The movement against the imposition of new charges by Irish Water has become a platform for opposition to austerity, bank bailouts, privatisation, the government, party politics, the EU, and more. Thousands have experienced a political (re-) awakening. But while it is possible that we will win this battle, and abolish Irish Water, this struggle represents a precious opportunity to launch a grassroots offensive after so many years of being beaten down. It certainly wasn’t always obvious that the fight against water charges would be so enormous. The massive turnout for the 11 October “Right2Water” demonstration came as a surprise to most, including much of the activist left.
People didn’t throng Dublin’s city centre out of nowhere. After the collapse of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes (CAHWT) around January 2014, crucially, a small number of people decided to stay active and stop the installation of water meters in Ballyphehane and Togher in Cork and then a few areas of north east Dublin. On this, Gregor Kerr, who was the secretary of the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charge Campaigns (FDAWCC) in the 1990s, opined: ”I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the huge protest on 11 October wouldn’t have been anything like the size it was without the slow burn for the previous months of blockades and protests against meter installations spreading from community to community. And it was no coincidence either that many of the people involved in water meter blockades had also participated earlier in the summer in blockades of scab-operated bin trucks in their communities in support of the locked out Greyhound workers.” The initiative and hard work of these early campaigners was the germ of the huge movement which has burgeoned since.
This is a large part of the reason the fight against the water charges has been far more successful than the fight against the household and property tax was. Kerr added: ”the fact that [the latter] was so fresh in people’s memories was undoubtedly important. But maybe for many people it was important from the point of view of people saying ‘We’re not going to allow the same mistakes to be made again’. There is a huge contrast between the way the two campaigns developed. The CAHWT was initiated by political organisations and was effectively strangled by some of those same parties/organisations as they jockeyed for control and positioned themselves to be the anti-property tax candidates in the local elections. In contrast the anti-water charges campaign has emerged from communities and the political parties and organisations have been running after it trying to ‘lead’ it. Indeed there isn’t an anti-water charge campaign but a plethora of groups organising in an ad hoc manner, some co-ordinated, some not.”
The attempt to impose domestic water charges in Ireland is not new. In 1977, domestic rates were scrapped (raising VAT and income tax), but in 1983 ‘service charges’ were introduced in most counties. From 1994-1997 a grassroots campaign in Dublin (FDAWCC), somewhat similar to the present one, repelled the water charge (a flat charge, no meters were used). This involved a strong boycott of the bills, mass demonstrations and court protests, a solidarity fund for legal costs, and reversing and preventing water cut-offs. The water charge was then scrapped for the 26 counties. The implementation of domestic water charges was in the previous Fianna Fáil-Green government’s Programme for Government in 2009. Then in 2010 it was a condition of the Troika bailout.
The purpose of Irish Water is certainly not ‘safeguarding your water for your future’. Only the most naïve would believe that the same politicians who decided to critically underfund our water infrastructure for decades – so that 40-50% of supply is leaked and whole areas are on boil notices – are suddenly driven to make long-term ‘tough decisions’ for the good of humanity. These are the same politicians who are committed to ignoring the very present catastrophe of climate change.
Irish Water was established to transform our water into a commodity. Even former Fine Gael junior minister Fergus O’Dowd spoke of being ‘deeply concerned at other agendas, they may be European’ and ‘[not knowing] where they are coming from’ when he was involved in the foundation of Irish Water. But this is not peculiar to Ireland. The global pattern is that ‘familiar mega-banks and investing powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse … are consolidating their control over water.‘ The UN has predicted that there will be a 40% shortfall in global water supply by 2030. In 2008, Goldman Sachs called water ‘the petroleum for the next century‘. Such corporations have been slurping up water utilities and reserves. For instance, Goldman Sachs bought Veolia Water, the largest water services corporation on the planet, in 2012.
