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Belfast demo marks World Water Day 

JM Thorn 

25 March 2006

On 22 March, events took place across the world to mark “World Water Day”.  The purpose of this day, which is endorsed by the United Nations, is to highlight the importance of people having access to water as the basic necessity in maintaining life.  In Belfast, World Water Day was marked by a demonstration at the City Hall against the impending water charges.  Organised by the trade union led Coalition Against the Water Charge, it drew about forty people. These were mostly trade union officials and left wing activists.  This small size of the demonstration was quite predictable given he fact that it was not widely advertised or seriously built for.

The demonstration was addressed by a number of trade union officials and politicians.  Significantly, the politicians who spoke were from the SDLP and Sinn Fein.  Although unionists had been invited, they did not attend.  This has been a regular feature of the trade union campaign.  It has done everything it can to construct a broad opposition ranging across the local parties, but the unionist parties have refused to be involved. 

Instead of recognising the reactionary nature of unionism or the hypocrisy of the nationalist parties and the need to build an independent campaign based on the working class, on the last three occasions that they have tried to build a campaign around water charges the union leaderships have simply given up when they realised that they would not gain unionist support and hence the ‘cross-community’ lowest common denominator so beloved in the past.

However, on this occasion, at the level of policy, the statements made by trade union officials were better than in the past.  Three was a recognition that the key issue of the water charges was the movement of the water service towards privatisation.  Joe Bowers from the Belfast Trades Council correctly identified that water charges were a  “preamble to the privatisation of the water system.”  Brian Campfield of Nipsa also took up this theme when he said that the aim of his union, which represented the majority to workers in the Water Service, was “to keep water out of the hands of profiteers and people who are making a killing selling water as a commodity.”  He claimed that Nipsa was “strongly opposed to government plans to privatise water”. 

However, much of this is purely rhetoric.  In practice the trade union movement has done very little to oppose the privatisation of the Water Service.  Apart from a one day strike almost a year ago there has been no action.  Parts of the Water Service, such as water treatment works and customer services, have already been privatised without provoking a trade union response. Some trade union leaders even appeared to welcome  the government’s minor gestures on the level of the water charges despite the policy of privatisation still being intact.

Much time has been lost in the campaign to oppose water charges by trying to win the support of local politicians or lobbying the British government.  Charges and privatisation can best be defeated through industrial action by water workers with support from other public sector workers and working class communities. Mass democratic mobilisations against water privatisation remain the key task.  Token gestures such as the World Water Day demo are not enough.  It is welcome that elements within the trade union movement believe water charges remain an issue and that the key is privatisation.  However, to build a movement to challenge them we need to turn rhetoric into action.  With the introduction of water charges, and the transfer of the Water Service out of the public sector only a year away that is an increasingly urgent task. 


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