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Report on Belfast anti-water charges demo

JM Thorn

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 non-payment.
The next speaker was Peter Bunting of ICTU.  He warned that the “tap tax” not dead.  The delay in issuing the bills represented a “partial victory”. The plan to make people pay twice for their water had been thwarted for now.  Peter claimed that this was down to the efforts of campaigners.  They had forced a delay by putting pressure on political parties.   The issue of water charges had become so pressing that it was a “deal breaker” in the negotiations to restore devolved government.   Peter paid tribute to the efforts of the We Won’t Pay campaign, Communities Against the Water Tax, the Anti-Poverty Network and the trade unions. He concluded by reiterating the trade union movement’s opposition to water charges, water metering and privatisation.  Like John Curry, he warned that any future proposals for water charges would be met with mass opposition.  Bunting was followed by the special quest speaker, MSP and Solidarity Movement leader, Tommy Sheridan. He started of with a football analogy, comparing the delay in the water charges to a team winning its domestic league.  The team/campaign was now into Europe and competing for the prize of abolishing the charges altogether, the equivalent of winning the Champions League.  Tommy warned people to be taken in by false promises from politicians. For him the lesson of the of the struggle against the poll tax in Scotland in the early 1990’s, in which he was an important activist, was “don’t trust politicians, trust the people”.  He said that water charges would not be defeated through words but through action.  The key to this was for the working class to “unite in their communities”.  Tommy said that class solidarity, alongside the tactic of non-payment, were what defeated the poll tax.  He claimed that Gordon Brown was making people pay for investment in the water system through a triple tax, yet at the same time was underwriting the cost of the Olympics, cutting corporation tax and building a new generation of nuclear weapons.  As an example of this unfairness Tommy cited a recent report that the UK’s 54 billionaires only paid 0.14% tax on their wealth.  He concluded by saying the motive behind water charges was privatisation.   This point was illustrated with references to a Rory Bremner sketch in which a man has a car stolen and the thieves try to sell it back to him.  The message of the campaign therefore had to be “not only that we won’t pay but we won’t sell either”. 

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. 


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