Recent weeks have seen dramatic scenes of working people taking action to defend themselves against the imposition of the hated water charges. Over 100,000 took to the streets of Dublin on 11 October, with at least twice that number demonstrating locally across the country three weeks later.
More significant than one-day demonstrations, however, are the many forms of local organisation that have sprung up – street meetings, estate committees, local groups delegating to area groups – bringing in people who have never been politically active before, including significant numbers of young women. The militant action of many of these groups is directed towards preventing Irish Water installing unwanted water meters. Residents with posters in their windows declaring they don’t want a meter have been standing on their stopcocks, blocking entrances to their estates and risking arrest in order to prevent installation – very often successfully. Meanwhile, a majority of households deliberately missed the initial October 2014 deadline for water charges registration (since extended by the government to February 2015), and the overwhelming sentiment is for a mass non-payment campaign.
The government has been forced into offering carrots – commitment to a flat rate for three to four years, and a 100 euro giveback payment for those who register – and sticks – ways of deducting outstanding payments from private rental deposits and house sales. This has backfired, if anything leading to an increase in opposition to the charges – senior government members now expect to be met by protests at any public event they attend and the number of communities preventing meter installations increases by the day.
The water charges are only the latest in a long line of attacks, but after six years of austerity, workers’ anger has boiled over. Two years ago a campaign for non-payment of the household tax nearly got off the ground but foundered for two main reasons. First, the government established a way to use the Revenue to collect household tax from wages and benefits. Second, the campaign was derailed by major participants projecting an electoral strategy as the way forward by promoting constituency-based organisation in opposition to those arguing for the kind of organisational forms that have been so successful recently.
With the water charges, things could be different. The creation of Irish Water as a company separate from the state, widely seen as a prelude to privatisation, means the government could not use the Revenue to collect the charges. Electoralism is still a very real danger, but the sheer numbers of people taking action on their own streets, without waiting for the election of “friendly” councillors and TDs, indicate a level of working-class self-organisation not easily limited to an electoral strategy.
The largest campaign against the water charges is Right2Water (R2W), sponsored by Sinn Féin, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and five trade unions (the Communication Workers’ Union, the CPSU, Mandate, OPATSI and Unite). R2W has organised petitions and big demonstrations but has refused to call for mass non-payment of the charges, despite that being the prominent chant on its own demonstrations. Sinn Féin leaders initially declared that they would be paying the water charges, only to backtrack when the strength of public feeling became apparent. Despite this, recent polls have shown Sinn Féin clearly ahead of the three main political parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour).
Sinn Féin were odds on favourites to win the recent Dublin West by-election, but were overtaken on second preference votes by Paul Murphy, standing for the Socialist Party’s Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA). This success was undoubtedly due to the fact that the AAA focused their campaign on the water charges and called for mass non-payment, offering advice and support to those facing the charges. Since then, Murphy and other prominent Socialist Party (SP) members have faced vilification in the bourgeois press for militancy on demonstrations, accused of “inciting” violence, amid dire warnings of a “sinister fringe” of “dissident republicans” being involved in the protests. All water charges campaigners, regardless of political views, should defend the SP and other targets of these attacks. In truth, it has been the Gardaí, the armed forces of the Irish state that have instigated violence.
In a clear attack on the right to protest, three young men in Dublin have been convicted (with a 28 day suspended sentence) for defying an injunction against impeding the installation of meters – with jail terms likely if that injunction is defied again. Others are being threatened with arrest and prosecution for public order offences. Loopholes in the law and errors made in arrest procedure should be utilised to get as many charges dropped as possible but ultimately we need to recognise that the legal system is part of the existing social system – an agency of the capitalist exploiters, not their victims, in the class war.
While supporting the mass movement, the Socialist Party tends to imply that the real fight will take place in the Dáil: “If a broad election challenge does not emerge from the movement, then Independents [without] any real record of fighting or Sinn Féin, who have not and will not fight austerity or capitalism, can be the ones to benefit” (www.socialistworld.net/doc/6992). While election campaigns undoubtedly provide a platform for important ideas to be discussed and a measure of the strength of feeling among voters, they are also largely a distraction: austerity will not be defeated by electing left-wing TDs or even a left-wing government.
