1993-1996: The Dublin fight against water charges

A short history of the successful direct action campaign of non-payment which prevented the imposition of charges for water in Dublin, Ireland.

Submitted by Steven. on September 13, 2006

Winning the water war
When the domestic rates were abolished in 1977 following the general election an increase took place in income tax and Value Added Tax. The money made from these increases was to be used to fund the local authorities, who had previously relied on the domestic rates for their funding. Central government was to pay a rate support grant to Local Authorities. This rate support grant increased until 1983 when the then Fine Gael and Labour government decided to cut this grant and brought in legislation to allow the councils to levy service charges.

So though people were effectively paying more taxes, less of this money made its way to local councils, so they were asked to pay more money in the guise of 'service charges'. 87% of all the tax paid in Ireland was by the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) worker. This was a massive amount of money especially when contrasted to the fact that many multi-national companies are attracted to Ireland for exactly the opposite reasons, because they have to pay relatively small amounts of tax. This aspect of the charge - workers being double taxed while big corporations had an easy ride - is what made this campaign so important.

The son of rates
In the 1980s resistance in Dublin led to the scrapping of the first attempt to introduce a water tax in the city. Other successful campaigns took place in Limerick and Waterford. In Waterford also, around the Paddy Browne Road a gang of contractors who were cutting off non-payers were held hostage by residents and Waterford Glass workers.

In other counties the charges continued and by 1993 the amount expected to be paid by a household varied from one county to another from around £70 to £235 per year.

The water charge is born
The writing was on the wall that a new charge was about to be levied on the people of Dublin when on January 1st 1994 Dublin County was divided into three new County Council areas. Fingal, South Dublin, and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown were created and they all had to strike a rate which they would then be charged to each household for the water service. The existence of three new areas made it easier to administer the charge on each household.

All the councillors had been elected on the basis that they opposed this charge. However when the time came to show their opposition they stalled before striking a rate. In South County it was £70, in Fingal it was £85, in Dun Laoighaire/Rathdown it varied from £50 to £93.

The sorry excuse that arose on the occasion of all these politicians proving themselves to be liars was that they were forced to strike a water charge rate or else the government would dissolve the council. In just a short space of time nearly all the elected councillors, faced with the realities of holding power, went from opposing water charges to imposing water charges.

Opposition blooms
In the spring 1994 issue the paper of the anarchist group Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) Gregor Kerr wrote "Householders and residents in Dublin should immediately prepare to resist these charges. If nobody pays, they will be impossible to collect." Over the summer of 1994 political opposition to these water charges was drummed up as many public meetings were held all over the county. Members of Militant Labour (now known as the Socialist Party), the WSM and many others worked at leafleting information about the forthcoming charge. Realising this first charge was the thin end of the wedge they showed what had happened when similar charges were imposed in the other cities, towns and county areas. The water charges had soon developed into a service charge and now households were facing annual bills from their local councils in excess of £100.

Long hours were spent going around housing estates dropping in leaflets talking to people on the doorsteps, sometimes with little response. In Templeogue for example people had not been involved in campaigns and there was little history of community based struggle. A sense of community appeared absent as each person looked after their own interests. But the hard work done was rewarded a year later when the area became more organised and more people became involved as the council began to drag people to court.

On September 24th, 1994 a conference was held and this gave rise to the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns (FDAWCC). Councillor Joe Higgins of Militant Labour was elected Chairperson of the campaign and Gregor Kerr of the WSM was elected secretary. Local meetings were held throughout Dublin and they were generally well attended. A march took place in the city centre in Novemmber and over 500 people protested at the implementation of this double taxation. The campaign was by now well and truly alive and we were building all the time by raising the issue where we could. Over the course of late 1994/early 1995 nearly every house in Fingal and South Dublin had received a leaflet from the campaign.

Ambush in the night
By early December '94, South Dublin County Council had had enough of our campaign. People weren't paying the bill fast enough for their liking so they decided to up the ante and declared that if people didn't pay their outstanding bills within a certain number of days they would begin cutting off people's water supply.

All the activists raced into action. There were stake-outs at the water inspectors' houses, who would be followed around to ensure that they didn't attempt any cut off under the cover of the night. Clondalkin people organised their own cars to patrol around that area. CB radios were installed in the cars so that they were in constant communication with each other as they monitored the movements of the men who would try to cut people's water off. One house in Tallaght was turned into a virtual Head Quarters for the campaign. The phone calls kept flooding in. Communities learned to be vigilant of the blue Dublin Water Works vans and were very wary when they came into the estates. Children playing football on the park were told to knock on the doors when they saw such vans in the area. Indeed one van ventured into an estate in Clondalkin village and when the kids alerted everyone to their presence they hopped back into their van and drove away rapidly! In the end only twelve houses were disconnected and they were duly reconnected. The campaign had won the first battle and no house would be without water for that Christmas.

Little changes except the government
Things now suddenly changed because a different game was being played in the Dáil (Irish Parliament). The Brendan Smith affair[1] caused the collapse of the Fianna Fáil and Labour government.

A new government was formed. It still had Labour in it, but this time their partners in government were Fíne Gael and Democratic Left. With the change in government came a change in the tactics used to try to extract the double tax of the water charge. In the Dáil the Minister for the Environment announced that the power of the local authorities to disconnect water was to be "delimited".

Political pressure continued to be built. Pickets were held outside the Democratic Left and Labour party conferences. Over the next couple of months nearly a hundred thousand leaflets were produced and distributed calling on people to maintain a non-payment policy and explaining the government's pathetic tax-free allowance scheme. It proposed that if you paid your water charge on time then you were entitled to claim a tax rebate at 27%. So if the tax was £150 you were entitled to a maximum rebate of £40.50. In South County Dublin with the Water Charge at £70 you were entitled to a maximum rebate of £18.90. If you lived in Cavan you could claim back £40.50, but you'd already paid £210 for your service charge.

