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Assessment of the Water Charges campaign

Paul Flannigan

10 November 2004

The broad forces involved in campaigning against the introduction of water charges in the north have been holding open meetings to coordinate the diverse campaigns. Members of Socialist Democracy have participated in the meetings. This article is a preliminary assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and trajectory of the campaign.

First meeting – 14th September

The meeting was an attempt to better coordinate the plans of already existing campaigns. Manus Maguire chaired it in his role as a community worker, with some assistance from Tom Gillen of the Northern Committee of ICTU. Those present included representatives from the unions with a direct interest in the water service plus a few local organisers mainly from NIPSA, GMB and the ATGWU. Also present were a handful of ‘delegates’ acting on behalf of Communities Against The Water Tax. Also present were ‘information officers’ from the community and voluntary sector, some people from the Belfast Trades Council, a few supporters of the Communist Party. Some support for Sinn Fein was also voiced. One person from the SWP turned up; he was very late and was not able to participate in the debate. Peter Bunting of ICTU joined later but did not participate in the discussion. In total about 20 people were present. 

It started with update reports. Bumper Graham of NIPSA gave a report taking in the talks with the Northern Ireland Officials (Spellar’s people) and with the local political parties. The unions have been told to expect 600 or 700 job losses, 300 by April next year. By April 2006 remaining workers are to be moved out of the civil service and will likely be required to re-apply for their existing jobs. They will also have to leave the civil service pension scheme. 

He reported that the union had received a mixed response from the local political parties. Sinn Fein were the most active in support of the union campaign. They had already printed 100,000 leaflets setting out the case against the government’s proposals and had promised to put the issue to the fore at the up and coming talks agenda. The problem with meeting local politicians was that they tended to speak only on behalf of themselves and not on behalf of the party. Local councillors were more likely to promise support than MLAs, though Unionist party member Chris McGimpsey was helpful as was David Ervine of the PUP. He finished by saying that while none of the politicians they approached were actually in favour of the government’s proposals they were just not in a hurry to declare support for a campaign against. Only a couple of the MLAs turned up to an ICTU sponsored meeting in the Wellington Park Hotel. He finished by saying that it is easy for MLAs to be against what the government is doing as they are all now more or less in opposition mode. Some politicians expressed the concern that party political opposition might end with the north being penalised by all-powerful British Treasury 

A one time member of the Socialist Party gave an account of the community based campaign. His report was a little unspecific. The community campaign appeared to be differentiated from the Socialist Party’s own non-payment one. What they are doing is ‘raising awareness’ with the public by releasing information about the charge, setting up a website, setting up stalls, organising public meetings. The public is still confused by what the government is proposing and what it will cost the individual household. The ICTU and unions need to provide a better stream of information to the community based campaign. There was a good chance that Belfast City Council will provide the community campaign with £5,000 and access to council property to build the campaign. There was no mention of non-payment in the report. 

After the two reports some new information was introduced by one especially well informed civil service union representative: it was one of those don’t say you heard it from me contributions!  The new charge is to be based on the value of your property, there is to be no metering. There is to be a rate revaluation for the whole of Northern Ireland ready for 2007. It will be phased in instalment; you pay 1 third in year one then 2 thirds in year two. The lowest bill will come in at around £300. There will be no exemptions for the less well off. If there is to be a rebate any cost will have to be covered out of the whole charge. Time usually spent on making an Equality Impact Assessment is to be minimised to the point of being a mere rubber stamp. By the end of September an indicative charge is to be ready for the media. The projected average cost will likely work out somewhere between £500-£600 per household. The government tactic will be to preface the water charge with a substantial rise in local rates and then drop them again when the water charge is ready. This is to make it seem that the water charge is not an extra payment. 

The chairperson moved that the meeting should concentrate on developing the existing campaigns and implementing what had previously been agreed. The ingredients of the existing campaign were:

1 Lobbying the local politicians to come out strongly against the water charge, getting MLAs to sign some sort of declaration, and especially targeting local councillors who are more in touch with the opinion of the grass roots;

2 Getting an early day motion in the House of Commons, this is to be pushed by the ATGWU;

3 Getting more information out to the public to raise public awareness;

4 Raising funds for the campaign from other unions and the councils;

5 organising a joint union and party political delegation to Downing Street;

6 Organising a picket of Northland House for the end of September when the government is expected to declare its plans (there was a problem with picketing Westland, the PUP thought it might come under threat from the UDA);

7 Making preparations for a national demonstration for some date in October. 


The meeting was atypical in that the small left groups did not predominate; in fact the left was present more in spirit than in flesh. Although a few people that were once associated with the Socialist Party were prominent they did not even mention the Socialist Party or ask for support for its non-payment campaign. Its political flavour was more a regional version of the union awkward squad, union opposition to New Labour, with the ICTU people keeping a watching brief. Virtually all of the things that were proposed for the next period have been attempted before. This was actually noted at the meeting but the general feeling was that the campaign had been slow to gather momentum due to the fact that most people were still in the dark as to what the government really intended. It was assumed that things would gather pace in late September when the government is expected to declare its intention more overtly.