Working-class people are already taking matters into their own hands. IBT supporter Alan Gibson, a leading member of “Cobh Says No to Austerity”, reports more than 20 local estate/street groups organised against meter installations in this town of 11,000 people. As the Irish Water contractors drive over the bridge from Cork each morning, “spotters” in cars follow them to their destination and alert activists and residents in which part of town it will be necessary to resist installations. Alan and two others were arrested on 30 October for “obstructing the work of Irish Water”, with others lining up to take their place on the stopcock when they were taken off to the local Garda station. The roads to whole estates have been blocked off, and public meetings and demonstrations draw larger numbers than Cobh has seen in living memory. At the time of writing, Cobh Says No has been successful in stopping any meters being installed where the residents do not want them.
Cobh Says No is talking to other local groups across the country to promote national co-ordination around resistance to water meters, non-payment of the charges and a call for both the charges and Irish Water to be abolished. We need to build on these embryos of workers’ self-organisation in order to not only resist current attacks but to build towards a future society in which the necessities of life, such as water, housing, education, childcare and reproductive rights, are available to all.
Unfortunately the campaign also called “For a safe water supply owned and operated by citizens for citizens and not for profit”. Although well intentioned and designed to oppose privatisation, this slogan as phrased falls into the trap of implying that all “citizens” are in this together, from billionaire Dennis O’Brien to those who are struggling to feed their children, let alone pay water charges. We live in a class society, and this has seldom been so evident as in this fight, where the opposition to the charges is predominantly working class, both in social background and in self-identification.
The reality is that the water charges are yet another attempt to impose the costs of capitalist crisis on the working class. One important element that has largely been missing from this struggle is workers organised not just in their neighbourhoods but in their workplaces. While the Communication Workers’ Union, the CPSU, Mandate, OPATSI and Unite have come out in opposition to the water charges, SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor initially echoed the government’s threats when he said that mass non-payment would mean Irish Water “will drift into insolvency, and then the Government of the day … will be faced then with the costs associated with putting the investment back on the balance sheet – and that would entail tax increases and public spending cuts”. The SIPTU leadership has since been forced to backtrack but still will not commit to joining the protests.
The contractors who install the meters are largely not unionised and show a mixed reaction to community resistance, from bottles of urine left on the street to advice on how the meters might accidentally cease to function. Workers directly employed by Irish Water are in SIPTU and IMPACT, and their support will be key to a mass non-payment campaign. When the Revenue was deployed two years ago to collect the household tax, there was no movement to mobilise Revenue workers to stop this. While a similar tactic with the water charges is more difficult, it is not impossible and the mobilisation of workers in Irish Water could be crucial for a successful campaign, building if possible to a general strike against the water charges. This will need to take place in the face of resistance from the current union leaders, who are deeply tied to the political establishment through a series of convenient arrangements such as the Croke Park and Haddington Road deals. A successful struggle could be the spark for revitalising a once militant trade-union movement.
It will also be necessary to draw out the political lessons of these protests, one of which is that it is illusory to imagine that water can be equally owned and controlled by all “citizens” while capitalism still exists, regardless of how many TDs are elected from the AAA. Another key example has been the role of Gardaí as defenders of private property and armed thugs of capitalism. Working people are seeing this with their own eyes – the beginning of recognition of the real social role of the cops. These, and other political issues arising from the struggle, need to be debated out in the street meetings, on protests and in the workplace.
The role of the guards in defence of capitalist austerity is not a case of bad policy on the part of the government, but illustrates the fundamental role of the state. In order to overcome the irrationality of a system that ricochets between bust and boom and always works for the benefit of the rich rather than those who create value in society, it will be necessary to build a working-class party with revolutionary politics. Such a party will intervene in struggles large and small, advocating democratic workers’ representation at every level, but also put forward a cohesive programme for the working class to seize power and share natural resources and the wealth of society among all those who need them.