Universal Social Charge, a pension levy, a household charge, a property tax and for that we’ve got absolutely nothing and now they’re coming after us for water charges. All of that money is just going directly into bailing out the banks,” she said.

“I utterly refuse to pay for something that I have, that is ours. It is an utter disgrace. They are spongers and if we let them away with this, they will keep coming back for more and more,” she added.

Again on the turnout Halpin said: “I think this shows to the Government that we’re not going to take this. The two by-elections today also show it. It’s absolutely clear that if they persist with this, they will pay. They will pay through the nose in the next elections and we must resist this at every point.”

“I think [Joan Burton and Enda Kenny] will be having an emergency summit [Sunday] or Monday.” she added.

Halpin’s party colleague, Richard Boyd Barrett TD explained: “[I’m here] because I want to be part of the people’s revolt against these water charges. The water charges clearly, if you look at the numbers here today, have no mandate. The Government has no right to put them in.

“They promised before the last election they wouldn’t bring them in and we see the voice of the people expressed here today and I just hope Joan Burton and Enda Kenny are listening to what the people are saying.”

He added: “I think it’s unbelievable. This is one of the biggest demonstrations in recent decades. It’s an absolutely overwhelming message of resistance against the water charges, and is going to escalate from here if the Government doesn’t listen.”

Meanwhile United Left TD, Clare Daly, explained her view on the issue of water charges and the turnout at the march.

“This is phenomenal. This is enough to shock the government to the core. It means tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people will continue not to send back the application packs. They’re less than 12 months from a general election. This is their worst nightmare realised. And it’s the conclusion I suppose of years of austerity, where maybe people felt a bit demoralised, that people had lost the will to fight.

“That’s completely changed now. The backdrop to it is that people simply can’t pay. You take students, unemployed people, they simply cannot afford to pay, so it’s even the luxury of just protesting for the sake of it, they’ve got to participate in this campaign and there’s no doubt that it’s going to give them a huge confidence boost,” Daly explained.

She added that, “people are off their knees”, and there could now be no doubt about that.

There was also anger at a recent comment by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys regarding student issues.

Right2Water’s, Dette McLoughlin said: “Well it’s one thing to say you’re aware but the other thing is, if you’re aware of something as an elected political representative, surely you then have a duty to do something about it.”

“Anyone can stand on a podium, say something and then go home with a big fat wage. We elect people to represent us,” she added.

Minister Humphreys last week said she was “very aware” of the difficulties students are facing and that she understood the “issues around being in college.”

Richard Boyd Barrett of the People Before Profit Alliance also commented that it was, “pathetic.”

“I mean students have been hammered with registration fees. They’re now facing a massive housing crisis. Their maintenance grants are pathetic. How students are supposed to get through college, or huge numbers are supposed to get through college, is beyond me and obviously Heather Humphreys does not live in the same [world] as the one most students live in,” he added.