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“Aprils fool” rally against water charges

JM Thorn

3 April 2006

On the first of April the We Won’t Pay Campaign staged an anti-water charges rally outside Belfast City Hall.  This was to mark the countdown to the introduction of water charges and the creation of a new water company on the first of April 2007.  The tag line for the rally was “don’t let Peter Hain make an April fool of you, don’t pay”.  The rally, which had been heavily advertised and endorsed by a number of trade unions, drew a crowd of around 100 people.

The rally took the form of a range of people speaking from the platform.  While they came form various backgrounds, one thing they did have in common was that they were all members of the Socialist Party.  This was a reflection of the fact that the “We won’t pay campaign” is the creation of the Socialist Party.  The tone of the event was set by the Socialist Party member who introduced each speaker.  He said that the only way to beat the water charge was to refuse to pay, and that government was worried by the prospect of a non-payment campaign.  He reiterated again that non-payment was the only tactic that could force the government to retreat, citing the examples of the anti-water charges campaign in Dublin and the poll tax in Britain.  

The first speaker was Tony McGuire of the Fire Brigade’s Union.  He argued that the driving force behind the water charges and the creation of a new water company were multi-national companies and their insatiable appetite for privatisation and more profits.  He also warned that water charges were only the start, and that bin charges were next in the pipeline. People could send a clear message to government that these attacks were unacceptable by supporting the non-payment campaign.

The rally compere claimed that support for non-payment was high, citing two text polls on a popular local radio programme in which 70 per cent of respondents said they supported the tactic.  However, he failed to mention that similar polls also recorded a high level of support for water metering. 

The next speaker was Aideen McMullen of Queen’s University Student’s Union. She said that students would be particular badly hit by the water charges, which would most likely be passed on a by landlords in the rent. This represented a double tax, and the only way to defeat it was through non-payment. 

Next up was Socialist Party councillor Clare Daley from Dublin.  She recounted her involvement in the successful anti-water charges campaign in Dublin in the early nineties, but failed to mention the current bin charge dispute in Dublin. Rally organisers should be pleased with the attendance at the demonstration given that the charges are still 12 months away, and that people only realise their impact when they get a bill through the door.   

In his next intro, the Socialist Party compere took up the theme of privatisation. Privatisation was what water charges were really all about, and that their introduction, along with the creation of the new water company, were a stage towards this.  He cited the example of England and Wales, where water charges have risen dramatically, as evidence of what would happen if the Water Service was privatised.  

This theme was taken up by the next speaker, the president of Nipsa, Billy Lynn. The water reform package was a double blow, there was the charges, but there was also the hundreds of redundancies in the Water Service.  He said that private water companies were queuing up to take ownership of the north’s Water Service, and if they did there would be a poorer service as resources would be channelled into making more profits.  He said that Nipsa would “do all it can” to stop the water charges and the privatisation of the Water Service.

The final speaker was Gary Mulcahy of the We Won’t Pay Campaign.  He claimed that the government had been forced to delay the introduction of water charges and the creation of a new water company because of the level of opposition and fear of a mass non-payment campaign.  Though he did admit that it was clear that the government intended to press ahead with its plans.  Activists had 12 months to build an effective campaign.  The key to this was building up local groups, and signing up residents to non-payment pledges.  Such a campaign had to potential not only to defeat the water charge but also to unite workers across the sectarian divide. Gary ended his speech by reiterating the need for non-payment and theatrically ripping up a large “water bill”. The rally ended with the compere announcing that the Won’t Pay Campaign had already collected 40,000 non-payment pledges, and had set a target of 100,000 by the end of the year.  The Campaign would also have a contingent on this year’s May Day parade and hold a conference later in the year.

The rally certainly hammered home the message of non-payment.  However, this central message was also the main problem with the rally.  It was merely repeating the slogans of a campaign that had been up and running for two years and that has met with markedly little success.  Despite the rhetoric there is no appetite amongst the population of the north for non-payment.  This is even more the case with the government’s ‘concessions’ on water charges that mean the poorest households will be paying £60 in the first year on their introduction.  Who, apart from a few martyrs from the We Won’t Pay Campaign, is going to be taken to court, let alone sent to jail, over this?  

It is welcome that the We Won’t Pay Campaign is now increasingly raising the issue of privatisation and placing the water charges in the context of a wider Government attack on the public sector.  However, this makes the idea that non-payment as an adequate response even more ridiculous.  It also lets the trade union leadership of the hook.  Rather than seeking endorsement for rallies and non-payment, activists should be challenging the trade unions to organise industrial action against privatisation.  This is the sort of action that could challenge water charges, also and lay the basis for a broader defence of workers living standards.  To claim, as Billy Lynn did, that Nipsa, who represent most workers in the Water Service, are doing everything to oppose privatisation is a lie.  There was a one day protest strike a year ago, and since them sections of the Water Service, such as water treatment, have been privatised without a trade union response.  Also, there were many references to the anti-water charges campaign in Dublin, there were none to the more recent anti-bin charges campaign in which direct action tactics failed.  Why have the lessons of this struggle been ignored?  

Overall the meeting reeked of dishonesty. Speaker after speaker marshalled arguments for non-payment and against a broader campaign based on opposition to privatisation without ever acknowledging that there was an anti water charges movement outside of their own ranks – even with the banner of the Campaign Against Water Privatisation in front of their faces and the presence of an ATGWU banner.  ATGWU do not support non-payment.

There was an even greater reek of sectarianism.  The platform consisted only of the Socialist Party.  Even Belfast anarchists who had helped build the rally were excluded.

The two factors together mean that the Socialist Party are unserious about water charges.  They can’t, even in their wildest dreams, imagine that their party can act alone to defeat the British government on a central plank of their policy. Their decision to organise separately and avoid debate with the other currents opposing water charges means that they are simply running a recruiting drive for their own party.

That means that finally they are ineffective.  Despite an intensive campaign, getting motions through union conferences and being able to draw on the financial resources of Nipsa, they were unable to build a rally that was little bigger than their own members and the rest of the left.

There is still the possibility of building an effective opposition to water charges and privatisation.  With their current level of dogmatism and sectarianism the Socialist Party won’t be part of it.


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