 In regard to the unions and industrial action, all of the union representatives said that they had certainly not ruled it out, however they gave no indication that they had certainly ruled it in. There would be an added problem in this case with the law. It would likely take a month to get any legal ballot in place. If there were to be some sort of industrial action, it was recognised that the government would certainly seek to get a court injunction on the grounds that the unions were not carrying forward a normal industrial dispute but inventing a political one i.e. thwarting government policy on the public-private partnerships. The feeling was that the government in the current legal climate would likely get an injunction making strike action illegal.  I don’t think we can emphatically rule out some sort of limited official industrial action in defence of jobs and conditions, but its scope might depend on just how much local party political support the union’s think they have behind them. The union people placed a big emphasis on getting more than just Sinn Fein signed up to a no campaign. There were really two strands in evidence; one industrial and aimed at defending the rights of the water workers and the other a community based lobbying campaign focused on the injustice of the water charge and they seemed to be haphazardly coordinated. 

The most likely future scenario could see the union organised anti-privatisation campaign continue but restricting its opposition to the lobbying of the great and the good and a few public rallies. Meanwhile the community-based campaign fragments into even smaller left-dominated non-payment campaigns, a part of the left may even prefer fragmentation but for now is holding back on pursuing it not to incur the untimely wrath of the central union leadership. This would not be a bad outcome for most of the interested parties. It would suit the government because it would not have to face a political strike and it would get its policy through with minimum disruption. It would suit the ICTU and trade union leaders who would not have to get mixed up in an anti-government industrial strike action but would also feel the satisfaction of believing they did all that could have been done for the water workers and the poorest section of the community. In this scenario the union leadership deliberately take a back seat to let the left militants run a community based non-payment campaign that fails. And it would suit the likes of Sinn Fein and other political parties who might profit from offering a symbolic support for non-payment by reddening their radical persona with a section of the electorate that sympathises with non-payment while resigning itself to having to pay.  And it would suit the left for it could try to form a vanguard out of those who are prepared to go to jail and avoid a political fight with the trade unions for not organising a genuine industrial-political strike against New Labour. 

Second meeting –28th September.

The second coordinating meeting of the Water Coalition comprising the Water Services Trade Unions, Communities Against The Water Tax and facilitated by ICTU as represented by Tom Gillen was a more substantial affair than the previous one. The turn out was about double what the previous one had been. The trade union delegation was broader and participated more in the discussion, officials from unions other than the ones directly employed in the water service were present: Amicus, Siptu and the FBU. Also, more mainstream political party opinion was represented, in addition to the usual small left-wing groups, the Workers Party was represented by Paddy Lynn, the Alliance Party by an elected councillor from Newtownards Council; the Council has agreed to sponsor a public forum on the water charge issue.  More surprising perhaps was the participation and influence of assembly member Robert McCartney and some of his staffers. In all about 45 people participated, as before the meeting was chaired by Manus Maguire of the Anti-Poverty Network. Also present were a couple of journalists from the BBC Spotlight team who are producing a television programme on the theme. They made a formal request to film the next meeting. 

 Before asking Bumper Graham of NIPSA to update the meeting, Tom Gillen in a short introduction flagged up a likely new challenge soon to face Congress. He referred to a leaked civil service document proposing relative adjustments to regional pay for the public sector in the north of Ireland. Apparently the premise of the argument of the leaked document is the public sector pay is deemed to be preventing growth in the private sector and so the overall wage bill for the public sector is in need of a press downward. Some in government have concluded that the evident skill shortage in the private sector in the north is being exacerbated by the attractiveness of higher wage rates and better conditions in the public sector. 

At the last meeting we were told that the government had now made the decision to form a GO-CO to be responsible for future Water and Sewerage Services effective from 2006 and that John Spellar had also confirmed that job losses could be as many as 700 after April 2006, and there would be serious changes to the contract conditions and pensions of the remaining workforce. He also indicated that the Trade Unions side would be seeking to hold meetings with the District Councils. 

Bumper Graham’s update covered the more recent meeting with Department officials and the latest contacts with the District Councils. The plan of the Department is to hold a 12-week consultation period to take submissions from the public as part of the Integrated Impact Assessment. Some leaflets have already gone out in North Down with some residents receiving the news of the proposed hike in domestic rates and the new water charge on the same morning. The Trades Union side have been informed that the GO-CO report is expected to be ready for publication by March 2005, the government will be seeking a 49% private equity investment. There is a legal issue over the Golden Share Option. 