Resistance to the Irish Water plan has been relentless. The movement has not withered away as many predicted, even in the face of Garda (police) repression and mainstream media denunciations. A sense now pervades that there is always some action going on somewhere, and that protest or dissent in general has become a sort of national pastime.
There is no lesson quite like being arrested, and thanks to social media this lesson has spread the length and breadth of the country. A ludicrously excessive Garda presence is a familiar sight to anyone following the anti-water charges movement, with packs of Gardaí crowding around a few meter holes as if protecting someone from murder. One protest in South Dublin saw not only a dozen Garda cars and vans deployed, but even a helicopter. The Jobstown dawn raids, the pepper spraying of protesters in Coolock, and the jailing of the 4 injuncted protesters only made it harder to swallow the idea that the Gardaí and judiciary exist to serve the people rather than the interests of an elite.
Attendance at protests is persistently under-reported and the movement has been hounded by a ‘has the protest gone too far?’ narrative (sometimes using outright fabrication). Some of this has been subverted through the establishment of important counter-media platforms. A sprawling network of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and a host of blogs and websites provide a means to communicate quickly amongst ourselves, keeping up-to-date on activity around the country, reacting to establishment spin and discussing tactics. This grassroots media network has given staying power to the movement, allowing protesters, who would otherwise be isolated and forgotten, to link with and inspire others.
At the heart of this movement is direct action, both in the prevention of meter installations and the boycotting of bills. People’s dedication has been impressive, with people regularly waking at 5, 6, and 7am to protest for hours on end, often in stressful circumstances. These protests can have almost military precision, scouting for meter contractors each day, communicating their movements via text trees. This is typified by Dublin’s ‘Flying Column’ who respond rapidly to alerts and drive to different parts of the city, and the Cobh, Co. Cork group who even have a makeshift ‘command and control’ centre. If anything, this movement is a testament to the ability of so-called ‘ordinary’ people to figure things out for themselves and organise effectively.
Despite the spontaneity, ingenuity, and grassroots nature of this movement, most of the left remain hell-bent on the tired strategy of electoralism. There is much talk of left alliances, broad platforms, and progressive coalitions – in other words, another attempt at social democracy. Along with an economic crisis, we have a crisis of imagination. Instead of advancing in the natural direction of this movement by renouncing parliamentary democracy as the un-democratic charade that it is, and spurring people on to wrest back power over their lives, “Right2Water” is encouraging us to entrust our fates in ‘progressive politicians’ and is drafting its own electoral programme. Considering “Right2Water” won’t back the boycott, its mobilisations are effectively election rallies, and the closer the elections draw the more it will focus on them to the exclusion of all else, it is worth asking if “Right2Water” – now a sort of meta-political party – has outlived its purpose.
Elections are where movements go to die, demobilising people and fostering divisions. Why bother taking action yourself when some politicians are going to solve the problem for us? And who will do the campaigning for these anti-water charges candidates? Well, water protesters of course. Leafleting, canvassing, organising meetings – time, effort, money, and hope, poured into what is ultimately an act of ritual mass delusion. We desperately require a fundamental transformation of society, and that cannot come from the buildings of parliament, it can only come from the great mass of people taking control of their destinies.
There has been much talk of SYRIZA as a model for change, but far less focus on Greece’s network of grassroots organisations comprising free medical clinics, alternative currencies and exchange economies, self-managed education, alternative media, and eco-villages. Surely this is more inspiring than a left party being elected to government? Clearly we are far from achieving this in Ireland, but this is the sort of politics we should aspire to. This is actually a ‘new politics’. The ‘Says No’ groups are promising in that they go beyond single issue campaigning, linking up struggles like homelessness, evictions, and austerity. They could be the embryos of powerful community unions through which people can participate in a real form of democracy and organise around local issues. It is essential to remember that this is our movement and our world, not the world of the politician, and if we want to change things we will have to take responsibility ourselves rather than rely on somebody else.
by Ferdia O’Brien | @FerdiaHOBrien