An analysis of the 2015 revolt against the water tax in Ireland, from Irish Anarchist Review 11.
The campaign against the water charges is the most widespread and powerful grassroots movement in recent Irish history. With hundreds of local campaign groups, daily direct actions, and 4 national demonstrations on the order of 50,000-100,000, the cynical refrain that 'the Irish don't protest' has rapidly been replaced by a sense of ubiquitous rebellion. Irish Water is a depraved neoliberal world in effigy, embodying many of the worst problems of our society including the rule of international finance (and private greed in general) at the cost of the vast majority's well being, and the chronic disconnection of the populace from decision making. As such the movement has become a platform for opposition to austerity, the bank bailout, privatisation, the government, party politics, the EU, and more. Thousands of people have experienced a political (re-)awakening. But while it is possible that we will win this battle, and abolish Irish Water, this struggle represents a precious opportunity to make a grassroots offensive after so many years of being beaten down.
It certainly wasn't always obvious that the fight against the water charges would be so enormous. The sheer turnout of the 11th October Right2Water demonstration - not to mention that protesters came from all over the country - came as a surprise to most people, including much of the activist left. That day definitively established in people's minds that not only was a serious nationwide fightback possible, but that we could probably win. The mood was of defiance, confidence, and the joy of revolting together.
But people didn't throng Dublin's city centre out of nowhere. After the collapse of the CAHWT (Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes) around January 2014, crucially, a small number of people decided to stay active and stop the installation of water meters, for instance in Ballyphehane and Togher in Cork and then a few areas of north east Dublin. On this, Gregor Kerr, who was the secretary of the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charge Campaigns (FDAWCC) in the 1990s, opined 'I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the huge protest on 11th October wouldn’t have been anything like the size it was without the slow burn for the previous months of blockades and protests against meter installations spreading from community to community. And it was no coincidence either that many of the people involved in water meter blockades had also participated earlier in the summer in blockades of scab-operated bin trucks in their communities in support of the locked out Greyhound workers.' The initiative and hard work of these early campaigners was the germ of the huge movement which has burgeoned since.
This is a large part of the reason the fight against the water charges has been far more successful than the fight against the household and property tax was. As Mr. Kerr added 'the fact that [the latter] was so fresh in people’s memories was undoubtedly important. But maybe for many people it was important from the point of view of people saying ‘We’re not going to allow the same mistakes to be made again’. There is a huge contrast between the way the two campaigns developed. The CAHWT (the principal campaign against the property/household tax) was initiated by political organisations and was effectively strangled by some of those same parties/organisations as they jockeyed for control and positioned themselves to be the anti-property tax candidates in the local elections. The campaign involved huge numbers of working class people but never developed a grassroots structure, and the steering committee meetings eventually became turgid affairs mired in wanna be leaders lecturing everybody else. In contrast the anti-water charges campaign has emerged from communities and the political parties and organisations have been running after it trying to ‘lead’ it. Indeed there isn’t an anti-water charge campaign, there are a plethora of groups organising in an ad hoc manner, some co-ordinated, some not. That’s a huge strength. It does of course also present difficulties or challenges but they are outweighed by the fact that this campaign won’t be as easily derailed because of the diversity and divergence of people and communities involved.'
Irish Water's Mission to Conserve Profit
The attempt to impose domestic water charges in Ireland is not new. In 1977 domestic rates were scrapped (raising VAT and income tax), but in 1983 domestic 'service charges' were introduced in most counties, being fought off elsewhere (e.g. Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford). From 1994-1997 a grassroots campaign in Dublin (FDAWCC), somewhat similar to the present one, repelled the water charge (which was flat, no meters were used). This involved a strong boycott of the bills, mass demonstrations and court protests, a solidarity fund for legal costs, and reversing and preventing water cut-offs. The water charge was then scrapped for the 26 counties. The implementation of domestic water charges was in the previous Fianna Fáil – Green government's Programme for Government in 2009. Then in 2010 it was a condition of the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) bailout.
