Since Spring 2014, small localised opposition to the installation of water meters in working class estates around the Republic has grown into a mass mobilisation on a scale not experienced since the PAYE Tax Marches of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The movement was driven by physical opposition to the installation meters but burst onto the radar of the established media when up to 100,000 marched through Dublin on 11th October in the first Right2Water demonstration.
The scale of the campaign not only caught the Fine Gael/Labour Government off-guard, but also many of those involved, such as activist Karen Doyle of Cobh, county Cork, who had participated in her local campaign against the Property Tax. Although participation dwindled, the group formed the basis for the new water tax movement.
“On a good night we’d get 15 people to come to our meeting and I’d say ‘Jesus, that’s really good now’. [After the Irish Water registration forms were sent out] I’d say about 50 or 60 people turned up to it. And it was at that moment I thought “Here we go. This is it. This will actually work”.
The same was the case in Kells, County Meath, where Seamus McDonagh was one of a handful of activists who had been organising meetings, leafleting and attempting to block the installation of water meters since April. But it was when Irish Water registration packs began arriving in people’s homes in September that there was sudden change in attitudes.
“When we had Richard Boyd Barrett TD addressing a meeting in Kells in July, there were 25 to 30 people there. But after the packs came out, we had an ordinary meeting with 70 people at it. In a small town like Kells, with 6,000 people, we had 800 people out on the streets for the second national Right2Water protest on 1st November. It was described to me as the most excitement the town had seen since Ireland qualified for the World Cup in the 1990s; 800 in Kells is like 250,000 in Dublin.”
The same was the case in Donegal, where three years ago local Independent councillor Micheál Mac Giolla Easbuig, set up a group to fight the household, water and septic tank charges with six or seven people “in a small community hall in Annagry”.
“During the household tax campaign, trying to get people to come to meetings or protests wasn’t difficult but trying to get people to organise or take responsibility was difficult. But that’s absolutely changed now.”
In the large working class estate of Kilmore, in the Coolock area of Dublin, local Anti-Austerity Alliance Councillor Michael O’Brien was similarly pleasantly surprised by the growing mood of defiance in communities ravaged by austerity.
Since April, water meter installation had been physically opposed by local activists in the neighbouring areas of Ayrfield and Edenmore who had organised mainly through social media or were affiliated with the “Dublin says No” campaign group. When the installation teams neared Kilmore, O’Brien and activists from other Left political groups, including People Before Profit, and Eirigi, who had campaigned together in support of locked out Greyhound bin workers, leafleted streets calling on residents to resist.
“The turnout at local open air street meetings was massive, up to 400 people, much bigger than anything seen locally in the property tax campaign. It was clear then that working class people were going to resist the water tax”.
At the mass open-air meetings it was decided to mount local patrols to ensure the installation workers could not enter the area. “Many of the people getting up at 7 a.m. in the morning to partake in these activities had never been active in politics before,” said O’Brien.
Other communities were organising through Facebook pages. These groups often adopted the names of local areas tagged with “says no” or “meter watch”. O’Brien adds: “these networks not only existed on social media but also in reality on the ground, it was a spontaneous mobilisation of working class people against further austerity”.
This phenomenon was also witnessed by Karen Doyle in Cobh. She said, “I think the thing that has really struck a chord with me is the communities organising themselves. I was in an estate one morning called Rushbrooke Manor and there were decisions that needed to be taken and they needed to be taken instantly because Irish Water were about to come in…I could see hands going up or whatever they were discussing. And then they came back and said that the decision is that Irish Water are not getting in today. And that was it. There was no quarrels or nothing. The decision was taken by residents, by the people themselves, and we stood behind them and supported that. Every day I see the residents coming together, and it genuinely is democracy in action”.
The community spirit provoked has been impressive, with humour also to the fore, with one widely watched YouTube video showing women opposing meter installation in North East Dublin singing the hokey kokey, to the amusement of even the installation workers.
Doyle said: “In Cork some of the estates have big huge banners up. Fosters Haven have ‘Fosters on Tap’ – on a huge banner. There are women going around in cars with coffee, tea, and sandwiches. It’s like the community is together after years and years of not really knowing each other and not really organising.”
Trade unions such as Mandate and Unite joined with progressive politicians to develop a wider structure to organise protest marches against the tax.
