Crackdown must be resisted

Anne McShane reports on the Irish struggle against the water tax

Just last month the Irish government was confident that it had succeeded in crushing the latest revolt against austerity. President Michael Higgins had signed into law the Water Services Act 2014, which imposes charges for the supply of water by metering, on December 31. The self-appointed leadership of the Right to Water campaign (RTW) announced on the same day that it would be suspending any further protests and a national demonstration on January 31 would not go ahead. It made no call for non-payment and instead announced that the strategy was to get a new government elected. This, of course, suited Sinn Féin, the most influential component of the RTW leadership. Gerry Adams’ aim is to present his party as the Syriza of Ireland and to turn working class militancy into votes for his party’s election. Therefore at a time when the movement needed to be gearing up to defeat the charges, the RTW leadership waved the white flag.

This caused a great deal of confusion and demoralisation. Local groups were at a loss. There were several initiatives to create an alternative national structure and a variety of new organisations sprang into being. The Socialist Party called a number of national meetings to set up a federation of non-payment groups. But this was complicated by the internal struggles in RTW and the belief by many of its local groups that any new alliance would represent a split. It was also severely impeded because of sectarianism and the refusal of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party to work effectively together. The SWP continued to support RTW despite the leadership’s refusal to call for a boycott. The Socialist Party wanted a campaign completely under its leadership and decided to relaunch its own front, We Won’t Pay.

In the midst of all this chaos, confusion and despair the government proudly announced that the population was at last signing up to pay the water tax. We were assured that normality had been restored and politics was safely back in the hands of the government. But the working class proved it wrong. On January 31 many tens of thousands marched despite the leadership’s white flag. There was a harder, more determined mood and speakers, drawn from local groups, were far more politicised.

This clearly shocked the government. In the aftermath of those protests it decided to move to quell opposition. On February 10 a new wave of attacks began, with the wide-scale arrest of protestors, particularly in the Dublin area. The working class community of Tallaght in Dublin has now become the testing ground for a far more heavy-handed form of policing. There have been dawn raids almost every day on homes. More than 20 people (the youngest being 15) have been dragged out of their beds and locked up in Garda stations. They have been subjected to hours of questioning aimed at cracking the resolve of individuals and creating suspicion and division within the anti-water movement. And the arrests go on.

The pretext for this particular campaign of intimidation is a sit-down protest that took place in Tallaght last November against Joan Burton, the Labour Party tánaiste (deputy prime minister). Burton, on an official visit to a college in the area, had her car blocked by angry demonstrators, who staged a sit-down protest and chanted slogans against government attacks. She has become a figure of hate in recent months because of her sarcastic attacks and unremitting loyalty to the austerity project. But it was no different from many other protests against government ministers, who have had angry crowds greet them on official visits, at their offices and outside their homes. Mainstream politicians are despised by a very significant section of the working class. Perhaps the government panicked at the level of fury and the apparent vulnerability of a minister held captive in a working class community. Enda Kenny, the taoiseach himself, had been shocked and dismayed that in the last 12 months he had met numerous people who were not only expressing anger, but “in some cases absolute hatred” (The Irish Times January 28).

Burton, who was never in any physical danger at any time, claimed she had been “terrified” by those who sat in front of her car, ridiculously describing them as dangerous “fascists”. Except for one water balloon, the only weapons actually on the scene were the ones borne by the members of the heavily armed special public order unit (which broke up the protest). However, the inconvenience of truth was not allowed to stand in the way of the government’s quest for retaliation. The director of public prosecutions was called in to meet with government representatives and a special Garda unit was established to round up the perpetrators. After three months of viewing footage from police and press sources (the latter presumably handing it over willingly), the offensive began.

These days any protestor who has the temerity to shout an insulting slogan is pounced on immediately by government politicians and press. A demonstration was called on January 27 against president Higgins for signing the Water Services Act into law despite the mass opposition. In the course of the protest Higgins was called a “midget parasite” by Derek Byrne, a prominent campaigner. This heinous crime provoked hysteria among government and media. But the president, who is not a tall man, does live like royalty. He is a figurehead who lives a pampered life, protected from the people who elected him. A man who campaigned on the basis of his past record as a Labour leftwinger, and conveniently forgot all his promises to bring about change once elected. He has behaved no differently from all the previous parasitical figureheads of the Irish state and is absolutely unaccountable. Derek Byrne said it all when confronted by furious members of the press, demanding an apology: “I should not have called him a midget …”

Byrne is one of a number of protestors facing a prison sentence for breach of an injunction to prevent protests against water metering. He and others have had massive costs orders made against them. They are being vilified by a government that is prepared to destroy the working class struggle. They, like the Tallaght protestors and the dozens of others arrested or facing charges, are actually among the most determined fighters, who should be applauded for their courage.

And the bullying has backfired. Instead of spreading panic, it has inspired a renewed militancy among local anti-water charge groups. The Tallaght arrests have resulted in a rash of solidarity protests outside Garda stations nationally. Paul Murphy, a Socialist Party TD who took part in that demonstration, was one of the first arrested. He and his fellow SP TDs, Ruth Coppinger and Joe Higgins, have made very effective use of the Dáil to ruthlessly attack and expose the government. Passionate and defiant speeches which have made those individuals our most important political voice at the present time.

But a number of vital questions must be faced up to. As working class people are learning, the Gardaí is a loyal arm of the state. It cannot be reformed to make it accountable or democratic, as the Socialist Party claims. It must be undermined and destroyed as part of the struggle to supersede the present society. The state, including its armed wing (the Gardaí and defence forces), represents the capitalist class. It will not simply bow down to the demands of the masses. To do so will threaten its very raison d’être, which is to oversee capitalism. Sinn Féin, for all its claims to radicalism, is no different in that regard. Its aim is to create a fairer capitalism - an illusion.

Yes, we need to overthrow capitalism. In Ireland that means making connections with the working class in struggle in the rest of Europe. We must have an international project that starts with Europe. And we must also build our own political organisation: a mass, democratic, working class party. A party that stands for revolution and has openness of debate and accountability. A party that helps to build the street and estate committees and aims to transform them into local councils of action, capable of organising to defend themselves and advance the struggle for an alternative to the present order.

Anne McShane