Return to Recent Articles menu
Socialist Democracy statement on the campaign against water charges
As the government mounts the counteroffensive, We must build a unified, democratic resistance.
There is no mystery about the "right2water" demonstrations in Ireland. The 100,000 strong demonstration in Dublin on October 11th, followed by demonstrations of over 150,000 across the state on November 1st, are a simple declaration that Irish capitalism and their overseers in the Troika had finally laid down the final straw that broke the camel's back. Ireland, once the poster child of austerity, has joined the mass of the European working class in mass protest against the constant sacrifices to preserve capital.
However the Irish have not moved further than their European counterparts. There is the same baffled rage, the same frantic search for alternatives within existing society. The possibility of a socialist alternative is not yet on the agenda.
There were many straws put on the backs of Irish workers: Government failure to maintain a water system so that there were water shortages and contamination in a country partly defined by high rainfall. The raiding of the pension reserve funds to pay for the installation of water meters rather than repairing the system – leaving workers such as those in Waterford Glass with no fall-back when the company wiped out their pensions. The government claimed that the meters were necessary to produce a culture of water conservation, only to impose charges anyway despite the majority of houses being without meters. In fact meters are easily the most costly and inefficient means of charging for water. Their main justification is political in that they encourage a “beggar my neighbour” mentality that has the victims blame each other for water costs, The government threatened that those who did not pay would have their water cut off and then assured us that there was no intention to cut the water off (quickly taking down the webpage with the evidence of the threats). Irish Water is set up as a commercial company, yet now the government was willing to swear that they would never privatise Irish Water.
Insult was added to injury when the government, at the behest of the Troika, added an arrogant demand for full personal details including Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers. This was not needed for water charging but would establish a large, commercially valuable, database. The legal basis for this was established when Labour leader Joan Burton secretly slipped it through a subcommittee attached to an unrelated piece of legislation.
Public anger rose further when details emerged of tens of millions spent on consultancy fees and lavish bonuses, while workers were threatened that water would be cut off to those who failed to pay, all this within the usual culture of crony corruption. A good example of the crony culture is provided by billionaire Denis O’Brien. He made his money on the back of the privatisation of Irish telecoms – the Moriarty Tribunal found that in its opinion it was almost beyond doubt that his winning of the contract was due to payments to a government minister. Now O’Brien has been paid out of the pension reserve to install the water meters. It is hardly surprising that his papers have carried the most virulent anti-protest propaganda.
However the final straw was the recent budget. Using the mechanism of a rescheduling of debt repayments to produce an election budget, the government gave the well off a tax break and proclaimed that the recession was over. In fact most workers had done their sums and calculated that, with the introduction of water charges, the "recovery" would push them below a line of basic survival.
The movement was utterly spontaneous. It was the purest form of protest: essentially a call to the government to change direction yet, as with all mass mobilizations, containing within itself the threat of insurrection.
Much attention has been paid to the rage induced by government lies and corruption, less to the processes that have forced the establishment of Irish water and forced the coalition to fight to save it in the face of popular revolt. All was revealed by Labour’s Pat Rabbitte, who claimed on RTE radio that the main problem was that the coalition government had been forced by the Troika to set up a commercial company in far too short a timescale.
So, as with much of austerity, this is a diktat of the Troika, implemented by a quisling government. In doing so the Troika are simply implementing a long-standing drive for privatization. States can no longer provide public services. Laws such as the Financial Stability Act restrict government budgets to a 3% overspend, which automatically forces privatization.
The key point however is that the road to privatization allows the government to take the cost of providing water off the books and declare an approved budget once a commercial company is formed. To prevent foot-dragging, the company must generate a target revenue. In the Irish case this is €305 million in the first year. The government’s retreat is cut off. On one side is popular anger, on the other the collapse of a carefully crafted budget and the anger of the Troika. It cannot give way and must move forward to fragment and demoralize the revolt.
It has several levers at hand. The right2water movement is a loose alliance. A number of different tactics are advanced by different groups. Above all the level of political consciousness is quite low, with many believing that all that is required is for the government to change direction. An example is provided by the Rabbitte interview where his opponent, Richard Boyd-Barrett of People before Profit, claimed that the Troika would have been happy to accept the same revenue in the form of a wealth tax. Not only is this incorrect, it is based on the assumption that we can operate within the narrow budgetary constraints set by the European Central Bank and IMF that 1% of the European population should pay 42% of the European bank debt.
This belief in a “better, fairer way” to pay the bankers has been common currency since it was first framed by the trade union bureaucracy. The majority of the trade union leadership hold to that nostrum, have agreed water privatisation and continue to support Irish water. One of the useful gains of the mobilisation is that it flushed Jack O’Connor of SIPTU into the open. On the eve of the initial demonstration on 11th October he launched a spirited defence of water charging as the least worst option. When that failed to disrupt the movement he was the first on hand with a strategy to split and distract the movement, proposing a referendum on water privatisation that would have blocked calls to simply abolish Irish Water and which fits hand in glove with government pledges that they have no intention of going on to privatisation.
