Ireland: Mass non-payment campaign transforms political landscape

57% refuse to pay hated water charge

In the middle of July a sullen Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, in a response to a question from Anti-Austerity Alliance TD (Irish MP) and Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) member, Paul Murphy, informed the Irish parliament that Irish Water (water company) would be releasing the figures for the numbers who had paid the first water bill the following day. As it happened the figures were leaked to the Irish Times that evening and they revealed that 57% had not paid the first quarterly bill for this hated charge. This represents 860,000 of households of the 1.52 million homes that Irish Water claim is their “customer” base.

A blow to the government

There was a stark contrast between Kenny’s demeanour that day to that of 13 May when he arrogantly told Paul to “toddle along” when he asked for payment figures of the water charge.

In reality, this level of non-payment is a huge blow to the Fine Gael and Labour government and once again illustrates the degree of opposition that exists to this charge amongst working class people. Few believe that its introduction was done with the aim conserving water but rather constituted a continuation of the austerity policies that Ireland’s working class have endured since 2008 when the economy plunged into crisis after the bursting of the property bubble.

The excuses offered by the Irish government and representatives of Irish Water for the scale of non-payment are simply laughable. The morning after the figures were released Elizabeth Arnett, the chief executive of Irish water, said in an interview on national radio that people just needed to be reminded that they were liable to pay the charge, implying that if people were informed more about the charge they would pay. In reality they, as the RTE interviewer pointed out, Irish Water and the government have now little power to coerce people into paying. Caught in the proverbial headlights, some government politicians claimed to be happy with the payment figures!

A revolt from below

The level of non-payment is the culmination of the revolt against water charges that began in the Autumn of last year. On Saturday, 11 October 100,000 working class people took to the streets of Dublin in the first major anti-water charge demonstration called by the Right2water umbrella group. It was on this same day that Paul Murphy won a spectacular victory in the Dublin South West by election which saw the Anti-Austerity Alliance take its first seat in the Dail (Irish Parliament) after its breakthrough in the local elections in May.

Paul (who joined Socialist Party TDs Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger in parliament) and the AAA had not only highlighted the issue of water charge in the campaign but also, in contradistinction to Sinn Fein (initially favourites to win the seat), posed the need to build a campaign of organised non-payment to defeat it. The electorate of Dublin South West supported the AAA’s effective and combative approach to opposing the water charge over Sinn Fein’s weak parliamentary opposition to the charge.

This was added to in November when Paul Murphy along with other AAA councillors participated in a peaceful community-based sit down protest in Jobstown in West Tallaght, Dublin that delayed the state car of Labour Leader and Tánaiste Joan Burton (Deputy Prime Minister) for two hours.

The media and political establishment immediately sought to vilify this deprived working class community and Paul and the AAA for participating in and supporting this protest. However we came out fighting against this witch-hunt which sought to demonise both the people of Jobstown and the wider water charges movement. Socialist Party and AAA TDs in the subsequent week defended the protest in interviews in the national media which meant that the capitalist establishment failed to denigrate the campaign in the eyes of the wider public and instead it was the government who were put in the dock for the devastating effect their austerity policies have had on working class communities.

In the following weeks and months, thousands became active in local anti-water charges campaigns that sprung up against the implementation of the charge itself and attempts by Irish Water to install water metres.

Mass demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands heaped political pressure on the government. On 1 November 200,000 marched in a series of local and regional protests throughout the state and on 10 December 80,000 marched in a mid-week protest in Dublin city centre. By January, around 350 Facebook pages existed for different local campaigns throughout the country. Many attended street meetings organised at short notice via social media organised by the new grassroots campaigns.

This level of working class activity, particularly in more hard-pressed working class communities, had not been seen in a generation given the legacy of social partnership that had diminished the rank and file shop stewards movement that had existed in workplaces up until the late 1980s.

In the initial phases of the crisis, the scale of the downturn and then later arrival of the Troika had a stunning effect on the consciousness of working class people. This, combined with the craven and treacherous role of the majority of trade union leaders, meant an absence of generalised struggle against austerity with the notable exception of the household tax campaign in the first three months of 2012 in which the Socialist Party was a prime driving force.

