A better way of being

Mass protest looks likely to sink the Irish government's introduction of water charges. Anne McShane spoke to a leading member of the 'Cobh Says No' campaign

The introduction of water charges in Ireland is the latest of the anti-working class measures in the austerity package agreed with the troika by the last Fianna Fáil/Green government and continued under the present regime. Previous protests in 2012 and 2013 against the austerity deal included a boycott of the household tax. But the government then employed direct taxation measures to beat the working class into submission.

The state was confident that it had won the battle. Earlier this year a semi-state company was set up and water meter installation began. The government and its cronies in Irish Water did not even consider that the working class would resist. They were very wrong. Protests began over the summer in Cork city and Dublin, where they prevented meters being installed across entire estates. Now that movement is spreading right across the country. A national demonstration took place in Dublin on October 11 with numbers claimed at between 80,000 and 100,000. More local protests followed and on November 1 up to 200,000 people took part in marches in villages, towns and cities all over the country. The message from every one of those marches was clear - scrap water charges now. The working class has had enough and will not be pushed to pay any more.

The government is in crisis. Backbench TDs are rebelling and ministers are panicking. Taoiseach Enda Kenny says he will not back down and promises “clarity” on the payments. But the government is refusing to acknowledge the reality that is facing it. The majority of the Irish working class is very clear - they want no water meters and no water charges.

I spoke to Karen Doyle, a leading member of the Cobh Says No campaign, which has been active against the household and property taxes and is now leading a mass struggle in Cobh to prevent the installation of water meters. She is now a national leader in this struggle.

What stage has the campaign against water charges reached?

In the past few weeks there have been street and estate meetings throughout Cobh. This was the result of a community meeting we held seven weeks ago. Before that our campaign, Cobh Says No, was operating with a couple of dozen core activists. But, with the news of water metering, the meeting was really packed. It was decided that people would go back to their estates and knock on their neighbours’ doors and call street meetings. We promised we would support the residents and would discuss how to prevent the meters being installed and do all we could to stop Irish Water.

What was the response at these street meetings?

The first meeting was in an estate called Russell Heights. There were about 90 people, plus a lot of apologies - and this is a small estate. The meeting was led by residents themselves, although we had drawn up a leaflet to advise people on how to conduct the campaign. Residents decided to allow only a small number of Irish Water staff onto the estate to install meters for those who wanted them and block all other metering. They also agreed to put up posters in houses refusing installation of a meter. That postering campaign has taken off throughout the town. It is an act of mass civil disobedience. It is also a signal to activists that, even if those residents are out, meter installation must be blocked.

Are people taking action?

Yes, streets and estates all over the town are active and have been very successful. The residents get up at 6am and organise themselves. We have ‘spotters’ to see how many Irish Water vans are coming into the town and then we have phone trees and email to alert residents, who then come out and block the installation of meters. There have been a number of stand-offs and other supporters then turn up. Estates and streets are guarded from morning to night.

What has been the reaction of Irish Water?

Irish Water had an agreement with us only to meter houses without a poster. But last Thursday morning they broke that agreement when a resident in Rushbrooke Manor was threatened with arrest for blocking installation to his home. He asked for help and told the gardaí and Irish Water that he did not want a meter. He had to go to work and three of us took his place and stood on his stopcock. A crowd of people gathered and all the other residents on the estate took up similar positions in solidarity. Then three of us were arrested for obstructing Irish Water - myself, Alan Gibson and Vincent Cunningham.

There was a lot of publicity after the arrests. You had a number of interviews with the national media and there were also other actions taken in Cork. There have also been big demonstrations throughout the country, but the government is making threats. What is the mood now among working class areas?

The mood is very defiant and it is really giving a sense of a community in action that I have not seen in many years. People are getting to know one another and going out to draw in others from different areas. They are rallying to support neighbouring estates. People are sharing experiences, food, and are helping each other. It is also predominantly women that I see taking part and becoming leaders in their own area. There are plenty of men also, but it is striking to see the number of women who are coming out and being vocal in their opposition to Irish Water.

