No more the victim
Anne McShane reports on the resistance to water charges.
Wednesday December 10 saw the third major demonstration against the attempt to impose crippling water charges on the population.
While the garda and Irish media announced that only 35,000 participated in the protest, it seemed to me that the organisers’ claim of 100,000 was nearer the mark - interestingly foreign media sources also reported the latter figure. And it was a militant event, with contingents arriving from across the country to join tens of thousands of working class Dubliners. Despite the government’s previous climbdown on the cost of charges, the vast mass of the campaign had refused to retreat. Those present represented many more thousands who stayed at home because of work or family responsibilities, or to defend their towns and estates against meter installation.
Central Dublin ground to a halt when the demonstration was prevented by gardaí from entering Kildare Street, the site of the Dáil. Side roads were blocked off in an unprecedented security operation and a stand-off resulted with gardaí at the entrance to Kildare Street. Then thousands of protestors of all ages defiantly occupied main roads and bridges, shouting slogans and refusing to move. The garda ‘public order’ unit surrounded demonstators on O’Connell Bridge and rumours circulated on social media that street CCTV had been switched off. Later videos were posted showing assaults on the crowd and a number of arrests.
As well as the heavy police presence, the government had prepared a media counter-offensive. TDs announced from the encircled Dáil that the protest had been a flop. The fabricated attendance figure of 35,000 was reported as fact by Irish news broadcasts. We were told that the middle class had not turned out and the bottom had fallen out of the campaign. The government was apparently relieved that it was so ‘small’ and the charges would prevail. In an interview, health minister Leo Varadkar feigned astonishment that people were so upset over a mere €3 a week. He also expressed confidence that the struggle was over. It was strange Alice in Wonderland-like experience to have been on a huge demonstration and then hear news reports that virtually no-one was there.
Government supporter and billionaire Denis O’Brien eagerly facilitated the bogus coverage. His empire of radio stations, newspapers and other media have been pumping out an endless stream of government propaganda, aimed at vilifying protestors and demoralising the struggle. Even RTE, the state broadcaster, which prides itself on its objectivity, proved to be unreliable, complicit and even antagonistic. The upshot is a deeply cynical attitude towards the media and greater reliance on social media, where film footage exposing garda violence and intimidation by the hired thugs is freely available. Reports also continue to circulate of the continued blocking of water metering throughout the country. All of which would be little known but for social media. In fact if you relied on newspapers and TV you would think it was all over.
So there are major challenges facing the campaign. The news blackout and the government’s intransigence have created frustration. It was hoped that December 10 would be a turning point and many were convinced the government would be forced to back down. But the resolve and social weight of the state were underestimated. In this respect the Right to Water campaign is inadequate - its leadership seems to be firmly in the hands of Sinn Féin. The fact that Gerry Adams, who until a few weeks ago was publicly committed to paying the charge, was a main speaker at the rally was shameful. He has been seen by some as jumping on the bandwagon and his speech was drowned out time and again by “We won’t pay” chants. But in the absence of a coherent left alternative the Sinn Féin leadership are hoping to maximise their vote.
There is also the problem that Right to Water does not call for a boycott of the charges. It certainly does not openly support the blocking of metering and other direct confrontation of the state by local groups. RTW has called for another demonstration on January 31 to ‘finish off’ the government. However, as we have seen, demonstrations alone will not work. The government can organise its security and media coverage for one day and carry on as before. We need an organised working class movement that takes the state seriously.
I have argued that the Socialist Party in Ireland had been sectarian in setting up a separate We Won’t Pay campaign with individual membership, rather than intervening with local groups that are affiliated to Right to Water.1 There was a mixed response to my view, with some SPI members arguing that there was no possibility of intervening in RTW, as it has no organisation on the ground. However, now there has been a more positive move by the SPI to orientate towards the existing local organisations. Paul Murphy TD has headed up a call for a national meeting of local groups this weekend. His aim is to set up a national federation of non-payment groups. This would be a huge step forward.
He also made a call in his speech on December 10 for a new national political movement. For the movement to “sit down and discuss democratically the building of an umbrella of anti-austerity, anti-water charge, left candidates to stand in every constituency in the country at the next general election. Such is the political change that has come about because of this movement that dozens of serious, committed campaigners could be elected. Together we can transform politics in this country; together we can revolutionise society.”2
I believe that this call deserves the critical support of all involved in the movement. We do need to discuss politics and to make use of the general election which will take place either in 2015 or early 2016. There is huge cynicism towards political parties, but there is also a call for a new kind of political representation. My concern is that the SPI - like the failed United Left Alliance - is looking for lowest-common-denominator electoral unity. This could mean a very mixed bag of independents, some with very bad positions on issues such as immigration and a woman’s right to choose. The latter is a policy that the SPI is always ready to drop for the sake of ‘unity’. While it is important to stand for a new political alternative, we need to put forward principled politics on all questions. This struggle is not just about water. It is about how we are ruled and what alternative the working class can itself develop.
That debate must be had. The road to the conscious, collective supersession of capitalism is the key. This means a serious national debate on the programme for revolution in Ireland - a movement to educate our class and give it skills to collectively develop its ideas and organisation. We need to learn how to unite and build political confidence through the highest level of political discussion.
The core activists of this campaign are learning a great deal about the role of the state in upholding capitalism. Arrests and criminal charges against protestors are snowballing, and prison sentences are expected to be handed out this week for breaches of injunctions. Convicted protestors have been hammered with court costs - nearly €100,000 has been awarded to Irish Water contractors by the high court. Working class people in low-paid jobs or those who are unemployed are being intimidated at all levels.
The government is criminalising working class people and punishing them with the imposition of huge debts for standing up to the state - in facing down this new tax the working class is confronting the state head on. The logic of their resistance can be applied to all democratic social and economic questions - it is necessary to confront capitalism with an alternative programme and a class united to fight for it. No more should the working class be the victim.
1. ‘We need a united Marxist party’ Weekly Worker December 4.