2014 will be looked back on as the year when everything changed in Ireland. In the early part of the year Ireland managed to exit from the Troika bailout without a continuation of financial support. The economy went into recovery and unemployment started to fall. One would have expected a rise in support for the government of Fine Gael and Labour but in fact quite the opposite happened.
The reason was an explosion from below on the issue of water charges, the final austerity straw that broke the camel?s back. Despite attempts by the government, the state and the media that the anti water charges campaign is being led, hijacked and manipulated by ?trots?, the hard left and even republican dissidents, the movement has been extremely spontaneous.
The Story Behind the ?Right To Water? Campaign
Right to Water (R2W) was originally an initiative by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The emphasis was on opposition to privatisation of the water industry. There was no call for a non-payment campaign. There was no call for communities to oppose water meters. The reason for this limited approach was the earlier failure of the anti-property tax campaign – that campaign had begun as a mass non-payment campaign against an austerity tax on peoples? homes. At one point a million households, out of 1.6 million to 1.8million across the state, were pledged not to pay the charge. The government responded by making the charge a tax, collectible by revenue, and revenue were given new draconian powers to deduct the tax at source: from wages, pensions, welfare, etc.
Rather than respond tactically to a new situation, the SWP and the Socialist Party (SP) denounced any suggestion of a change in tactics as a retreat. They insisted on asking people to do something they could no longer practically do, not pay. The campaign collapsed. It was a bad and demoralising defeat. The SWP/SP met this situation with silence and folded up their tents and went on to their next issue.
It would have been undoubtedly difficult to maintain the campaign at a mass level but a retreat from non-payment, which was no longer an option, to a campaign based on political protest, could have held up to 200,000 together with a view to fighting the real battle on the issue of water charges.
In the event the SWP persuaded a number of trade unions to come on board with R2W and a demo was called for last September. This demo was then put back to October to ?allow more work to be done?. In reality there was no expectation of a major turnout. The unions involved, especially Unite, have a history of backing SWP initiatives in name only, while doing nothing.
So what changed the situation? In July, August and into September a very important struggle took place around the lock out of workers at Greyhound, a waste collection company. This strike was at an impasse with scab labour collecting bins. We, the United Left group in Dublin South Central took an initiative to try and mobilise community action against the scabs, blocking trucks, following them through estates and generally making their life difficult. This was then taken up by other activists and Left groups across the city and played a key role, along with mass pickets at the company, in helping the workers achieve a ?draw?, rather than the defeat that was staring them in the face.
Action Starts at the Grassroots
At around the same time, some local people set up the ?Crumlin says NO? campaign to stop water metering and they successfully stopped contractors attempting to install meters in Crumlin. Up to then there had been no opposition and one million meters had been installed around the state.
Anti-water metering meeting groups quickly followed suit throughout working class areas. Out of nowhere, water charges became a huge issue. The demo in October had 100,000 on it, followed by 150,000 in November (the population of the Republic is about 4.5 million.) The situation was also fuelled by a series of scandals and outright cock ups by the government in the establishment of Irish Water, a stand-alone commercial state company set up to take over water and sewerage services previously run by local authorities.
People were outraged by over a ?1billion spent on consultants, billing systems and water metering, while not a cent was spent on fixing leaky pipes – around 40% of expensively treated water is lost through leaks nationally. Senior managers were appointed on big salaries and bonuses, just like the bankers. The elite were seen to be looking after the elite. i.e. Business as usual.
Support for the government parties nosedived in the polls. Labour in particular faced the prospect of a complete wipe out. So Labour changed its leader and shifted the so called ?grumpy old men? – Rabbitte, Gilmore and Quinn – out of the cabinet. These were all previous party leaders.
Mass Protest Forces Government Retreats
The government then initiated a retreat on water charges. They pledged that there would be no privatisation. They withdrew the threat that water for non-payers would be reduced to a trickle. They capped the charge at ?160 for a single adult and ?260 for two or more adults per household with these capped charges to remain in place until 2018. They introduced a ?water conservation grant? of ?100 per household. All these measures represent a significant reduction on what people would have paid under metering, particularly households with adult children.
At a stroke the government undermined all its arguments for the establishment of Irish Water and the charges. A flat charge instead of payment-per-use, flushes the argument about metering being necessary for water conservation down the plug hole, if you will pardon the pun. The stand-alone commercial basis of Irish Water has gone down the same plug hole.
The logic behind Irish Water was that it would be funded by charges and able to borrow for investment in infrastructure without that borrowing being included as state borrowing. Also of course, establishing payment for water was a necessary first step to privatisation.
A New Mood Against Austerity
The R2W demonstrations were not the only anti austerity demonstrations. The idea that austerity was accepted in Ireland with minimum opposition is a myth. However, you only had to go on these demos to sense the difference. These were not the usual walk down to the Dail (parliament) led by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. And they were completely different from those led by the Left groups which usually consisted of 10,000 to 15,000 maximum.
These were mass demonstrations of people who don?t normally go on demonstrations. You could feel the seriousness, the anger, the sense of power of a people on the march. They were also humorous. They didn?t wait for the people with megaphones to lead the chanting. They made up their own, including ?you can shove your waster meters up your arse? to the tune of ?We?ll Be Coming Round the Mountain?.
Earlier I said that some unions often endorsed initiatives on the Left, but did little more that attend a press conference. But actually the five unions in R2W, especially Mandate, the shopworkers union, and Unite, have played a very important role in giving the campaign a much wider base than if it was just led by the Left groups. They have put money and resources into the campaign.
Mandate in particular has moved to the Left, and not just in words. They have recruited a number of younger organisers, and have organised on the basis that if you want to achieve better conditions and pay, you will have to fight for it and be prepared to strike. They have won a number of significant victories for shopworkers.
They have recently organised a very successful one day strike in Dunnes Stores, a major supermarket chain which is viciously anti union. This is part of a campaign ?Decency for Dunnes Stores Workers?, of whom 80% are on part time zero-hour type contracts.
The R2W unions represent the beginning, to a greater or lesser extent, for each union of a break in policy with the right-wing in the Irish trade union movement. Its policy, and especially of SIPTU, its biggest union, has been to do nothing and hide behind the excuse that Labour in government has protected working people and the more vulnerable from the worst of Fine Gael austerity.
A Broader Programme
We have met with the key organisers for Mandate and Unite in R2W for a series of discussions that hey initiated with the Left groups and independents. They are pushing for R2W to develop a broader political programme including opposition to austerity in general; higher taxes on corporate profits, high incomes and a wealth tax; raising the minimum wage; abolition of zero hour contracts and so on. They have spoken clearly in these discussions about the need for a new broad left political force.
They have called a rally for Mayday with invitations sent to the unions , political parties and independents, and community groups involved in R2W, and have also invited representatives from Syriza and Podemos.
This will be followed by a policy conference in June. We particularly welcome these developments and will participate fully. We believe the way to a new Left is not through meetings behind closed doors of ?leaders? of small political groups, but a broad open discussion within the five unions and in working class communities. We will be energetically pressing this point in the upcoming debates on this crucial issue.
By Dermot Connolly, United Left
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