Northern Ireland: British government/local parties make power-sharing agreement and retreat on water charges

Victory for non-payment campaign!

In a major climb down by both the British government and local parties, the proposed introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland was postponed for 12 months. Bills that were due to go out at the start of April will not be sent out. Instead, the whole issue will be referred to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, now due to meet on 8 May.

This is an important victory for the non-payment campaign. Support for non-payment had been mushrooming, especially as the final deadline for the introduction of the charges came closer. This support is in no small measure down to the successful work carried out by the We Won’t Pay Campaign over a number of years.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign was initially set up by the Socialist Party and spent the last few years campaigning in working class communities; holding meetings, organising stalls and canvassing at doors.

The campaign convincingly answered the government’s lies about water charges and built mass support for non-payment as the way to defeat them. Almost 100,000 people have signed the Campaign’s non- payment pledge. Socialist Party members in key unions managed to get motions passed committing the unions to back non-payment.

During the recent Assembly election campaign, the local politicians were left in no doubt about the depth of anger in working class communities, Catholic and Protestant, on this issue. From day one of the campaign, right through to polling day on 7 March, water charges dominated every debate and came up constantly on the doorsteps.

As the deadline for the bills to go out approached, an unstoppable head of steam was building up behind the call for mass non-payment. A demonstration in Belfast supporting non-payment, called for 31 March, promised to be massive.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign took the initiative, last Autumn, to organise this march. At that time, the trade unions and the other smaller forces nominally backing non-payment, seriously underestimated the support that was there and were not prepared to commit to a demonstration.

Groundswell of support for non-payment

But in recent weeks no-one – not even the tops of the trade unions – could have failed to detect the surging groundswell of support for non-payment. Following approaches from the unions, the We Won’t Pay Campaign agreed the 31 March demonstration should be called under the banner of the “Coalition against Water Charges”, a loose umbrella grouping that includes the unions as well as the We Won’t Pay Campaign. A very big demonstration was on the cards.

All this pressure made it impossible for the government or the local parties to go ahead with water charges, at this point. While the We Won’t Pay Campaign was spearheading the preparation for mass non-payment, the British and Irish governments were busily pressing Ian Paisley to lead his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) into a power sharing deal with Sinn Fein. The initial deadline set by the government for such a deal was 26 March.

A government with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy would be shaky at the best of times. A fragile arrangement like this would have enough difficulties holding together without having to lay its first foundations on the swelling volcano of a mass non-payment campaign.

Imagine if they had stuck to the government’s deadline, “done the deal” by 26 March, and maintained water charges. The anger of the thousands who would have turned out on the 31 March demonstration would have been turned on them. The new “historic” arrangement between Sinn Fein and the DUP would have had a honeymoon period of five days!

This is why both these parties emerged from the Assembly election saying that there could be no deal on power sharing unless water charges were deferred. In previous negotiations, they scarcely bothered to mention water charges. Now, as far as both Sinn Fein and the DUP were concerned, the implementation of the charges would be a “deal breaker”.

As it turns out, the DUP made a point of missing the “absolute” deadline of 26 March, mainly as a face-saving exercise and to help reassure their supporters they were not meekly dancing to the British government’s tune. Instead, they have agreed the Assembly and power sharing Executive will be set up and will function from 8 May. The one main condition that emerged as the key subtext of their agreement with Sinn Fein was that water bills, due to go out before May; would not be issued, a condition that Secretary of State, Peter Hain, promptly agreed to.

Well may Sinn Fein and the DUP claim credit for delaying water charges. Few people will be fooled. These parties, along with the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP (a mainly middle class nationalist party), took the initial decision to bring in water charges when they held power in the previous Assembly. Their somersault on the issue is not due to any real change of heart but is a belated recognition that the charges, as they stand, cannot be implemented and that no amount of coercion on their part will force people to pay the charges.

This is already quite well understood. Newton Emerson, a well known local newspaper columnist, writing in the (Nationalist) ‘Irish News’, was quite clear on the real reasons the government was prepared to postpone the charges:

“Progress towards power-sharing has nothing to do with the secretary of state’s surprise offer to delay water charging for a year. It is the threat of widespread non-payment that is wrecking the privatisation scam. Something has convinced Mr Hain that mass non-payment is a serious prospect…Perhaps he has compared the 13 per cent of Northern Ireland households who have already signed the non-payment pledge with the Northern Ireland Office report which found that no commercial company would touch the Water Service if non-payment reached 10 per cent. Perhaps he has noted the Radio Ulster poll where 95 per cent of respondents said they would ignore their bills. Whatever the reason a postponement would not be on the agenda if anyone thought there was any chance of people paying up.”

