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Water charges: Independent mobilisation, new state repression

11 February 2015

The mass demonstrations across Ireland on the 31st January show the emergence of a new force in Irish politics.

The spontaneous movement on water charges has stood on its own two feet and proved its independence from existing leaderships. It no longer needs the permission of left trade union leaders, the blessing of Sinn Fein or the approval of the left groups.

The new formation, organized around the broad community opposition to water charges, especially in working class areas, is far less differential than right2water. A storm of condemnation arose in the media and upper classes when Dublin activist Derek Byrne called the Irish president Michael D Higgins a parasite. Demonstrators responded to the outrage by carrying signs saying; "je suis Derek."

Unlike the December demonstration, where union leaders went out of their way to avoid confrontation, a large section of the crowd broke away to march to the Dail.

The demonstrators are signalling their rejection of the government concessions. They want a ban on water charges and the immediate closure of the new Irish water company.

Above all many working class areas want to continue the mobilization, want to harass political leaders and sabotage the mechanism of government.

The size of the January mobilizations puts enormous pressure on all the forces involved in the water privatisation.  

It puts enormous pressure on the government. The coalition and the Troika are absolutely determined to force the privatisation of Irish Water. They have cut initial charges as much as possible and cooked the books to meet the requirement that over 50% of revenue come from water charges.

The bottom line is that around 70% of the population must be persuaded to pay for water or the current austerity budget will collapse. Meeting that target will be impossible if current levels of mobilization continue.  So the carrot of reduced charges must be matched by the stick of repression of activists. It is against this background that the series of dawn raids and arrests of activists, including Socialist Party/Anti austerity alliance TD Paul Murphy, SP/AAA councillors and a member of the republican group eirigi have taken place, with indications that many more arrests are planned. The determination of the state can be seen in the fact that a political demonstration in which a government minister’s car was surrounded is being presented as the crime of “unlawful imprisonment”.

It is not only the government that is under pressure. The union bureaucracy has been social partners in austerity in general and water privatisation in particular. Evidence has recently emerged of secret talks where they arranged to transfer their member’s contracts from local authority employers to Irish water, with no concern about the effects of privatisation. Leading figures such as David Begg and Jack O'Connor have openly denounced the mobilizations against water charges.

O'Connor has now mounted a massive distraction campaign to restore his credibility,   Demanding changes to the Universal Social Charge as a "left" alternative to ending water charges. That campaign is bound to fail if mobilizations continue.

The difficulties don't stop there. The left of the union bureaucracy, organized around right2water, launched a lobbying and petition campaign that served as a catalyst for the mobilizations. They stood back from street protests in early January and are currently lobbying the European parliament. Continued demonstrations will make their retreat more visible.

The socialist groups are much more in support of the demonstrations, but even they have their difficulties. They have clung firmly to the left union bureaucracies and avoided confrontation with the right in the unions. This is not in tune with the feelings of local activists. In addition the "we won't pay" split from right2water by the Socialist party, while in tune with the views of many, will appear factional and restrictive against a background of continuing mobilization. The recent arrests and the gathering offensive of the state show the dangers of building a campaign that limits itself to a single tactic while the capitalists have an endless supply of measures to split the movement and isolate activists.

Independent republican groups have played an important role in local mobilizations but have not advanced a political template for a broader campaign. 

The mobilization of January 31st was not the responsibility of any of the existing organizations. For this reason it needs to rapidly build itself. It needs a national conference, a national structure and a politics and strategy to smash Irish water and end the scam of water privatisation.

It is important that the movement not find itself restricted to the single tactic of non-payment nor reduced to backing individual election candidates in the hope that the Dail can be used to cancel the charges. The first priority is to build and extend the mobilizations and to directly approach the workers whose co-option from local authorities to Irish water makes the whole scam possible.

That said, elections are on the way and the working class should use them as a platform if it is to avoid being written out of the political dialogue. That means that it has to move away from the partial and ad-hoc arrangements of the existing political and trade union groups and the raw spontaneity of the local organisations. This will be very difficult. The organised left have had a strategy that is bent towards a reformist and parliamentary perspective. Much of the spontaneous movements have been populist, with some clinging to the clientelist history of Irish politics and the belief that pressure on the local TD can force a change of direction, while others reject politics altogether. 

Both perspectives will face major reality checks, in Europe around the merciless response to the new Greek government, at home around the growing climate of repression. The movement will respond either by extending its opposition to the Troika and the local quisling capitalists or by being driven back.

A national democratic structure, open to all, would greatly extend the strength of the movement and its capacity to advance.

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