Ireland has been the "Poster-Child" of austerity policies. The government wants to impose water charges which would hit low earners disproportionally and pave the way for privatisation. Unseen protests emerged all across Ireland since 2012. Ronan Butenshaw gives an overview.
“The water charges campaign is historic. I think it is the biggest movement in the history of the state. Its size, its duration, the level of continuous activity, the level of political consciousness. I haven’t seen anything like it.”
Sam Nolan has seen a lot in Irish politics. Born in 1930, he is a veteran trade unionist and socialist who has been involved in every major movement since the Second World War. He organised the marches during Ireland’s last mass upheaval against PAYE taxes in 1979-’80 but is convinced that the latest wave is more significant.
After five years of austerity the narrative about the Republic of Ireland seemed settled. While the rest of Europe’s periphery had revolted with demonstrations, movements and the growth of political alternatives, Ireland was Europe’s poster-child, the beginning of an economic recovery showing that austerity policies had worked. After all, its Prime Minister Enda Kenny was on the cover of Time magazine above the words ‘Celtic Comeback’.
However, for those minded to look, the effects of austerity policies were clear – 750,000 people were living in poverty , the second-highest level of low-paying jobs in the developed world , a tenth of the population had emigrated since the crisis  and unemployment was only just short of 12% . Anger simmered just below the surface.
The water charges campaign began with small-scale, self-organised resistance to meter installations in Cork and Dublin. A network of new activists, unaffiliated to the political left but deriving from the working-class and with largely progressive politics, led its development in the initial months of 2014. Local groups sprang up across the state communicating online, developing strong anti-political sentiments and “saying no”to austerity and the political elites.
Often spear-headed by people who had their first taste of activity in the 2012 property tax campaign, or before in smaller murmurings like the Irish occupy movement, they rarely had any formal structures or even meetings. Instead they provided an alternative source of information, a site for discussion of frustrations and a rapid response unit to enable support for protests and confrontations.
This changed in the summer, after the government’s vote had fallen 24% in May 2014’s local elections, when street meetings were held across the state against the installation of water meters and the introduction of charges. The process was a catalyst to more organisation and saw the first significant involvement of the radical Left – Trotskyist parties People Before Profit (International Socialist Tendency) and the Anti-Austerity Alliance (Committee for a Workers’International) as well as, to a lesser extent, Sinn Féin, the most significant force on the Irish Left.
Together with left-wing trade unions Unite and Mandate, who had broken from the social partnership consensus in previous years, these political parties formed the Right2Water coalition in June. The most organised expression of the water charges movement it expanded to encapsulate other breakaway trade unions the CWU, CPSU and OPATSI as well as political independents and many of the new, community-based groups who emerged as the weeks rolled on.
On 11 October 2014 Right2Water organised the first national demonstration in Dublin, which was expected to reach around 30,000 protestors – a high figure for Irish anti-austerity events since the crisis. In the end over 100,000 turned out in the biggest march since those against the Iraq War in 2003. Another day of action on 1 November called for demonstrations in towns and cities across Ireland. It attracted around 200,000 marchers, with organisers astonished to get reports of marches in small villages that hadn’t seen protests in decades.
After many years of austerity the water charges provided a perfect storm of frustrations. A new consumption tax which would disproportionately hit lower earners and result in no improvement in services, the money ending up in the hands of bondholders. A likely course of privatisation with the involvement of a private company GMC Sierra, part-owned by Irish oligarch Denis O’Brien, in the installation of meters. Perceived government corruption, most notably in a scandal involving a director with links to Fine Gael being forced to resign, in addition to incompetence, with messages about rates and dates changing daily.
David Gibney of Right2Water says that “government threats to shut water down to a trickle” and fears about “water poverty” leading to people being unable to shower or wash dishes also “brought home how intrusive this tax was” to people’s everyday lives.
In the build up to the next national demonstration on 10 December the government offered a series of concessions – a flat rate of 260 Euro rather than metering, no turning down of water and commitments to oppose privatisation. But this failed to deter the majority of the movement with 70,000 turning out again on a working day in the freezing cold. On 31 January a protest organised by the autonomous Dublin Says No rather than the Right2Water coalition brought 50,000 to the streets in Dublin and around 20,000 in Letterkenny, Cork, Waterford and Limerick.
Meanwhile there was an attempt to criminalise the movement. Police presence at water meter installations was increased and their tactics for crowd dispersal became increasingly violent. At one confrontation at a private event held by the Taoiseach* in the Dublin suburb of Santry a number of women were “pepper sprayed and literally beaten to the ground” by the police, local activist James Askin recalls. A protest was held outside a nearby police station that night, drawing hundreds.
In late October a number of the most militant activists from Dublin were brought to the High Court and told by a judge that their right to protest did not include stopping installations. He later granted an injunction to that effect. Following this, in mid-November, a small protest in south-west Dublin had seen Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister trapped in her car for a number of hours.
Then on 9 February 2015 the police arrested over forty people who had been involved in the latter protest in a series of dawn raids. This included Paul Murphy TD** of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, elected in a by-election on an anti-water charges platform. Just ten days later Dublin saw the imprisonment of four activists from the previous injunction case – Bernie Hughes, Derek Byrne, Paul ‘Ollie’ Moore and Damien O’Neill. On 9 March a judge released them on a technicality, and no charges have yet been brought following the mass arrests in Tallaght.
This atmosphere of persecution swelled the ranks of the latest Right2Water demonstration on 21 March with over 80,000 filling Dublin’s O’Connell Street. This made five demonstrations over six months that exceeded 50,000 people – unprecedented in modern Irish history. All in a context where support for the Republic’s establishment parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour dropped below 50% for the first time since the foundation of the state.
But as 2015 approaches summer the effects of the economic recovery are beginning to be felt by larger portions of the population. Unemployment is approaching single digits and economic growth is returning. The government’s poll ratings are creeping upwards again. So, where next for the water charges movement?
Paul Murphy TD is involved in the We Won’t Pay campaign, which prioritises non-payment. Around 1.2 million out of 2.1 million households have registered for the charge, with the first bills arriving around the state in April. Murphy believes that between 30 and 45% of people will refuse to pay the charge, resulting in water charges becoming “the leading issue” in the next general election, likely in February 2016.
Meanwhile the mainstream Right2Water movement, and particularly its unions, are concentrating on broadening out the struggle. They are hosting an international event on May Day, with invited speakers from Syriza and Podemos, to announce a Platform for Renewal, which David Gibney describes as “a minimum platform for a progressive government in Ireland” in the areas of housing, health, education, political reform, employment and taxation. On 13 June this will expand into a participatory conference to debate and vote on policies.
On present trajectory a pro-austerity victory in the forthcoming general election remains likely. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s two historic right-wing parties, are the favourites to form the next government, with Sinn Féin plateauing below a percentage necessary to lead a government and the radical left fragmented and oppositional.
But the water charges struggle shows no sign of disappearing. It has been a destituent process for hundreds of thousands of people in the south of Ireland who now see the regime – its political class, its failed Republic and its free-market economic model – as illegitimate.
It is hard to envisage the establishment swiftly reversing this trend. They are increasingly, as Irish political scientist Peter Mair wrote, “ruling a void”. While this is the case, and while the working-class grow in militancy, the opportunities for the left are greater than at any time in living memory.
*Taoiseach: Prime ministe of Ireland
** TD (Teachta Dála): MP