The purpose of Irish Water is certainly not 'safeguarding your water for your future'. Only the most naive would believe that the same kind of career politicians who decided to critically under-fund our water infrastructure over decades – so that 40-50% of supply is leaked and whole areas are on boil notices - are suddenly driven to make long-term 'tough decisions' for the good of humanity. Furthermore, these are the same politicians who are committed to ignoring the very present catastrophe of climate change, which not only threatens the volume and quality of usable water nationally, but globally. While Michael Noonan sermonises about leaving the tap on all night, he wouldn't dare mention that animal agriculture – a large component of the Irish economy – is the single most ecologically destructive activity on Earth, particularly because of its high methane gas emissions and intense water usage. That would not please the rancher farmers. Nor would Alan Kelly stridently denounce hydraulic fracturing, or Phil Hogan valiantly question the need to devour water in the production of pointless commodities for economic growth.
Indeed, Irish Water has been established to transform our water into a commodity - an economic object bought and sold in a market according to the direct use of a consumer – that will be owned and controlled by private interests. Even former Fine Gael junior minister Fergus O'Dowd, not quite an anarcho-communist, spoke of being 'deeply concerned at other agendas, they may be European' and '[not knowing] where they are coming from' when he was involved in the foundation of Irish Water. But this is not peculiar to Ireland. The global pattern is that 'familiar mega-banks and investing powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse ... are consolidating their control over water.' The UN has predicted that there will be a 40% shortfall in global water supply by 2030. In 2008, Goldman Sachs called water 'the petroleum for the next century'. Such corporations have been slurping up water utilities, reserves, and anything else related. For example, in 2012 Goldman Sachs bought Veolia Water which is the largest water services corporation on the planet and already has operations in Ireland. There are a handful of multinational corporations which dominate the global water market. If you can't trust supposedly accountable politicians to manage water services for the common good, you definitely can't trust an entirely unaccountable corporation to do so.
But further still, this issue is part of a political trajectory which is even older and goes far beyond the shores of Ireland – that is, 'neoliberalism'. Neoliberalism, in theory, is the idea that in order to maximise the liberty of the individual, the state should interfere with the personal affairs and economic transactions as little as possible, merely ensuring the conditions for private property to exist through 'law and order', and the conditions of trade by prosecuting fraud. Everything should be a commodity and have a price tag so that it is used in an 'efficient' manner, and all companies should be privately owned and operated for the same reason. Hence neoliberal capitalist policies include privatisation, de-regulation, removing tariffs, and austerity. However, in practice, neoliberalism is far messier, and really involves removing state interference in ways that suit the elite the most, and applying state force in ways that suit the elite the most (see Augusto Pinochet's neoliberal dictatorship in Chile 1973-1990).
As such, neoliberalism is radically opposed to the commons - the idea that, for instance, water is a human right, not a commodity, and should be available to all according to need. Or that land, or indeed accommodation, vehicles, clothing, and food, are held in common. Pleas from professional compromisers in politics and media to 'ensure' that Irish Water remains in public ownership are a diversion from the fact that Irish Water exists to be privatised. A referendum on state ownership (different to public, communal, etc, ownership) would merely leave the utility in the hands of the same shower who are currently ramming the water charges through. The time-tested method of defunding the infrastructure and wailing for the private sector to save us from state inefficiency would be applied. Not only that but EU law on commercial monopolies would require that the 'water market' be 'opened to competition', not to mention the impending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Irish Water must be abolished.
Resistance to the Irish Water plan has been relentless. The movement has not withered away as the establishment hoped or expected, even in the face of Garda repression and mainstream media denunciation. There is the sense that there is always some action going on somewhere, and that protest or dissent in general has become a sort of national pastime. I remember visiting a pub, after a meeting which included discussion on the water charges, only to see a man watching videos of water charges protests on a small wall-mounted screen. 'Now that's a sign of the times', I thought.
Another sign of the times is the record distrust of politicians, the judiciary, the Gardaí, the mainstream media, and big business. The Irish Water story has provided ample opportunity for various parts of the system to expose their true nature. This is especially true in the case of the Gardaí, who have enjoyed a reputation of being 'peacekeepers' among much of the population. But people who have blocked water meters from being installed have discovered another reality. To many, the Gardaí are like an occupying army. There is no lesson quite like being arrested, and thanks to social media this lesson has been shared the length and breadth of the country. A ludicrously excessive Garda presence is a familiar sight to anyone following the anti-water charges movement, with packs of Gardaí crowding around a few meter holes as if protecting someone from murder. One of my favourite scenes was a meter protest in South Dublin where not only had about a dozen Garda cars and vans had been deployed, but also a helicopter. The Jobstown dawn raids, the pepper spraying of protesters in Coolock, and the jailing of the 4 injuncted protesters only made it harder to swallow the idea that the Gardaí and judiciary exist to serve the people rather than the interests of an elite.
