Report on Belfast anti-water charges demo
2 April 2007
Last Saturday (31 March) saw the latest demonstrations against the introduction of water charges to the north. While there were also mobilisations in Derry and Strabane the most significant one took place in Belfast city centre. The demonstrations had been timed to coincide with the creation of the new water company and the issuing of the first water bills. To some degree the demonstrations had been overtaken by the agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein on power sharing and the subsequent six week delay in issuing the water bills. However, they were still a good indicator of the state of the campaign against water charges and water privatisation
The Belfast demonstration was organised
jointly by the trade union based Coalition Against the Water Charges and
the We Won’t Pay campaign and attracted around five hundred people.
These were mostly community and trade union activists. It took the usual
format of Belfast demonstrations, of people assembling at the arts college
and then marching to the City Hall. Here the demonstrators were addressed
by a number of speakers. The platform speakers were introduced by
John Corry of Nipsa and the Coalition. He said that the objective
of the trade union movement and the campaign against water charges was
to unite working class people in a common cause. In was in that spirit
that the trade union movement welcomed the prospect of a restoration of
a Stormont government. He said that all “right thinking people” should
support the power sharing agreement. John linked this to the water
charges issue by appealing to the prospective new executive to listen to
the people and heed the message of the recent election that people didn’t
want water charges. While the delay in issuing the water bills was
welcome, the demand from the Coalition was for them to be completely abolished
and for the GoCo to be brought back into the public sector. John
concluded by warning that if the executive ignored people’s wishes and
went ahead with water charges the campaign opposing them would continue
and local ministers would face a massive civil disobedience campaign of
Tommy was followed by the second guest speaker on the platform, Joe Higgins of the Socialist party. He said that the delay in sending out water charges was a tribute to the strength of the campaign opposing them. It was the prospect of mass non-payment campaign that had forced a delay rather than the manoeuvring of politicians. He compared the current campaign against water charges in the north to the one he had been involved in Dublin in the mid 1990s. When the Dublin Corporation announced the introduction of water charges 1994 it faced a mass campaign of opposition. This was organised through the Dublin Anti Water Charges Federation and was based on the tactic of mass non-payment. Joe said that the campaign faced repression with hundreds of people going before the courts and households threatened with disconnection. However, the support of tens of thousands of households meant the campaign could defend itself and was ultimately successful. In December 1996, ahead of the general elation election, the Irish government announced the abolition of water charges. Joe said that the lesson of the Dublin campaign was that non-payment was a tactic that could succeed. It could defeat not only the charges but also privatisation. Joe concluded by saying that the broader demands of the anti-water charges campaign should be for “taxation justice” and “first class public services”. John Corry came in again briefly at this point, warning that water charges was an all-Ireland issue, because if the water service in the north was privatised the next target would be the south. He reminded people that the campaign was “Province wide” and that demonstrations were also taking place in Derry and Strabane.
The next speaker was Frances Dowds of the Anti-Poverty Network. She said that while the north was now a prosperous society there was still great inequality. The proposed water charges would have the greatest impact on the poorest people. It was not fair that people would have to pay twice for something that is a human right. Frances said that the privatisation of the Water Service would only benefit water companies. She warned that because bills were based on valuation of houses, and as houses prices were rising rapidly, the bills than would be issued in three years time on the basis of a new valuation, would be much higher than the current estimates. Frances concluded that by saying that politicians had to listen to the will of the people, as expressed in the recent election, and abolish the water charges. She was followed by Pat Lawlor of the We Won’t Pay Campaign. He said that the only tactic that could defeat water charges was non-payment. This strategy had been vindicated by the two delays in their introduction. Pat said that the power to defeat charges lay in working class communities. He claimed that the We Won’t Pay Campaign had 90,000 supporters and was aiming to sign up 200,000 by the end of the year. He said the strength of the We Won’t Pay campaign was that it was community based and free from party political control. Pat concluded by warning that water charges and privatisation were still on agenda and noted that no political party had come out for their abolition of water charges. The final speaker was Manus Maguire of Communities Against the Water Tax. He said that the demand on politicians should be for the abolition of water charges. When the executive meets on 8 May that must be the first item on the agenda. He said it was disappointing to see so few political representatives at the demonstration. Manus concluded by trying to get a call and response on the abolition of water charges going with the crowd but it met with little enthusiasm.
The demonstration in Belfast was bigger
than expected, but five hundred people do not represent a mass campaign.
The last We Won’t Pay rally drew about half that number. The extra
numbers this time reflect the trade component. However there is still
no united campaign. Rather there is a diplomatic alliance between
the trade unions, NGOs and the Socialist Party. This was exposed
in the run up to the demonstration when a backroom deal was reached to
resolve a dispute over ownership of the event. The views expressed
from the platform on the “victory” of the delay in issuing bills is also
completely erroneous. This was not done out of fear of a mass non-payment
but a gesture towards Sinn Fein and DUP for agreeing to share power
Indeed, it is a pretty empty gesture as the other part of the water
form programme, the creation of NI Water, went ahead on 1 April.
The process towards the complete privatisation of the water service is
still on track. It also wrong to build up illusion in local ministers.
After all it was local politicians in the last executive who first started
this process. Threats from the platform confront the new power sharing
executive are just bluster. The battle against water privatisation
will be a long hard struggle. On the basis of the opposition that
exists at the moment there is a long way to go in building a movement than
can pose an effective challenge.