Why do you think this campaign has struck such a chord?

I think people have nothing left to give in this country. We have been giving and giving for years. I also think there is something about water. We already pay for it through our taxes. Water is the source of life and we see it as being vital for the most vulnerable, the sick and the poor. This has moved people into action, because they know it will be another thing to pay. But, more than that, it has become about profit and people are saying that water must never ever be about profit.

The government has made clear that every home is to get a meter whether you want one or not. It is the law. How do people therefore see their relationship with the state?

That is where the defiance is coming in. People are saying absolutely no way, no more, no way. They are refusing to obey the law because they see it as a bad law which they will not obey.

Last Saturday there were up to 200,000 people protesting throughout the country. You spoke at the demonstration in Cork and said you believed that people were in the process of articulating a new form of society. What did you mean by this?

I think people want a new form of democracy and you can see the genesis of this at street meetings. People are making their own decisions about how to defend and organise themselves and are finding it really empowering. We now have street committees with a delegate structure with regular delegate meetings. We are also sending people out to speak to other towns to help them get organised. People are finding a voice within their own neighbourhood, but they are not being listened to by government. But they are no longer too concerned about that, as they are taking ownership at a grassroots level. That is what I believe is the genesis of an absolutely revolutionary movement.

Do you think that people in Ireland are becoming conscious of themselves as a working class?

I do. I have spoken at meetings about being a working class woman and about this being a fight for our class. I think that this has struck a deep chord with so many people. This struggle has created some sort of shift in people’s thinking about their position in Irish society.

Are people talking about socialism and revolutionary politics?

Yes, absolutely, especially within groups of women when we are standing around having our coffee break in the morning. Some women have said to me that they will be involved in the struggle from now on and want to be involved and take an active role in life and society. I am blown away by all of this. I think it is amazing.

Where do you think it is going from here?

This form of organisation has really caught on in our town and I think it has the possibility to spread to other areas. At the demonstration in Cork I said, “Do yourselves a favour and go home and get organised.” It is really doing ourselves a favour as a working class to get organised - by knocking on your neighbour’s door and asking them how they feel about water meters. That is the start of it. We all know that this is not just about water meters, but it is a starting point. Now we have whole estates that Irish Water is not allowed onto and people’s attitude is getting tougher through experience.

But we still have to deal with the state. We are facing the gardaí and the government. How are we going to tackle them?

OK, but look what we have done in three weeks as a county. We have put the frighteners on them. They keep throwing us some crumbs - every day there is a new crumb. And what the working class has said is highly unusual. Before, people would have accepted those crumbs but now they are saying, ‘To hell with this. No more crumbs - no more!’ That’s what I am hearing at street meetings.

What I am trying to get at is what about our national organisation? The state is organised on a national basis and in my view we need a national organisation and a democratic revolutionary party in Ireland. It is a huge problem that we don’t have one at the moment. How do you think we should organise nationally and do you think there is a possibility of a party being formed?

I think of course we have to organise nationally. We need a national representative meeting and we need to discuss this with people we are in contact with in other areas. Who knows what will come out of that? I suppose the people themselves will decide what the course of action is. But it is about building confidence. It is about showing them another alternative, a better way of being. People are already seeing this and like the experience of having control. For too long they had no control or they handed that control over. But now that is not the way. The activists get out of bed at 6am every morning and stand their ground all day and get back up the next day and do it all over again.

We have had solidarity greetings from Australia, San Francisco and London. In terms of organisation my view is that we need to reach out to other countries. Ireland is not going to do it on its own, although it could be the spark for something bigger.

I believe we can do that. I believe we can be that spark for something bigger. I feel it in the air. I felt it at the national demonstrations. Something has changed. The difference now is that the working class has taken ownership of this struggle. After this experience they will not want to go back to life as it was before. That is the difference.