Ireland: We need a united Marxist party

The revolt against water charges poses sharp questions for the left, writes Anne McShane

The Irish working class is out in force against the latest attempt by the Fine Gael/Labour government to make it pay for the failings of global capitalism.

Since the collapse of the ‘Celtic tiger’ in 2008, mass unemployment has left hundreds of thousands unable to afford mortgage repayments. Vast levels of negative equity mean that many families are trapped in untenable debt situations, struggling to cope on around €300 a week and facing repossession. Charities and other support agencies have reported unprecedented levels of poverty. People who six years ago had jobs in industry and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle have seen their lives fall apart. Their children have no prospect of jobs and many have departed for Australia or Canada in yet another wave of mass migration. These are Ireland’s new poor, but now many are saying, enough is enough.

The 2010 banking bailout agreed between the previous Fianna Fáil/Green government and the European Central Bank/International Monetary Fund required that the budgetary deficit be slashed to three percent by 2015 in return for an injection of €35 billion to Irish banks. That government was routed in the general election just two months later, with Fine Gael and Labour promising solutions. Calling on the electorate to “throw away their auld cynicism about politics”, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore promised that this time it would be different.

Of course, things did not turn out as Gilmore promised. Having doubled its vote, winning strong support in working class areas, Labour did the opposite of what it had pledged. It turned its attention to the real business of government and to assisting Fine Gael to draw up and enforce a punishing four-year ‘national recovery plan’. Benefits were slashed, along with health, education and all basic services, generating savings of €7.75 billion in the first year. A ‘universal social charge’ tax of up to 8% on all gross incomes was brought in, leaving the already vulnerable even more badly off. This was meant to be a temporary measure, but has proved so lucrative that finance minister Michael Noonan has recently made clear his refusal to abolish it, saying his government “cannot afford to give it up”, as “it is the only way of getting money from people on low incomes”.

I have written on a number of occasions about the waves of militancy that have greeted the various attacks under the four-year austerity programme. There have been demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, a successful boycott of the household tax and a failed campaign against the property charge. The government has been skilful in using the state taxation department to frighten and isolate the boycott campaigns so far. It has been determined to continue to force through its attacks. Its reward has been the praise lavished on it by the ECB for the ‘sacrifice’ Ireland has made. Of course government ministers themselveshave not experienced personal sacrifice - their salaries and pensions have been protected, as have the bonuses of their friends in the banking and commercial sector. Cronyism and sleaze remain rife, despite the downturn, and in 2012 Ireland was placed 25thout of 176 countries for corruption.

The government was therefore supremely confident of its ability to succeed. The working class, dispirited, crushed and disorganised, presented no problem. Yes, there were complaints about the appalling conditions suffered by ordinary people, but debate was confined to the chattering classes. Hopes were raised by reports of an economic recovery, with predictions of growth of almost 3% and a fall in unemployment. Wage cuts, temporary contracts, emigration - all these would prove to have been worthwhile.

On the move

But the working class is back on the streets again. This time in direct opposition to the water tax, due to be enforced this coming January. A semi-state company, Irish Water, was set up to take over from local authorities. Profit will be made through metering and there have been predictions of bills ranging from €500 to €1,000 per annum. Of course, it all depends on the quantity used, and there is a great deal of anxiety about not being able to afford water.

The anger over this new tax saw a demonstration of 80,000 in Dublin on October 11. On November 1 more than 200,000 marched across Ireland. There have been protests in almost every part of the country on a regular basis over the last two months and local organisations have been set up to fight the tax. Government ministers are met with angry crowds when making official visits, the most well-known being the protest in Jobstown, Dublin on November 22, when Labour deputy prime minister Joan Burton was surrounded by protestors for over two hours. Taoiseach Enda Kenny is a particularly despised figure, lampooned for his ‘Marie Antoinette’ response to the masses. He has said that if people are really worried about money they can “turn the taps off”.