However, this new movement had much greater involvement of sections the urban working class than the household tax campaign. It constituted an explosion from below reflecting the pent up anger and disgust against the imposition of €31 billion in cuts and extra taxes by the two successive governments and the Troika. This was while banks were bailed out to the tune €64 billion and the richest 300 saw their wealth increase by €34 billion in the space of five years.

What added to this anger was the talk of economic recovery by the government and media throughout 2014 which was not having and is still not having, a real material effect on the living standards of the majority. Many of the local groups that sprung up in the initial phase of the campaign had the name of their community in them followed by “says no” in their title. It was a message, however inchoate, of opposition to the capitalist establishment in Ireland and Europe and the unrelenting class war that they have waged on working class people in the name of austerity.

The broad campaign

From the very outset the Socialist Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance was an important part of the anti-water charges movement and in the Right2Water (R2W) campaign. Basing ourselves on the experiences of the previous successful water charges battle that took place in Dublin from 1993 to 1996, in which the Socialist Party played a key leading role, we understood that a campaign that advocated and actively organised non-payment was critical to defeating the charge.

Such a campaign should of course be linked to mass protests, the kind of protests that took place in the final months of last year. Unfortunately, this view was not shared by the five main unions that were involved in setting up Right2water or by Sinn Fein.

While nominally being in favour of non-payment, the People Before Profit Alliance and its central political component, the Socialist Workers Party, unfortunately didn’t prioritise, fight for and organise the building of mass non-payment in communities in the way that was necessary. We hope that this will be recognised for the mistake that it was. It is easier now but still it is vital that from now till the general election that all left groups seriously fight to popularise the non-payment message even more.

R2W fails to support boycott

All working class movements have ebbs and flows in the levels of activity at different points. The height of the intense period of activity around opposition to water charges was in the final months of last year culminating in the 10 December mid-week protest.

The concessions given by the government in November undoubtedly have had an effect on the numbers attending protests in and the general level of anti-water activity in 2015. Combined with this was the fact that many had simply made a firm decision just not to pay and viewed passively the various protests that took place. However it is not the only explanation for the dip in activity.

At the beginning of this year again unfortunately Right2Water, which had gained the status of being the convenor of the broad anti water charges movement, and some of the unions that were affiliated to it, didn’t give the necessary lead in organising protests or advocating mass non-payment. It wasn’t until 21 March that they organised a national demo in 2015. Crucially, even after the figure of huge non-payment has been issued, R2W still hasn’t come out in favour of a campaign of organised non-payment of the charge. Its overwhelming focus seems to be just on the upcoming election and the composition of the next government.

All of the above forces argued or at least sought to imply that the scale of the protest movement itself would be sufficient to force the abolition of the water charge. Undoubtedly this movement did put massive pressure on the government which forced them to back down and make a number of concessions relating to the cost and implementation of the charge in November. These included ruling that out the full or partial disconnection of the water services of non-payers; dropping the request for social security numbers; changing the charge to a smaller flat rate one of €60 per quarter for a family and €40 per quarter for a single person up until 2019; a €100 “conservation grant” for payers and limiting the penalties for non-payment.

However the fact remained that the government were still determined to implement water charges The government hoped that they could get the charge in at a lower level as a fact on the ground and therefore diminish the anti-water charges campaign itself but then they would abolish the flat rate and impose astronomical rises in its cost to make way for the eventual privatisation of Irish Water.

AAA – Arguing for and organising non-payment

It is because the AAA recognised the centrality of the tactic of non-payment that we initiated the “We Won’t Pay” (WWP) campaign as a separate mass campaign, as well continuing to work within Right2water.

We sought to explain through our public activity and in our widely distributed leaflets and material why mass non-payment was not only viable but was essential in making the water charge inoperable. WWP also organised significant mass protests.

When the first water bills were issued in April and May local WWP groups organised a series of local street meetings from which a mass leaflet drop was organised into hundreds of thousands of homes. The message they contained was that the charge couldn’t be deducted from peoples’ income, penalties from non-payment with not kick in until June 2016, i.e. after the next general election and water could not be turned off or water pressure could not be turned down. In short, we could sink Irish water and crucially deal a real blow to the programme of austerity.

