Ireland: “We won’t pay” say hundreds of demonstrators in Belfast

Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party change position to supporting water charging now elections are over.

Over 800 people took part in the anti-water charges demonstration in Belfast last Saturday. (31 March) This was an excellent turn out given the decision by the government and local parties to postpone the introduction of the charge. Had water bills been about to arrive through people’s doors, as was the original intention, the demonstration would have been many times bigger.

Indeed, earlier in the week, at a meeting of the Coalition against Water Charges, some of the trade union leaders had suggested calling the demonstration off, arguing that only a couple of hundred would turn up.

The attendance of many hundreds of activists from working class communities was mainly down to the work of the We Won’t Pay Campaign in building for the demo. This was reflected on the day itself with by far the largest and liveliest contingent marching behind the We Won’t Pay banners. The march from start to end was a sea of We Won’t Pay placards.

Platform speakers included Glasgow Solidarity MSP, Tommy Sheridan, Dublin Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins and Pat Lawlor, a UNISON convenor in the Royal Victoria Hospital, who represented the We Won’t Pay Campaign.

The main message from the platform, and especially from these three speakers, was that it was the threat of mass non-payment that had forced the government and the local parties to put the charges back. But a delay is only a partial victory. The other clear message was that we can’t trust any of the local politicians. If they can get away with it, they will introduce the charges next year. But if non-payment can defeat them this year it can defeat them next year as well.

This message was repeated at an excellent Socialist Party meeting of 50 people held immediately after the demonstration. The need for the working class to develop a political voice so that we can have representatives like Tommy Sheridan and Joe Higgins to challenge the local parties in a future Assembly was also spelt out.

As it turns out the warnings about the politicians have proved very timely. Two days after the demonstration the four main parties met to divvy out the spoils of ministerial office. In a dry run for what will happen on 8 May when the Assembly will be set up the parties indicated which ministerial positions they would take.

Sinn Fein chose the poisoned chalice of the Minister for Regional Development, the department that will be in charge of the water service.

Generally we expect politicians to wait until they get into power before they sell-out. Not Sinn Fein though! In their election literature for the 7 March Assembly election Sinn Fein had deadlines defiantly declaring: “A vote for Sinn Fein is a vote against water charges.”

On 2 April, just after announcing their new ministerial team and their portfolios, one of the key Sinn Fein spokespersons, Mitchel McLaughlin, in a television interview said: “If we separate out the legacy cost and we set in front of the people the legitimate cost of running and delivering a clean and healthy water supply to people’s houses, people are fair minded – they will pay that.” His comments were then echoed by a DUP spokesperson – Paisley’s son, Ian junior.

So, a month before the Assembly is due to meet, the DUP and Sinn Fein have clearly set out their stall. They will bring in water charges next year. They may make some concessions, packaging the charges differently and starting them at a lower rate, hoping that this will draw some of the unions as well as the professional “community” sector away from their current support for non-payment.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign has already made its position clear, issuing a statement condemning this u-turn by Sinn Fein and the DUP. The mass opposition to water charges is because it is understood that this is a double tax. People already pay for water through local taxation (rates) and are not prepared to pay twice. It is also generally understood that the real reason for the introduction of separate water bills is to prepare for the privatisation of the water service.

Our response therefore to Mitchel McLaughlin and Sinn Fein will be – “people are fair minded – We won’t pay that.”!

It looks like the work done this year to prepare to resist the charges if the bills had gone out in April will be a dress rehearsal for next year when the battle will be directly against Sinn Fein’s new Minister for Water Charges.

Postscript: Since this article was written Mitchel McLaughlin has issued a press statement headed “We Won’t Pay Campaign gets it wrong again”. In it he says: “Firstly politicians have no control over how television producers edit pre-recorded interviews but I have to say that even in the interview referred to by Mr Mulcahy (Secretary We Won’t Pay Campaign) at no time did I say that the Assembly would introduce water charges”.

What Mitchel McLaughin actually said is quoted above so readers can make up their own minds whether the comment “people are fair minded – they will pay that” signals a clear intent to bring in water charges or not.

Mitchel McLaughlin’s hasty response shows that how sensitive Sinn Fein are on this issue and also the impact mass non-payment would have on an Assembly.

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April 2007