He reported that the hoped for meetings with the local parties had to be cancelled due to the Leeds Castle talks. Efforts were now underway to arrange new dates for meetings. A date has been set for a meeting with the SDLP. To date the Trades Unions have had contacts with about a dozen of the Council Districts. Several district councils have agreed to take motions on the water charge from sympathetic councillors. Newtownards is at the most advanced stage, having already voted to hold a public forum. 

The update report was followed by a period of discussion. Robert McCartney led the discussion. He told the gathering that the financial crisis we were now facing was in no small measure due to the insouciant way the pro-agreement parties dealt with the financial arrangements in the talks that paved the way for the return of devolved government.  He quoted Mark Durkan, who is on record as saying that only 15 minutes of discussion between the party leaders and the British government was spent on future financial arrangements. He also claimed that it was the pro-agreement parties themselves that had first sketched out the basis of the current plan to increase the household rates and the water charge. He urged the Coalition to ensure that when they eventually get their chance to talk with the pro-agreement parties they impress upon them the urgency of renegotiating a better financial package for devolution, for there currently existed a very large financial black hole. He also insisted that the water charge was totally unjust and despite government propaganda to the contrary, people in the north do in reality pay for their water service out of the local rates.

Some of the trade union officials expressed their concern that the Coalition had still not tied down what its policy was, this needed to be rectified if the Coalition was intent on staging talks with the district councils and local political parties. There was still confusion as to what the unified programme of the Coalition was; some people seem to imagine that the Coalition is urging non-payment, others that the Coalition was arguing for a revised alternative to the water charge. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that at least £350 million was needed to upgrade the sewage system, but from what source was the money to come from, the question would be something councillors and MLAs would surely want answering. This intervention focused a debate and a division of opinion emerged.

Bumper Graham intervened to say that the Trade Union side had commissioned some research by an academic called David Hall that answered the question of an alternate means of payment. In Hall’s opinion as things stood about 75% of collected rates had been going towards the maintenance of the water and sewage system; approximately £130 from each household. If the bill for each household was to be increased by around £30 and the government agreed to put in a capital investment of around £350 million the crisis would be sorted and the north could carry on collecting as before. Bumper Graham felt that the public and politicians would surely accept such an outcome as an alternative to the one currently on offer and that this could therefore be the basis of a good strategy for the Coalition to follow. His proposal was supported by several other union officials, by the Alliance member and by Robert McCartney. Others though questioned the alternative payment plan on the grounds that Hall’s figures were base on estimates that were out of date and probably inaccurate. 

Gary from the Socialist Party who is in favour of non-payment voiced the strongest criticism of the alternative payment plan. He argued that the plan was terribly naïve, that the New Labour government was determined to press ahead with its own agenda and that it was wrong to ask people to accept an increase of any kind. A few people acknowledged the point about Blair’s unflinching ideological agenda but criticised Gary’s own suggestion of applying a non-payment tactic. First, the slogan of non-payment was nonsensical - it conceded that people were seeking to avoid paying when in fact they were already paying for a water service via the household rates. Second, Gary’s suggestion that the government was determined to impose the costs of the water charge come what may transfers just as readily to a non-payment tactic, those who decided not to pay would be treated harshly. The least well off would in fact have their state benefits deducted at source. A member of Socialist Democracy spoke and indicated that the debate over the charge was in anger of skipping over the other central issue, the sale of a public company to the private sector and the hike in charges was intended to facilitate the handover. A couple of union people agreed but one union official protested and pointed out that much of the water service had already been privatised.

At this point the chair Manus intervened, and said that the slogan of the Communities Against the Water Tax was not for non-payment but against double payment, it was ‘don’t pay twice’. He said that they have already arranged for the printing of 50,000 leaflets. Manus also thought that the Coalition should examine the whole question of alternative sources of payment, how much for example was business currently paying? It was agreed that Bumper Graham should prepare a position paper on alternative means of payment for the next meeting to be held on 2nd November 2004, he hopes to get David Hall to attend the next meeting. If others have other suggestions they can be submitted to the Anti-Poverty Network before Monday 25th October. 


As expected the meeting was bigger and felt more urgent than the previous one. A division of opinion between the union pragmatists and the community-based radicals was a little more in evidence than last time. The union based pragmatists have the upper hand and have been boosted by the presence of Robert McCartney and the Alliance, and the prospect of winning more mainstream party political support. They see McCartney as a very articulate and confident adviser rather than an opportunist. On top of this they believe they have a credible alternative proposal that most people would support and any reasonable government might be prepared to recognise especially if the local political parties pursue the alternative as part of a scheme for a restored local Assembly. However the division is still a friendly one to the extent that the union pragmatists are keeping some form of as yet unspecified community and grass roots campaign option open. Also a good number in attendance are still open-minded as to the right tactics. They believe that the current tactical options are not mutually exclusive. The verbal exchanges were respectful and never became acrimonious and the meeting ended in an upbeat mood. However there is still no united strategy in play. The various strands will likely continue to do what suits them best.


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