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“Not gone away”

Tens of thousands rally in Dublin against water charges

3 September 2015

The huge turnout at last Saturday’s (29 Aug) Right2Water organised demo in Dublin is clear evidence that opposition to the existence of Irish Water and the imposition of water charges continues to resonate strongly with the Irish people.   Neither the passage of time nor the numerous “concessions” made by the government have succeeded in dampening down this opposition.  Moreover, it appears that the most recent developments related to Irish Water such as the Siteserv scandal, the increasingly heavy handed approach towards nonpayment and protest, and also the Eurostat assessment, have served to embolden people.   

This spirit of defiance was on full display at the demonstration as tens of thousands of protesters, who had set off from various points across Dublin, progressed along the Quays towards the GPO.  The various contingents of protesters - many of which had only county flags to distinguish them - were greeted which cheers and applause as they entered O’Connell Street.  There was a particularly enthusiastic welcome for the Jobstown contingent which included those people who are facing charges following the protest against Tanaiste Joan Burton.  What was striking about the composition of the protest - made up of people of all ages, from all walks of life and from all regions - was how closely it reflected the mainstream of the population.   Such a breadth of people - from the poorest sections of the working class to elements of the middle class - really indicates the degree to which austerity has impacted upon Irish society.  

As people gathered in O’Connell Street they were addressed by a number of speakers from the trade unions, community groups and political parties.  Right2Water spokesman David Gibney told people that the purpose of the protest was to remind the government that issue of water charges had not “gone away” but rather was likely to be “the biggest issue when it comes to the next general election”.  He said that the protest also served to draw attention to other social problems such as healthcare, education and housing – raising the broader question “about the type of society we want to live in and a vision for the future”.   These sentiments were echoed by John Douglas of Mandate.  For him the “arrogance and the disrespect for the Irish people” displayed by the government in the establishment of Irish Water typified how rotten the country was.  He said that the economy and society were broken – that they were “rotten to the core” and that the only recovery in Ireland was “for the elite few”.  In relation to water he said that the message to the government was very simple: “scrap water charges and get rid of Irish Water.”  Dee Quinlan from the CPSU highlighted the link between water charges and privatisation - “If we accept these charges and recognize Irish Water, we are then in acceptance of the inevitable privatization of water in this country.”  He claimed that the ultimate goal of privatisation was the reason that the government was refusing to hold a referendum to enshrine the public ownership of water services.  

In his address the Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy said that there was a mood of confidence among the people and that there was a feeling that “they have the Government on the run”.   For him the critical element in this was the massive “boycott of 57pc who haven't paid”.  He believed that the struggle could be won and that it was “now a matter of hammering in the final nails in the coffin of Irish Water."  Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald denounced the “bully-boy” tactics of the Government in trying to impose domestic water charges and praised the people that have “not been intimidated or bought off or persuaded that this issue is not important anymore- this still matters a great deal”.  However, she admitted that water charges would not be refunded if the party gets into government, warning that the “figures have to add up and you have to balance the books.”

It was notable that the speeches at the latest anti-water charges demonstration, particularly from trade union figures, were tougher than before.  However, this toughness is really only on a rhetorical level.  While the trade unions have to respond to public opinion and the anger over continuing austerity their fundamental stance of being broadly in support of the Troika programme hasn’t changed.  They may complain about elements of it – such as water charges – but they are in no way advocating its overthrow.   Indeed, they have been instrumental in enforcing key sections of it such as wage reduction and privatisation.   It is hardly ever mentioned that the trade unions facilitated the establishment of Irish Water through the transfer of workers from local councils. 

The strategy of the trade union leadership hasn’t changed since before the last general election.  That is not to oppose austerity but to get a party into government that will mitigate the worst of it.  Last time round that role was assigned to the Labour party.  However, with Labour facing decimation at the polls, there is a danger that the mechanism of collaboration with government could collapse.  So now we have sections of the trade unions leadership hoping to save labour - or at least the left section and others cosying up to Sinn Fein. The right2water unions, led by  Unite and Brendan Ogle are pushing the Right2Change Programme for a Progressive government  as a means of building something out of the anti-water charges movement that may pull together a loose federation that will include everyone.

Despite the different approaches what the unions have in common is a total focus on the general election and the belief that the presence of a supposedly sympathetic party in government will blunt austerity.  Yet why would this scenario unfold any differently after the next general election that it did after the one in 2011?  There is no reason to believe that it will.  Sinn Fein - the most  likely alternative to the Labour party - has already committed itself to the Troika programmne and has a record of implementing austerity as part of the Stormont executive.

What is missing from the perspective of both the trade union leadership, and also of the various left groups,  is that the working class itself should or could play any independent role.   Instead workers are relegated to voting fodder or bill boycotters  whose future is dependent on the make up of the next Dail.  The reality is that Irish working class can only rely upon themselves.  This is very clear in the case of Irish Water where the most effective opposition lies in the  hands of its workers.   The campaign  so far has frustrated the implementation  of  water charges and privatisation but it is a long way from being won.  It is also the case that austerity is being pushed  in other areas - such as public transport - without significant opposition.   The persistence of the opposition to water charges, the high level of non-payment, and the willingness to people to engage in mass protest are all positives.   Yet  without the development of an independent working class movement that is prepared to go challenge the broad Troika programme  the battle against austerity will remain blunted.   The task for socialist and trade union activists, as it has been for a long period, is to build such a movement. 

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