The left opposition in the unions, led by UNITE, remains part of social partnership. It has left it to the final hour to launch a campaign, made the most gentle of demands, chosen to appeal to public opinion rather than launch any form of industrial action and remains blind to the open scabbing of SIPTU and ICTU. When the government made the first counter-attack with a witchunt claiming that demonstrators were attacking the Guards – in the face of evidence that the opposite was the case, Brendan Ogle immediately gave way and was to the forefront in denouncing the demonstrators.
Right2water is based on vague appeals to a human right to water. It is based on a successful 2013 campaign by the European Trade Union bureaucracy, accepted by the European Commission. However the legal status of this right is not seen as being in contradiction to privatisation or charging for water.
The specific demand of the Irish campaign is that there be no charge. Its strategy is to lobby the government with public demonstrations and with a petition. It does not support non-payment nor attempts to prevent the installation of water meters, so the campaign is a loose network agreed that they oppose charging but with different tactics for achieving that goal.
Just how loose the alliance is seen on the day of action on November 1st. Sinn Fein, who lost a by-election because of the acceptance of paying the charges, were on the platforms, as were Fianna Fail, the party that legislated for Irish water.
Sinn Fein have gained most from the mobilisations so far but they promise to enter a coalition government with the demand for abolition of water charges. If voters ignore their ignoble history in the North, how do they intend to face down the Troika? Their “fairer” alternative budgets so far have matched cent for cent government plans to pay the bankers.
The socialist groups call for a non-payment campaign, which given the popular mood would clearly be a component part of any campaign. However this is a tactic dressed up as a strategy and is actually the same “strategy” that they applied to the household charges campaign, only for it to collapse in sectarian infighting and rivalry. The main outcome was for the groups to increase their electoral base, which leads us back to the sort of electoral strategy that Sinn Fein advance. (In fact many on the left argue that it is possible to put forward a left coalition government, adding up everyone who is not Fianna Fail or Fine Gael).
The republican groups have linked non-payment to preventing the installation of water meters. This would prove to be a central tactic if the government holds to its promise not to have meter-based payment until meters are installed everywhere. It is however only a tactic. It does not by itself provide a unified national movement. For example should we not ask the left unions heading right2water, and the trade union movement in general, to instruct their members not to install water meters?
However the major weakness of the mobilisation is political. At the moment it exists as a very angry lobbying movement, calling on the government to change direction, in a long tradition of advancing interests through squeezing the local political establishment. The threat it offers is still implicit and this involves re-establishing an anti-imperialist consciousness – an understanding that Ireland, to an even greater extent that other countries of the European periphery, is subordinate to European financial institutions.
The mobilizations have been a terrible shock to the coalition government and its supporters. The battle is now on. The government realizes it will have to make a retreat. The issue is to limit that retreat to proposals that will demobilise and divide the opposition, while saving Irish Water and leaving the road clear for privatisation. A mixture of promises to cut the cost and declarations that there is no intention to privatise water are joined to assertions that sinister socialist, anarchist and republican forces are manipulating the marchers. Calls are made to protect Garda from attacks while they are routinely caught on camera attacking demonstrators. Court orders are signed to make opposition to water meter installation illegal by enforcing a 20m exclusion zones at meter installation points.
The emerging government strategy is reassurance that costs will be kept down, the most vulnerable elements will be protected and that privatisation is off the agenda. “There is no alternative” will be advanced, along with horror stories about the terrible costs that will be enforced if the water charge is not accepted. There is clearly the danger of a provocation, with the Garda using heavy handed tactics to intimidate protesters from the streets while the media attacks the left and principled republican groups, setting a red scare and the threat of subversives and terrorists.
The Long War
In contradiction to those possibilities there is the fact that austerity does not stop here. The coalition government has done some fancy footwork and dubious accounting to prove that the recovery is here and that we have never had it so good. That claim has fallen on its face and the counterattack will be handicapped by the realisation by Labour TDs that they are committing electoral suicide. All of the pain so far has centred on interest payments. The repayment of capital has yet to begin and the austerity will continue until 2054. At the same time the levels of corruption within the Irish capitalists will continue to be exposed. Tax impunity for transnational firms is accompanied by impunity for local industries and by rampant criminality on the part of the establishment. We are facing a very extended war between capital and the working class and oppressed and Irish capital will be deeply worried by the opposition that has now arisen.
In the coming fight a loose network of competing factions will not do. We need a determined and unified movement. As with any genuine mobilisation, it will employ a range of tactics. It requires immediately a national conference to set up democratic structures and agree a strategy and a political line of march.
The mass of the population are focused on water charges, but the idea that they would be happy with some other form of charges, taxes or service cuts in simply silly. We have to repudiate the austerity itself, repudiate the rule of the banks and the Troika, throw out the quisling government and begin to construct a society and economy based on the needs of the working class.
More than anything else the large mobilisations have been a lesson for the Irish working class in self organisation. The reason that these demonstrations have had such an impact is because that self organisation moved the focus of politics from inside the corrupt halls of Irish gombeen capitalism and on to the streets. The lesson is clear. It is high time we took seriously the need for a new party – not one focused on seats in councils and the Dail, but one which will fight to immediately promote and develop the self organisation of the working class on the streets, in the communities and workplaces, working to tear down the structures of capitalism and imperialism and build a socialist society.
Return to top of page