From the outset of the campaign Socialist Party and AAA TDs Joe Higgins, Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy were to the fore in popularising the message of the boycott. More than any other force the AAA and its “We Won’t Pay” campaign had the courage to lead from the front and helped popularise that no-payment was a real fighting option. We wanted to answer the doubts and allay the fears that people had about non-payment particularly in the aftermath of the defeat of the property tax campaign in mid-2013.

As a result of the defiant message that we gave inside and outside the Dail regarding non-payment as well as building a campaign of organised non-payment on the ground, the AAA and Socialist Party were seen as the leadership of the militant wing of the anti-water charges movement.

As well as putting forward the need for a boycott, it has been important in June and July to answer the attempts by the government to give the misleading impression that they had the power to deduct the water charge from peoples’ income as a result of legislation that they rammed through the Dail in July.

Unfortunately, Right2Water was of little help in combatting the government’s lies and in the case of Sinn Fein, which is affiliated to Right2Water, falsely said that the government can do so and so spread some misinformation and fear. On 7 July, TD and Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Facebook that, “The Labour Party and Fine Gael have just forced through the Civil Procedures Bill-allowing water charges to be taken from wages and welfare payments. A pick-pockets charter.”

Both Sinn Fein and the Right2Water campaign should come out firmly and support non-payment and in doing so encourage people who have paid the first bill to boycott the second one that will be issued in the coming weeks.

Such a call could be linked with building more mass mobilisation on water but also against all austerity and for real economic and social equality. The building of the figures for mass non-payment from now till the election can put this and whatever government comes to power after the next election under irresistible pressure to get rid of the water charges. This struggle of the working class is on the verge of an historic victory and all those who claim to be on the left should row in behind non-payment and land the knockout blow.

A growing politicisation

The explosion of the water charges in last year and the fact that non-payment now stands at 57% is a real step forward for the working class movement in Ireland. It is clear that after years of austerity, bank bailouts and for what is many a non-existent recovery there is clearly a leftward shift taking place within Irish society.

This was again illustrated in the Marriage Equality referendum where those same working class communities that mobilised in their thousands against the water charge and where non-payment is undoubtedly strongest also came out and voted Yes in massive numbers. Significantly, this battle has also had a further politicising effect on working class women who have been particularly hit by austerity policies. More generally there is a desire for progressive change and a hatred for the economic injustice and inequality that is continuing regardless of the rhetoric about recovery.

It is no exaggeration to say that participation in the struggle against water charges has been a politically transformative experience for a significant section of the working class. They have seen the role of that different forces play in defending the status quo within capitalist society, namely the state, the media and the political establishment. Figures such as billionaire media mogul and tax exile Denis O’Brien have become hate figures that represent an unequal and unjust Ireland where working class people are second or third class.

An online survey of those who participated in the protests last year found that for 54% the water charges were at their first protest and that one third of those surveyed would vote for the parties of the radical left, namely the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit Alliance, at the next election.

International events such as the economic terrorism of the Troika against Greece will also have an effect on the consciousness of working class people in illustrating the ruthless and deeply undemocratic nature of capitalist institutions of the European Union who being dutifully supported by the Irish government.

Support for the three main establishment parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour who at one stage commanded over 90% of the vote now hovers between 50 to 55% in various opinion polls as all of them are rightly tainted by their implementation of austerity.

The latest poll, which came out at the start of August, showed a sharp drop in support for Fine Gael, the main government party and put Labour on a miserable 7%. Support for Sinn Fein was unchanged at 21%. In reality they have stagnated in the polls for the bulk of the last year, in fact since their weak opposition to water charges was exposed during the Dublin South West By-Election. The support for smaller parties, Independents and others was up. Commentators said the water charges remained a key factor in the poll figures.

This and the growing opposition to the water charge reflect the development of a generalised anti-austerity consciousness that can not only see the parties of the capitalist establishment being challenged at the election but will lay the basis for the new building of a powerful socialist left in Ireland in the coming years.

The Socialist Party and the AAA will be to the fore in building this movement of the working class that can draw on the lessons of Greece and base itself on a programme that challenges the rule of Ireland’s backward ruling class and the capitalist EU.

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August 2015