Secretary of State, Peter Hain, initially told a delegation from the GMB union that a delay would be possible. Regarding this, Newton Emerson continued: “Like the DUP and Sinn Fein, the GMB and the Secretary of State have realised that non- payment is likely to succeed and they all want to be on the winning side.”

Charges should be scrapped not “delayed”

The We Won’t Pay Campaign greeted the fact that the bills will not go out this year as a “victory for non-payment” but added: “this does not go far enough. The charges should be completely scrapped, not just delayed for another 12 months. As long as the threat of water charges looms, so will the threat of mass non-payment.”

We Won’t Pay meetings in the communities are going ahead. On the night the postponement decision was announced, the campaign held its first ever meeting in Larne, a small town north of Belfast. The 40 people who showed up were sceptical about what the politicians will or will not do once the Assembly is set up. They were clear that the only way to guarantee the defeat of the charges is to continue to build for non-payment.

The 31 March demonstration is going ahead, as planned, with the focus of attention now on the local politicians rather than on the British direct rule ministers.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have come out clearly for the complete abolition of water charges. The DUP’s position during the election was for metering of water bills and that the maximum charge should be capped at the average level of charges now paid by people in England and Wales.

As for Sinn Fein, they produced leaflets and posters proclaiming their opposition to water charges. Beneath the headlines, what they are actually saying falls a long way short of a commitment to abolish the charges completely. Their most recent leaflet on the subject states: “Sinn Fein will go back into Stormont [local government] to oppose the present system of water charges. In a future Executive, Sinn Fein will bring forward workable alternatives that will include full and open consultation, fairer arrangements and a pledge not to privatise water services.”

What they mean by “fairer arrangements” is – deliberately – left unclear.

Both these parties probably hope that a one-year delay will see the momentum for non-payment subside, so they will be able to bring in the charges, in some form, in a year’s time. This could mean giving every household the option of a meter and/or full or partial exemptions for pensioners, those on benefits and perhaps for the very low paid.

They will probably attempt to open up a dialogue with the unions and some of the NGO-style “community” organisations, to try and win them away from support for non-payment.

Whatever they do, the We Won’t Pay Campaign intends to maintain the pressure until there is a clear decision to scrap the charges completely. If they do go ahead and try to introduce the charges next year the response of the Campaign will be the same as it is now – We Won’t Pay!

No meeting of minds on national question

A Paisley-McGuinness led coalition is not the historic breakthrough proclaimed by the media. It is a significant step by both Sinn Fein and the DUP, one that they could not have contemplated even a few years ago. But it does not represent any real meeting of minds on the national question or on the other contentious issues that these parties, and others, use to keep working class people divided.

Sinn Fein and the DUP only exist, and only retain their support, because working class people communities are split along sectarian lines. For reasons of self-preservation, if nothing else, these parties will continue to do all in their power to make sure that this sectarian divide remains in place.

However, from one point of view, their decision to go into government together, even if it is only to divide up the sectarian spoils between them, is a positive development. It means they will be the people – not direct rule ministers – who will be taking the decisions on water charges, school closures, health privatisation, miserly public sector pay offers and so on.

It means they will no longer be able to wring their hands and direct working class anger on these issues at the pro-consuls and other overlords, who have been sent over from Westminster.

The anger against water charges, and the support for mass non-payment, has shown how class issues can cross the sectarian divide and unite working class communities. The deferment of the charges shows how wrong those in the workers movement are when they argue that it is impossible to defeat or wring concessions from governments or the ruling class. It is no accident that the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland was prepared from the beginning to help organise all those who refused to pay this unjust charge. This is part of the tradition of the Committee for a Workers International to which the Socialist Party is affiliated. In southern Ireland the leadership of the Socialist Party was responsible for leading the movement which defeated water charges there in 1996. Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Britain, succesfuly led a movement of 18 million people who refused to pay the poll tax leading to its abolition in 1991.

The part victory in forcing the postponement of these charges has already demonstrated, in a very practical way, that united action by Protestant and Catholic working class communities – in this case, the threat of united action – is more likely to get results. This – and not the uneasy coalition in the making between Sinn Fein and the DUP – is the real way forward in Northern Ireland.

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.