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Not just treading water

In recent months the anti-water charges movement has developed from street protests towards a mass boycott and possible electoral intervention, reports Dara McHugh

The continuing strength and vitality of the Right2Water (R2W) campaign, an umbrella grouping bringing together unions, political parties and community groups in opposition to the water charges, will be tested by another major national protest in Dublin on Saturday, 29th August.

R2W organisers intend to make the protest on 29th August, just two days before TDs and senators return to Leinster House following their extensive summer holidays, one which ensures opposition to the water charges remains top of the domestic political agenda.

Since the campaign’s last major march, when over 60,000 took to the streets of Dublin on Saturday, 21st March, Right2Water (R2W) has focused its energies on the development of “a policy platform for a progressive government”. This amounted to ten policy principles agreed over two meetings on 1st May and 13th June in the hall of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in Dublin.

Unite Education and Development organiser, Brendan Ogle, told LookLeft that the objective of drawing up these policy principles, “Is that they can become an objective that we can campaign behind to ensure that we give electoral expression to the anti-austerity movement that is involved in the water charges movement.”

In parallel to this work, a new organisation has been formed by Left parties to solidify the campaign of non-payment of Irish Water bills. The Non-Payment Network (NPN) formed a week in advance of the first Right2Water policy conference, exists to support and popularise the boycott campaign.

At the time of its launch, Ogle slammed the NPN, saying: “It is disappointing at a time maximum unity is needed [that] the usual suspects put control and division first. This time it won’t work.”

But Meath Workers’ Party representative, Seamus McDonagh, who is a member of the Steering Committees of R2W and the NPN, suggests that the two are complementary: “I think the NPN has strengthened the campaign. We need people not to pay if we’re going to defeat the charges; it’s the only way to do it. This is my third time to fight the introduction of water charges and the only way to win is by communities and people refusing to pay and supporting those who refuse to pay.”

Dublin People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) councillor and fellow NPN Steering Committee member, Bríd Smith, shares McDonagh’s sentiments.

“The mass movement, combined with non-payment and a political alternative in the elections, I think that’s a potent recipe, and we should encourage people to stay on the streets whether it’s local demonstrations or national demonstrations, or fighting water meter installation. We need to stay out there and build the numbers.”

Talking to LookLeft, Ogle downplayed any current conflict between the roles of R2W and the NPN, suggesting that much of the initial disagreement was “linguistic in nature.” However, he emphasises the necessity of mounting a political challenge for the anti-water charges campaign to claim victory: “I think the way to beat Irish Water is to turf this Government out in the next election. Irish Water is not going to be defeated before that.”

For McDonagh and Smith, with some estimating 40% of intended Irish Water ‘customers’ are so far refusing to pay the charge and the company declining to release its figures, it is the boycott, which is core of the campaign. Both argue that the new enforcement measures rushed through the Dáil by the Government in July are likely to prove unenforceable and anyway there is a two-year period before cases can be taken against individuals. McDonagh points out that “they can’t take half a million of us to court.”

Smith believes the Government may attempt to also introduce more stringent measures after the next general election, if it returns to power.

Notwithstanding tactical issues over the emphasis on non-payment, the main point of disagreement between R2W’s three pillars – trade unions, community groups and political parties – concerns the shape of its electoral expression. Left parties affiliated to R2W have voiced concerns that Sinn Féin, the largest component of the political pillar, could seek to capture the momentum of the R2W campaign while not ruling out coalition with Fianna Fáil following the next election.

Smith commented on this possibility: “In our history, someone has always breathed life back into the monster of Fianna Fail and they have continued to exist like a parasite on Irish society.”

However the concerns among Left parties over the political direction of R2W have abated due to developments within the Unite, the largest union affiliated to the campaign. In May, Unite’s policy conference in Dublin passed a motion that the union would “not form links of any description or give support either directly or indirectly to political parties which are one sided and sectarian, or parties which are pro-austerity.” Instigated by Northern Ireland branches of the union, this limits the campaign’s capacity to integrate more closely with Sinn Fein.

In addition to this, at the June conference, the unions participating in R2W precluded their involvement in the establishment of a new political party based on the campaign. However, according to Ogle the R2W unions are still “committed to putting our resources into achieving the maximum amount of unity and campaigning strategy behind the policy principles for a progressive government.”

Left parties would be content with a reasonably low level of unity. Smith said: “I agree with bringing together everyone on an anti-austerity platform that advocates for workers’ rights. Candidates like myself can and will sign up to that and will sing from the same hymn sheet, but that doesn’t create a new party, that creates an over-arching umbrella so all sorts of groups can work together, whether a party or not.”

The mass movement, combined with non-payment and a political alternative in the elections, I think that’s a potent recipe

But Ogle has his eyes on a more ambitious outcome, saying that “something more substantial than people simply endorsing those policy principles or R2W endorsing candidates would seem to be possible.” He argues that while new formations like Renua and various blocs of Independents are essentially parties without policies, the water charges movement “now has policies in ten areas that affect all of our lives, but there is no vehicle to carry those forward.”

He added: “The Irish people are very progressive, as we saw in the Marriage Equality Referendum, they are interested in fairness, in an egalitarian society. That’s not expressing itself through the body politic. [Divisions within the Left] are keeping the neoliberal agenda in power. It’s time we showed that we can act in our own interests for a change, rather than the interests of those who want to own and control us.”

Ambitions of occupying Leinster House will be short-lived if the movement itself does not regain some of the momentum it has lost in recent months. Smith is among those who argue that the decision to focus on policy development cost the movement.

“I think we made a mistake in the R2W campaign by not calling another national demonstration quickly after Christmas. Mass mobilisation was having an effect, having an impact, people could see that, were hoping that the Government would collapse under the weight of it and unfortunately R2W pulled back.”

Ogle is confident that the August march will revitalise the campaign and feels that having a set of policies for the movement to rally behind will make it a greater threat than before.

“If we can reignite that level of energy in mass protests after we have taken time out to develop the policy platform, we then have a mobilised mass movement with a platform before the Budget, in the run up to the election. That’ll really give the Government something to think about.”

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