Report on anti-water charges meeting in west Belfast
2nd December 2004
All the issues surrounding attempts to build a campaign against privatisation of water and the introduction of water charges were the subject of detailed debate at a meeting in Andersonstown, Belfast, on the 30th November. The discussion was detailed but suffered from serious flaws. A lack of serious political analysis on the one hand and dishonesty on the other showed clearly the difficulty in building a mass campaign.
The presentation, by Carmel Gates, a member of the Socialist Party and President of the Trade Union NIPSA, speaking as a representative of the ‘We Won’t Pay’ campaign and with Gary Mulcahy speaking for the Socialist Party, was relatively straightforward. Past campaigns such as the poll tax in Britain in Britain and the water charges campaign in the South had shown that only mass non-payment was effective. The Socialist Party had launched the campaign with the specific purpose of organising those refusing to pay. Local meetings were being held across the North and a conference would be called at some time in the future to set up a democratic structure.
Asked about the role of those who opposed water charges and privatisation but were unsure about non-payment and further asked about the need to build an open and democratic campaign which could itself decide tactics, Peter Hadden of the Socialist Party was direct. There was already a campaign led by the trade unions. The Socialist Party was affiliated but needed its own campaign because the trade unions and political parties had a history of selling out and there was already a mass sentiment in the majority of the population demanding a militant non-payment campaign. Questioned about the negative history of the last non-payment campaign – the rent and rates strike – the platform argued that, because this campaign was cross-community, it would be too strong to be defeated.
It was at this point that dishonesty became an issue. The most dishonest element was the Sinn Fein response to claims that they and the other assembly parties had agreed to water charges when the Stormont assembly was set up. Cllr. Paul Maskey simply repeated a mantra that Sinn Fein had never supported water charges and that they never would – a false argument that would not have survived had the wider issue of privatisation in health and education been brought up or if anyone had been impolite enough to mention all the things in the past that provisional republicans had said they would never agree to.
The dishonesty of the Socialist Party lay in them ignoring the most recent upsurge around privatisation and non-payment – around bin charges in Dublin. This was a significant omission as new estimates had just been agreed by Dublin Corporation, just the day before the meeting, sharply increasing charges and putting to rest the claim that the non-payment campaign could by itself defeat the bin charge. Given that the party’s northern campaign is a carbon copy of their proposals for the Dublin campaign and that the Socialist Party had been, and continued to be, the largest political force in the bin tax movement, it might have been thought that the difficulties of the Dublin campaign would have merited some discussion.
On this dishonest base rested a confused and contradictory argument that the mass of the population were poised to take militant action while their leadership in the trade unions and the political parties stood ready to betray. The role of socialists, argued the Socialist Party, lay not in confronting the misleaders of the working class in a united campaign, but in leaving them to their own devices and, simply by splitting and endorsing one tactic, automatically catapulting themselves into the leadership of the working class.
There is in fact a strong sentiment against water charges, but it is more middle class than working class. Polls show the wide opposition to water charges, but they also show that the second choice to no direct charge is private metering – an attempt to ensure that the petty-bourgeoisie do not find themselves subsidising the great unwashed of the working class. The Socialist Party are well aware of this reality, as witnessed by a number of impassioned denunciations of metering from both the platform and members on the floor of the hall.
Possibly not dishonest, but certainly naïve, is the contention that a cross community campaign is by itself stronger. Demanding human rights, as in the campaign against internment through the rent and rates strike, is not sectarian, and the fact that Protestant workers could be persuaded to oppose it is a tribute to the power of sectarianism in the North – a power that has manifested itself time and time again even in ‘bread and butter’ campaigns and something that a mass campaign against non-payment would almost certainly have to face.
But the biggest problem of the meeting was the disjunction between ideology and reality. The argument for a mass campaign of non-payment, after a determined campaign of postering and leafleting, was put to a meeting of 20 people, 1/3 of whom were members of the Socialist Party.
The fight against water privatisation is going to be long, hard and difficult. A tiny left can only hope to have an impact through a united democratic campaign that is willing to take on existing leaderships within the working class and build a democratic campaign where militants unite around political principle.