The most interesting difference with previous upsurges is the level of organisation. The protests against water metering began early in the year on an estate in Cork city. Residents and supporters blocked access to stopcocks and prevented the installation of meters. Gardaí were called and the situation resulted in a stand-off. Residents refused to back down and after several months Irish Water contractors were forced to give up. At the same time similar protests began on estates in Dublin and spread to Drogheda, Galway, Limerick, Donegal and many other parts. Throughout the country people are organising on their streets and estates to stop the metering. They are blocking access not only to stopcocks, but to entire roads and sometimes towns, to keep out the contractors. Social media is awash with reports of confrontations with the gardaí and contractors, and of the ‘water fairies’ who are busy sabotaging any work that has been done.

The confrontational attitude has, of course, resulted in arrests. Dublin protestors have recently been convicted of breaching injunctions. National action had been called in the event of the protestors being sent to prison - no doubt the judge was aware of this when he suspended their sentences. A media smear campaign has been launched, with a number of papers circulating allegations that the campaign has been infiltrated by dissident republican forces and even Islamic State!

The demonstration planned for Wednesday December 10 is going to be very big. The government has made a significant climbdown by promising to cap the charges and keep them to an annual flat rate of €260 for a family (€160 for the first two years until meters are installed nationally). It is hoping that this concession will be enough to quell the protests. It seems unlikely. Anti-metering actions have continued just as before and now there are rumours that members of the armed forces will breach military discipline and join the December 10 march. Gardaí in some parts of the country are now refusing to act against protestors and Irish Water is in serious difficulties with its programme of work.

Where is the left?

Neither the Socialist Party nor the Socialist Workers Party has taken any real initiative in response to the new situation. They are both campaigning for a general election and the trouncing of the Labour Party. But, while it will be good to see Labour punished, this hardly constitutes a strategy for the movement.

Both organisations see themselves as central and neither is interested in fighting for the united Marxist party we need. The SWP, in the guise of People before Profit, is involved in the Right to Water campaign, an organisation launched in August by the trade unions, Unite and Mandate. It calls for free water as a human right, but has not supported non-payment or the blocking of metering. In fact Brendan Ogle, chief spokesman and general secretary of Unite, condemned the Jobstown protest and insisted that protests must be law-abiding - that rules out direct action against installation then. People before Profit TD and leading SWP member Richard Boyd Barrett has made similar noises in relation to December 10. While nobody is advocating a riot, these calls are an attempt to sanitise the campaign.

The Socialist Party meantime is to the left of the leadership of the main anti-charges organisation, Right to Water, in that it advocates a mass boycott. But rather than intervene in the campaign to change its slogans, it has set up a rival: We Won’t Pay. This is a very sectarian step and looks more like an attempt to recruit to the Socialist Party than any genuine move to build the movement. The vast majority of those who attend Right to Water protests have no intention of paying and very many of them are blocking their streets and estates on a daily basis. Why separate these people into two campaigns, especially when they clearly support a boycott? The demand must be for a Right to Water conference in order to shift it to the left to reflect the militancy of the masses.

Sinn Féin is the organisation best placed to profit from the present crisis. There are predictions that it will gain massively in the next general election. It could be in power with Fianna Fáil or with a group of independents. Gerry Adams and Marylou MacDonald have shifted to the left under pressure from their membership and have now said that they will not pay the water charges. But Sinn Féin in government will offer more of the same. Despite the claims of some members that it is a socialist party, it is nothing of the sort. It is in government in the north of Ireland, where it has been carrying out attacks on benefits and acting as a loyal partner in a capitalist government.

The situation is crying out for a single working class party. In its absence we can only hope for short-term, temporary gains. We need to unite the mass of workers against not only this government, but the Irish state. We need a programme of demands that raises the necessity of superseding the system of capital. The working class is at present inspired by the sense of its own collectivity and the feeling that we are many. But we lack a political programme that puts forward a comprehensive set of demands for what we really need in the here and now, not just defence of the status quo. We need work or full benefits, and the abolition of all retrogressive taxation. We need a new, secular constitution, where women have the right to choose and the church does not dictate the terms under which we live. We need a programme that reflects our own national circumstances, but reaches out to the international working class.