A silent retreat
The Right2water demonstration in Dublin on 10th December had two central elements. It reaffirmed the mobilization of a significant section of the Irish population against water charges, against unending austerity and against pervasive corruption.
At the same time it marked a significant setback for the movement.
The fact is that in any struggle advance is followed by counterattack. In this case the government response was avoid the immediate use of water meters, promise a low flat charge, offer a bribe to those who registered and offer assurances that water would not be privatised.
The purpose of the changes was to save Irish water. If it could be preserved as a commercial government company the Troika programme would be preserved and in the long term privatisation would be assured - Irish water is tasked with a €6 billion renovation of infrastructure to be raised in loans. Once in hock to banks and bondholders there will be no turning back.
Close Irish Water!
The call to close Irish water was a popular one with the Dublin demonstrators, but it was not a slogan implemented by the left bureaucrats leading right2water.
Their strategy, supported by many of the political groups, was simply to organise the December mobilization, with the expressed hope that if it were large enough the government might retreat further. As part of the lobbying perspective it was made clear in advance that the December demonstration would be a non-threatening walk in the park, with a "carnival atmosphere" proclaimed.
Socialist Democracy is very far from advocating violence, but we do believe that, when a government so openly resists a mobilization, the next stage is to call for it to step down and to outline a programme of political resistance aimed at preventing itís functioning.
As it was, a protest aimed at the government was met with a ring of steel around the Dail. There was no protest from the bureaucracy, who should have at least formally challenged the Garda barricade. Instead they organized the rally some distance away and dismissed it without making any demands or presenting any strategy other than a petition. The lack of faith in the petition is reflected in the fact that twice as many people have attended each mass demonstration as have signed the online petition.
Legislation to establish Irish water has passed the Dail and Senate. It has begun charges from January 1st without any organized national campaign of opposition.
The government have successfully moved forward despite mass opposition because the spontaneous movement is constrained by existing leaderships that have proved insufficient in the past.
The reactionary role of the trade union leaderships was self-evident. The right of the bureaucracy, Jack O'Connor and David Begg, having signed up to water privatisation as part of social partnership and the implementation of the Troika programme, openly attacked right2water, Shay Cody of IMPACT went as far as attempting to ban his members from attending demonstrations. When O'Connor shifted to "support" it was with the transparent aim of diverting the campaign and ensuring the survival of Irish water.
The weakness of the left bureaucracy is less evident. The truth is that they are tied to the other trade union leaderships and to social partnership and to the Troika programme. The left bureaucrats are dancing in the cracks, avoiding any clear demands or programme of action. We cannot ignore the fact that over 100 000 people mobilised on a work day behind a call by left trade unions without any section of the union movement calling for industrial action or for their members to withdraw their labour to support the protest. Even less should we ignore the fact that the workforce of Irish water is made up of council workers seconded from their positions in local councils by agreement of the unions - including the left unions inside right2water.
The broad front was drawn so wide that it included Jack O'Connor, a leading opponent of right2water. It included Sinn Fein, who had weeks before supported payment, and who have now signed up to implementing mass austerity in the North. It included Fianna Fail, who first drew up the water privatisation plans. The December protest was clearly arranged by agreement with the government and Garda. The platform was not used to develop a strategy for the campaign. Proposals for a January demonstration have been set to one side, decisions are made by an ad-hoc steering committee and, in confrontations between Garda and water meter demonstrators, the trade union bureaucrats have distanced themselves from the demonstrators.
The magic bullet
The failure to prevent the establishment of Irish water has not been an issue of deep discussion or concern within the opposition to water charges. Many groups and individuals believe that they have a killer weapon - a mass non-payment campaign.
It is true that mass anger at water charges is at new heights. It is also true that a successful non-payment campaign would mean that so little revenue would be collected that Irish water would fail in its transition to a commercial company. The cost of water would remain on government books and the austerity budget agreed with the Troika would collapse.
However non payment is essentially an individual and passive tactic around a single issue. People sit at home and don't pay while the government deploys a whole range of political manoeuvres, threats and bribes to break the campaign. For that reason the vast majority of non-payment campaigns end in defeat.
The chief ideologues of a single issue non-payment campaign are the Socialist Party. They advance their argument through the simple method of ignoring the defeated struggles and holding out the successful struggles as exemplars. For example, the recent household charge campaign crashed in flames in an orgy of political sectarianism and is never mentioned. Instead the SP reach back to the original water charge campaign and to the British poll tax campaign of the 1990's. Even then there is no analysis, simply an assertion that victory can be achieved.