Mandate Communications officer, Dave Gibney, said: “In January 2014 one of our members in Tesco drafted a motion for our Biennial Delegate Conference calling for a campaign against water charges. That motion was carried unanimously at the conference on 27th April. We decided we would try to work with other unions and progressive political parties and community groups and see if we could help in forming some sort of an umbrella group.”
At a meeting in the Dáil in early June attended by representatives of Sinn Féin, PBP, the Socialist Party, progressive Independent TDs and trade unionists, the Right2Water campaign was formed. The umbrella group meets weekly and has links to most of the local campaigns.
“When you have in total probably 300,000 people marching on the streets it’s going to cover every demographic,” says Gibney, “For instance the person organising the Cork Right2Water is actually a housewife who has never been involved in any protests before. This is the first time ever she’s actually been looking into the political decisions that are being made. For the first national demonstration in October she was organising buses to Dublin, for the second demonstration when I was talking to her she was trying to get the platform ready for the speakers.”
There is a variety of approaches within the Right2Water campaign with groups such as the Socialist Party and Workers’ Party calling for mass non-payment and support for protests against water meter installation. The unions involved and Sinn Féin have however maintained that protest marches will end water charges.
While most activists from whatever campaign they are drawn distribute Right2Water materials, the local campaigns maintain their own identities. According to O’Brien these identities are becoming more political as the campaign progresses.
“Many people involved are highly suspicious of political parties but have clear politics. They oppose austerity and there is also a growing opposition to businessman Denis O’Brien who has an interest in one of the main meter installation companies, as well as owning Independent newspapers, Newstalk and much more. It is clear that for many their anti-austerity politics are now developing into an anti-capitalist position.
“The key role that social media has played in the movement and the fact that it is the main working class people who are involved has seen some people compare it to the Yes vote campaign in the Scottish referendum and other popular revolts against austerity across Europe,” says O’Brien.
“As the campaign has developed the role of groups without Left politics such as Direct Democracy Ireland has certainly dwindled at least in Dublin. The movement is a working class one with our class’s interests to the fore”.
In rural Ireland, anti-trade union sentiment and right wing narratives concerning immigration has on occasions be evident in the movement, but Seamus McDonagh said, “This is a leftwing popular mobilisation. The fact that many people involved don’t have a real sense of left politics is more to do with the inability of the left to get its message to its core constituency in recent years rather than any widespread rightwing sympathy”.
Buoyed by successful demonstrations in November and October, Gibney expects the campaign to grow even larger. “The local demonstrations were to embed those committees in towns so that for future demonstrations on people would be able to organise buses, would go as a community and as a group and march together.”
The Water War key dates:
Domestic rates are abolished, local authority services, including water supply, are now to be paid for through an increase in income tax and VAT.
Resistance in Dublin led to the scrapping of the first attempt to introduce a water tax in the city. Other successful campaigns took place in Limerick and Waterford. In Waterford residents held contractors who were cutting off non-payers hostage. In other counties the charges continued.
Second attempt to implement Water Charges in Dublin is defeated by a campaign of resistance. Charges are scrapped across the country with Minister for Environment Brendan Howlin stating that water provision will be paid for from a 2% rise in VAT and a 5% rise in motor tax
Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan announces that preparations for water charges are underway.
The Fianna Fail/Green Government sign up to the IMF memorandum of understanding which includes water charges.
Fine Gael/Labour Government announces that water meters are to be installed and that the new water services company will be called Irish Water. The structure of the company is based on a PwC report, seen as a road map to eventual privatisation.
Government announces it will finance installation of water meters with a €450 million loan from the National Pension Reserve Fund.
GMC/Sierra, a company part part owned by Newstalk and Independent newspaper proprietor Denis O’Brien, is awarded the Government contract to install water meters in the North West, Dublin City and Midlands, utilising non-union workers.
The Water Service (No.2) Bill 2013, setting up Irish Water, is rushed through the Dáil in four hours.
Revealed that Irish Water has spent €50m on consultants during 2013.
Local communities in Dublin, Cork, Meath and elsewhere begin to resist the installation of water meters.
High Court grants GMC/Sierra, represented by barrister Jim O’Callaghan an interim injunction against nine water meter protestors from the Edenmore Estate in Dublin.
11th Oct 2014
100,000 people march in Dublin against water charges and Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance wins the Dublin South West by-election on a policy of non-payment of water charges.
1st Nov 2014
Over 150,000 people across the country protest against water charges.
19th Nov 2014
Government announces revised water charges costs.
10th Dec 2014
Protest outside Dáil against water charges at 1.00 p.m.
This article was published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.20