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Mass demonstration against water charges in Dublin

The dynamic of revolution briefly glimpsed

John McAnulty

15 October 2014

It has become a truism that Ireland is the poster boy of austerity. The tiny island has paid the majority of the European banking debt. Repayment has been extended to 2054. Wage cuts have followed taxes, charges, public service reductions privatisations and sell-off of national resources – all with at best muffled expressions of opposition.

However the idea that Irish workers would suffer in silence forever was blown out of the water when a demonstration against a new company - Irish water - and the imposition of water meters and water charges led to a mass demonstration of 100 000 workers in Dublin on the 11th of October.

The mass demonstration, organised at short notice by a small group of unions under the banner “right2water,” put together on social media and ignored by press and media, sent waves of shock and fear through the Irish capitalist class. It puts at risk a budgetary and electoral strategy where the coalition government of Labour and the right wing party Fine Gael claim success for austerity and the start of a new era of economic recovery.

The enormous strength of the mobilisation was its spontaneity. Contingents were organised in local areas. Many had organised their own slogans, placards, banners and songs. There was a strong nationalist component in the sense that many carried Irish flags and there were banners quoting the 1916 proclamation – a reproach to the Irish bourgeoisie over the claims of independence and social justice contained within it. Republican groups to the left of Sinn Fein, such as eirigi, were very visible.  

The history of opposition to austerity has been quite reformist and electoralist, so the broadly anti-imperialist sentiment in the march was refreshing. A small minority spontaneously advanced the project of revolution. One young man had a hand-made poster – “we thirst for revolution.” A middle aged woman’s placard said; “the revolution is within us – let us release it!”

Of course the weakness of the mobilisation is also its spontaneity. Absent from the demonstration were all the major political parties. Sinn Fein had moved right to prepare itself for coalition after the coming election and had only a token presence. The demonstration, organised by a trade union group, had only a handful of trade union banners, throwing into sharp relief the reality that the majority of the unions supported the austerity and privatisation agenda through their role as social partners of Irish capital.  

And that reveals the mechanism that has fed Irish passivity. Irish workers have to organise is a situation where all the organisations they have traditionally looked to for leadership – both political and industrial – have been in the camp of the opposition.

For spontaneous mobilisation to become a new movement a sizable section of the workers would have to break from these leaderships. In reality they have clung to the industrial leadership, partly through simple desperation for some form of defence and partly through a widespread feeling of dependence on transnational investment. The relationship is shown by the right2water campaign. Its role as a trade union group acted as a seed for the mobilisation that no other current can presently play. 

So a potential new movement can be built now if the smaller groups can establish leadership. At the moment this is unlikely. The left groups have a long history of reformism, sectarianism and electoralism. They advance a programme of non-payment and civil disobedience, battling to win by elections. However an earlier campaign against household charges using this strategy failed and ended with a series of squabbles around sectarian advantage. An alternative leadership could arise from eirigi, which has been to the forefront in confrontations with Garda around the installation of water meters, but their focus is on direct action at local level rather than constructing a political movement at national level. The Right2water group could become a focus, but it lacks any policy beyond right to water and a rather vague opposition to privatisation that does not acknowledge that this is the only reason for water charging. The unions involved will not break with ICTU or social partnership and the strategy does not involve non-payment but rather a mass lobbying which they hope will force a retreat by government.

The sheer size of the protest opens the possibility that the existing currents will be blown out of their routinism and pushed far to the left. A first step would be the acknowledgement that the campaign cannot be restricted to the issue of water charging but must take up the whole gamut of charging, privatisation, wage cuts and service reductions as well as the quisling nature of Irish capital and the domination of the imperialist agencies in setting the political and economic agenda.

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