In fact the greatest source of data is the rent and rates strike in the North following the introduction of internment. This enormous battle lasted so long because it was part of a much larger struggle. It was when the broader struggle was forced back and the rent and rates movement isolated that it was finally defeated.
A wider movement
It should be self evident that the water charge protest is part of a wider uprising against austerity. Why then is there such little discussion about building such a wider movement?
Again the Socialist Party serves as an example. Why did it set up is own "can't pay, won't pay" campaign, effectively splitting from the broader movement?
The answer is straightforward. Many of the non payment campaigns have been defeats for the movement but successes for the Socialist Party and other left groups in that it has allowed them to build an electoral base and win seats in the Dail and local councils. The new "can't pay, won't pay" campaign, the close links to the Socialist Party and their anti-austerity front, the restrictive proposed conference limited to non-payment - all have a clear electoral perspective.
The Socialist Party are not alone in seeing the best way to generalise the opposition to water charges into a more general opposition to austerity through an electoral challenge. The Socialist Workers Party and their People Before Profit front share a similar perspective. Brendan Ogle of Right2water has been tight mouthed about an electoral role and an unnamed representative of right2water has given an interview in the Examiner saying that talks are underway to set up a new party. Even the Trade Union right in the form of Jack O'Connor has suddenly demanded abolition of the Universal Social Charge, putting clear water between himself and the Labour Party and allowing a shift to a new Labour Party mark II in the event that Labour continue their meltdown. In addition Sinn Fein have declared support for a concept often advanced by former UNITE leader Mick O'Reilly and the Communist Party - a coalition government of the left that would reverse austerity.
Certainly candidates advancing a socialist policy should be supported. Certainly the more left TDs, the more difficult it is for the capitalists. Yet the election of socialists, even the election of left governments, doesn't automatically lead to the defeat of austerity.
For socialists a basic principle is that electoral intervention should lead to greater mobilization and self organization of the workers. The history of the Irish left has shown a preoccupation with Dail committees rather than actions to support workers self organization.
One aspect of this electoralism is a tendency towards vagueness around policy in order to appeal to a broad swath of voters. Because of this vagueness groups such as the Greens, in the past part of an austerity government, and Sinn Fein, implementing full-blooded austerity in the North, are saluted as left parties.
The role of Sinn Fein clarifies the political bedrock of a fog of apparent broadness. They have carefully costed alternative, anti-austerity budgets that match, euro for euro, the government budgets and contain the same payments to maintain the bank bailout.
Union leaders Begg and O'Connor sing from the same hymn sheet. There is a better fairer way, but it must be found, according to O'Connor, within the "narrow confines" of the Troika programme.
A similar line is taken by the socialists. The defunct ULA produced a budget within the Troika guidelines. Recently Richard Boyd-Barrett of People before profit claimed that the Troika would have been happy to substitute a wealth tax for water charges.
The problem is that this is simply not true,
It is not true that a wealth tax, although justified, would generate enough revenue to negate austerity.
It is not true that the Troika would accept a wealth tax as an alternative to water charges. Privatisation of public services and resources is a central component of the Troika programme. The financial stability act outlaws state spending that would support public services.
Above all it is not true that Ireland is an independent nation and that a change in government can lead to a change in economic policy. Not only would the local gombeen capitalists threaten civil war at any attempt to make them pay for the crisis, the Troika would launch an economic war to bankrupt the country and bring the government to its knees.
A realistic resistance
So Irish workers have arrived in the same place as many other sections of the European working class. There is a rising up against a level of austerity that is becoming insupportable, while at the same time a socialist alternative doesn't seem to be present and workers cling desperately to existing parties and Trade Union organizations, or else to "new" movements based on similar policies. The potential of that scenario will be played out shortly in the coming Greek election.
The role of socialists in the new struggles is to support all forms of resistance while arguing for an effective and realistic movement and for a socialist alternative.
The most immediate task is to obliterate Irish water. That will require a democratic, national organization with a united policy demanding its closure - no more steering committees that obstruct real discussion and organization.
The context is a full-blown struggle against austerity and Troika rule - it would be nonsense to imagine that people would fight against water charges and yet accept mass evictions, cuts in pensions or further privatisation of transport, health and education.
We should ask Trade Union leaders to put their money where their mouth is. Trade Union members should be withdrawn from Irish water and return to their council contracts. Further demonstrations should include industrial action. Local action committees should include union branch and factory representatives.
The water charge con involves capitalists expropriating public property. An effective countermeasure involves drawing up a workers plan for water, demanding its implementation by government and local authorities and, where that fails, taking direct action to seize resources and implement the plan.
With the knowledge in Irish universities, the skills of Irish workers and water pouring from the skies - only imperialism and gombeen capitalism could make water provision a problem!