Within the anti-water charges movement the mainstream media have come to be seen as couriers for government propaganda. Attendance at protests is persistently under-reported and the movement has been hounded by the 'has protest gone too far?' narrative (sometimes using outright fabrication). We have been able to subvert this by forming our own counter-media which has played an important role. A sprawling network of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and a host of blogs and other websites provide a means to communicate quickly among ourselves. With this we keep up to date on activity around the country, digest and react to establishment spin, discuss tactics, and more. This grassroots media network has given staying power to the movement, allowing protesters who would be otherwise isolated and forgotten to link with and inspire others.
At the heart of this movement is direct action, both in the prevention of meter installations and the boycott of bills. Dedication to the former has been impressive, with people regularly waking at 5, 6, and 7 in the morning to protest for hours on end, often in quite stressful circumstances. These protests can have almost military precision, scouting for meter contractors each day, communicating their movements via text trees. This is typified by, for example, Dublin's 'Flying Column' who respond rapidly to alerts and drive to different parts of the city, and the Cobh, Co. Cork group who even have a makeshift 'command and control' centre. If anything, this movement is a testament to the ability of so-called 'ordinary' people to figure things out themselves and organise effectively.
But despite the spontaneity, ingenuity, and grassroots nature of this movement, most of the left are still hell bent on the tired strategy of electoralism. There is much talk of left alliances, broad platforms, and progressive coalitions, in other words another attempt at social democracy. Along with the economic crisis we have a crisis of imagination. Instead of advancing in the natural direction of this movement by renouncing parliamentary democracy as the un-democratic charade that it is, and spurring people on to take further power over their lives, Right2Water is encouraging us to entrust our fates in 'progressive politicians' and is drafting its own electoral program. Considering that Right2Water won't back the boycott, its mobilisations are effectively election rallies, and that the closer the elections draw the more it will focus on them to the exclusion of all else, it is worth asking if Right2Water – now a sort of meta-political party - has outlived its purpose.
Elections are where movements go to die, demobilising people and fostering divisions. Why bother taking action yourself when some politicians are going to solve the problem for us? And who are going to do the campaigning for these anti-water charges candidates? Well, water protesters of course. Postering, leafleting, canvassing, organising meetings – all of this time, effort, and money, and hope, will be poured into what is ultimately an act of ritual mass delusion, rather than critical grassroots activity. We desperately require a fundamental transformation of society, and that cannot come from the buildings of parliament, it can only come from the great mass of people taking charge of their destinies and organising direct democratically.
There has been much talk of SYRIZA as a model for change, but far fewer know of Greece's network of grassroots organisations which has grown out of the movement of the squares in 2011 and comprises hundreds of diverse projects including free medical clinics, alternative currencies and exchange economies, self-managed education, alternative media, and eco-villages. Surely this is more inspiring than a left party being elected to government? Clearly we are far from achieving this in Ireland, but this is the sort of politics we should be aspiring to. This is actually a 'new politics'. The Says No groups are promising in that they go beyond the single issue campaigning of strictly anti-water charges groups, linking up issues such as homelessness, evictions, austerity, and corruption. They could be the embryos of powerful community unions through which people can participate in a real form of democracy and organise local issues and services.
Even if the fight against the water charges were to end tomorrow, this struggle has caused significant change in this country which will have long-term effects. There are so many people who have become politicised and have risen up, and will not be content to go home and be quiet. The distrust in establishment institutions won’t suddenly evaporate. We have gotten a taste of what real democracy involves, felt our own power, and we like it. What is necessary now is to press on, try to get more people involved, and get more organised. For instance, Alan Kelly has said that non-payers will be bundled into court, and we need to ensure the National Defense Fund is large enough to cover that possibility. Most of all we need to cling to what we have already seen to be true: this is our movement and our world, not a politician’s, and if we want to make change we will have to take responsibility ourselves rather than rely on somebody else.