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Debate on Anti-Water Charge Campaign opens in Newry Trades Council
(Guest Speaker; Gary Mulcahy, Coalition Against Water Charges)

Hannah Cully (Writing in an individual capacity)

24th July 2006

At a recent meeting of Newry Trades Council Gary Mulcahy of the CAWC presented the campaign’s perspectives on how to defeat the water charges. These were simplicity itself. We have until April 2007 to organise ourselves into neighbourhood committees, the Stephen Nolan show’s phone-in proves that the support is there, and when the first bills come through the doors we simply don’t pay them! Problem solved! In the meantime the apathy that exists on the topic should not bother us too much as the Dublin experience of 10 years ago has shown that the real resistance did not occur “until the bills were dropping on to door mats”. 

Although this synopsis is a little facetious it does capture the main points and reflects the scepticism with which some in the audience greeted it. It may be worth bearing in mind that while a legal obligation to pay can concentrate minds wonderfully the response is not automatically one of resistance and one shop steward pointed out the likelihood was that resistance from middle class householders would be negligible meaning that the back bone of the campaign would be formed by working class households. 

What also seemed surprising was that the CAWC campaign’s focus on preparing organisationally for an assumed confrontation does not translate into an increased effort to push the existing organs of working class organisation, the trade union movement, into taking industrial action against plans for water privatisation. This omission was all the more obvious in a meeting held exclusively for trade unionists. To give justice to the speaker the lack of action by the Water Service group of Unions had been referred to in his presentation, but only in brief, and the fait accompli we are faced with, in relation to the privatisation of water processing, had been pointed out. However, despite an apparent awareness of the role of the leadership, and the campaign’s approach being described as “bottom up” there was no concentration on the trade union rank and file or any real strategy for a bottom up campaign within the labour movement. 

The speaker pointed out NIPSA’s support for non payment and the recent non payment motion slipped past the ICTU leadership, but the value of this unspecific and strictly oral support for a non payment campaign was viewed with some scepticism by some who failed to be inspired by the abysmal failure of these self same unions to take any action against the redundancies that are a direct result of privatisation and, as the campaign points out, are inseparable from water charges. 

Comments from the floor criticising the trade union leadership in general elicited a response that recognised that the Water Service workers had been demoralised by their leaders’ lack of action. But again, even though the speaker recognised how the demoralisation among water workers was engendered, there was no perspective presented on how to fight this decadence. The way in which the water workers were betrayed by their leadership strikes a chord with any rank and file trade unionist who has been part of a dispute recently and highlights an essential problem within the labour movement at present. Allowing this to be sidelined by a campaign that focuses almost exclusively on non payment wastes an opportunity to take the struggle against water charges and privatisation, and its natural corollary, redundancies, to the heart of the labour movement which already has the organisational ability that this campaign is patiently trying to build from scratch.

On the prospects of success for the campaign the speaker also met with a fairly negative response, although this could be in part put down to a certain degree of demoralisation it also contained a hint of realism.

Comments from the floor by two different shop stewards pointed out that a no-pay campaign would not be successful because of the experience of the rent and rates strike. This was countered by an assertion that this campaign crossed the sectarian divide and that as a result the nationalist working class would not be isolated. This however is merely hypothetical at present although it would be of some comfort if signs of resistance were coming from Protestant working class communities. As it stands at present the weakness is apparent. When questioned further on the repercussions of non payment for individuals, perhaps a sign that the campaign’s message was being taken seriously, the response was vague with the assertion that “other non-payers should support individuals who are victimised” this did not inspire confidence and appears to be a woefully inadequate strategy for organising a response to victimisation and leaves many important questions unanswered foremost among which is: Who will respond to these individuals need for support? Community groups that do not yet, to any substantial degree, exist? 

Attention was drawn to the lack of an overtly political response to the imposition of charges by one shop steward and another asked a rather probing question that expressed the fear that any campaign started at local level would be taken over by the “big guns”. The speaker’s answer implied that Sinn Fein rank and file members locally were already supporting the no pay campaign and were consciously, albeit in a passive way, in opposition to their leadership on this issue. No evidence has been found locally than proves the accuracy of this claim and in any case this suggests that the “big guns” do have the troops on the ground with an ear to working class grievances and as a result does have the potential to control and direct campaigns locally. Unfortunately the Council has broken up for the summer but further, much needed, discussion will take place when it reconvenes.


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