July 21, 2015

Irish Water Charges Revolt – A young Communist’s view on the ground

Communist Party of Ireland and Connolly Youth Movement
march against water privatization
Graham Harrington

The Irish working-class, previously believed to be cowed into submission by the ruling class, has finally stood up. We have unified under the cause of one word: NO!

No to water charges! No to austerity! No to corruption!

Since the property bubble exploded in 2008/2009 austerity has become our reality. The “Celtic Tiger” years are but now a memory. Neo-liberalism has destroyed us. The bankers gambled our money until the system popped. The bankers debt, in the hundreds of billions, was socialized by the Irish state, the money for paying off their debts was taken from the Irish taxpayer. Cuts in healthcare, education and in public services destroyed families and threw huge amounts of people into poverty, homelessness, and an epoch of darkness. In response, the Communist party called for the complete repudiation of this debt. It was not sovereign debt. It was not borrowed to pay for schools, hospitals or to develop infrastructure. It was taken out to cover the losses of the bankers and financial speculators.

A general election in 2011 only made things worse, as an even more vicious government targeted the working-class. The bankers responsible for the crisis were given bonuses while the rest of us were wondering what just happened. Austerity became the solution or everything. Cuts were made in everything. Homelessness shot up, poverty sky-rocketed, living standards dived.

In came the EU and IMF. They advocated increased privatization, even more cutbacks. The state, for its obedience was given a bailout. Suddenly, we now had 147 billion Euro to pay back. The EU, responsible for the destruction of our indigenous industry (fishing, sugar etc.) was now firmly in control of our sovereignty. The Euro was used as a controlling mechanism. We were told we could not survive without it and the rest of Europe needed us to comply in order for there to be a strong EU. The EU had in part been responsible for our troubles but now was demanding we pay it back for its services.

The state had our acquiescence initially. People struggled through daily living, thinking there was no chance of opposing this system. However, in 2014, this depressing situation changed. It began with the state's plans for the introduction of water charges. In Ireland, the water services are funded through tax payer money but the state wanted to introduce an additional charge based on usage of water. In other words, charging us twice for something that should be free anyway!

The state set up its own company, Irish Water, to cover the transition to commodified water and to organize water meter installation. The company that was performing the job, GMC Sierra, is owned by Ireland's richest man, Denis O'Brien - An odious oligarch, Ireland's answer to Rupert Murdoch. Irish Water had been established to later on become a privatized company, likely being sold to O'Brien. While the ostensible reason for the charges was to help pay off the huge debt, the installation of water meters themselves as well as the obligatory media spin campaign cost much more than any possible revenue to the state.

Massive protest against Water charges from October 2014
The opposition to the meters politicized people like nothing else had in decades. People began to stand up for their communities. Community groups sprang up to defend against the water meter installers. The Irish Police were called in to facilitate the installation of the meters. They responded with violence against peaceful protesters and for many people, this showed the clear interests of the state in defending the rich and their investments. In response to the emerging revolt, trade unions came together and formed the Right2Water organization. This group provided an organizational nucleus for the community activists and organized marches in protest against the theft of our water. Hundreds of thousands attended these marches and the establishment was rattled.

Concessions came and went. Left-wing parties grew in support and won by-elections. The campaign concentrated into 2 blocs: Right2Water and the Non-payment network which is composed of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the We Wont Pay campaign-aligned organizations.
The campaign could not have sustained itself based on marches alone and the stiff resistance provided by the working-class against the installation of water meters, while very successful, needed to become part of a larger program. Tired of using the carrot, the state had turned to the stick. 5 water protesters were jailed in a clear sign of intimidation. Their “crimes” had been nothing more than opposing the visit of the Irish deputy Prime Minister to a working-class estate. They were accused of instigating violence. Of course the police who assaulted and pepper-sprayed children received no reprimand. Legions of police arrested people, some of them teenagers, and police visited schools to tell children stay away. The state broadcaster, RTÉ, was compliant in only telling one side of the story. The 5 were eventually released but the warning was clear.

In early 2015, the movement, in response to these events, became increasingly anti-establishment. Protests were launched against police barracks, the RTÉ headquarters, politicians were constantly harassed. The next general election will be in 2016, less than a year away and all sides have taken careful note of this. Right2Water has recently hosted a delegate conference - “Proposals for a Progressive Government” - among political representatives and community activists. These proposals have ranged from issues such as Palestine to universal healthcare. It is clear people are refusing to accept the status quo.

Unfortunately, the looming election has also split the movement into the 2 electoral blocs of R2W and the Non-payment network. Both refuse to work with one another and openly criticize each other. Both groups have swallowed up independent community groups and the rest of us are left in the middle trying to co-operate with both on the core campaign. While this is unfortunate, it is also quite predictable. Our best hope is that the solidarity and class-consciousness that ignited the campaign will win out against the opportunism of some who see this as an opportunity for them to get elected.

Graham Harrington is a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and the Connolly Youth Movement

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