A law made to be broken
On 31st March an announcement was made that the councils would have to bring people to court to obtain an order prior to being able to disconnect the water. This was what the newspeak word "delimit" meant in real terms. A press conference was held by the campaign outlining a strategy for dealing with the threats of court action. All cases would be legally defended in Court but whatever the outcome, pickets and protests would ensure that nobody's water was disconnected.

The FDAWCC decided to launch a membership drive at £2 per household to help fund the legal costs which would no doubt be incurred when the councils finally got around to summonsing people. For the moment they contented themselves with sending out more threatening letters. The rate of non-payment remained strong. Over £23 million remained outstanding from 1994.

Late into the summer final warning notices began to appear threatening court action. The membership campaign was growing quite rapidly and over 2,500 householders had contributed. The transport workers union very kindly provided the campaign with an office. An All Dublin Activists Meeting was held in September with the campaign working on a three pronged attack of non-payment, defence of non-payers in court, and maximising political pressure.

The first court cases were scheduled for Rathfarnham court on November 13th 1995. The campaign made a large attendance at this case a priority and on the day over 500 people turned up, though never expecting justice to be done in the court. However, the judge threw the council's cases out of court. RTE (national broadcasting service) finally decided that the campaign warranted some coverage and the picket appeared on the afternoon news. After two years of struggle the media finally began to take notice.

The local authorities continued to pursue people though the courts. Despite legal defence some disconnections were ordered but the campaign's tactic of appealing these decisions to the circuit court ensured that no disconnections could take place. Larry Doran, a Dublin pensioner, made an eloquent speech from the dock of this courtroom in February 1996. He said "if the wealthy paid their due taxes, PAYE taxpayers would not be asked to pay double and I would not be before this court." The Judge ordered the court to be cleared after the cheering and clapping that Mr. Doran's speech received. Larry, with the support of his local campaign, decided not to appeal but instead challenged the council to come and try to cut his water off. A demonstration was organised outside his house to show the council who they would have to deal with if they attempted to cut Larry's water off. The council decided not to take Larry up on his challenge.

After 6 months of trials up to May 18th 1996, involving 25 appearances by councils, only 25 disconnection orders were issued against campaign members. One judge in Swords even invoked the Public Order Act to deal with a protest outside his courthouse.

Death and opportunity
When Brian Lenihan, the Fianna Fail TD for Dublin West died it became obvious that his seat would be contested and Councillor Joe Higgins was going to run for the vacant seat as a Militant Labour Candidate. Joe had always spoken strongly against the water charges and campaigned tirelessly against them. On 13th January an All Dublin Activists Meeting was held at which Joe sought the endorsement of the campaign for his candidacy in the forthcoming by-election.

Members of the WSM present at this meeting spoke strongly against this proposal. They said that we would much prefer to see the charge defeated by the working class organising on the streets to show their opposition. Being anarchists they believe that people have to seize back control over their own lives and this is not done by electing some official to fight your corner. Now that we were winning, we just had to keep on pushing forward with our demands to have this charge abolished. Electing Joe to sit in the Dáil to argue our case was never going to be empowering. Joe would have been ignored just as on the local council his opposition to the charge was ignored. While their arguments were well received and considered, the decision of the meeting was to endorse Joe's candidacy.

In the end Councillor Joe Higgins nearly became Joe Higgins TD (Irish MP) but for a few hundred votes. In the end however, Irish politics didn't vary from the mean and the son Brian Lenihan Junior was elected to the seat his father had died in.

Many people were jubilant by Higgins' good showing in the by-election. It received the most media coverage since the campaign's inception. But on the various prongs of attack they were doing well. Not one member had been disconnected despite the flurry of court activity and the huge resources spent by the councils chasing non-payers. The Campaign was still solvent and over 10,000 households had contributed £2 each to it. The majority of people were in favour of the campaign running a slate of candidates in the next general election in order to 'put the frighteners on the politicians.' Once again the WSM argued against this tactic. The campaign was already on winning ground. The courts couldn't operate. Resistance to payment was still very high with over 50% of the houses not paying. The councils were heading into their third year of setting a rate that would not be paid by the majority of people in the area. When a campaign of working class resistance to this injustice is so strong the last thing you need to do is to elect more politicians whose voices will be lost , soon to be followed by their principles. Mass resistance had got the campaign into this winning position and mass resistance would be the weapon to defeat the water charges.

The non-payment of water charges had increased and the councillors knew the imposition of this tax was becoming impossible. The prospect of a General Election in the Summer of 1997 had all the political parties running for cover. The last turn of the screw came in the shape of Civil Process cases. In this instance the councils took people to a civil process court where they would try and get the judge to rule for them and where they would be entitled to seize assets to the value of the money owed. This new tactic met with as little success as the previous ones. Again, people turned up in their hundreds to defend their fellow workers from this persecution, and a combination of court protests and legal defence made life very difficult for the councils.

The water charges were effectively dead. They had become uncontrollable and largely uncollectable. Further demonstrations were held outside local council meetings where they tried to strike an estimate for the following year of how much they would seek from the people. A march was held in the city centre which attracted a good attendance. The message was to stand firm and we would definitely see victory. Protest phone calls bombarded the local councillors. Massive public meetings were held. Finally, on December 19th 1996 the Minister for the Environment announced that the water charge was going to be replaced by a new system whereby the road tax collected in each area would be the source for local council funding. Of course he neglected to mention that his hand was forced in this change of policy.

The working class people of Dublin had organised, rallied and won an important victory. Double taxation was over and this was due to the policy of mass resistance, organisation and direct action.

Text taken and edited by libcom from the Workers Solidarity Movement