2014 was a year of struggle in Ireland against water charges. The Irish have been suffering under a draconian regime of austerity since the Euro crisis erupted in 2009. The much hated troika, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, forced Ireland to borrow 85 billion euros in a bailout deal.
The levies and taxes brought in as part of the bailout have impoverished the Irish working class for the past five years. Yet, each year the Irish government has dutifully paid back the bond holders, while wages and pensions have been slashed, so much so that public-sector wages have been cut by a massive 20 percent in five years.
On December 19, 2013, the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, quickly passed the Water Service (No. 2) Bill handing over the rights of water to Irish Water, a public/private firm, which began installing water meters to charge residence for use. Households were expected to pay between 176 euro for one adult and up to 500 euro for larger families. Households who use private well water would still be charged for wastewater services.
Yet, before Irish Water even began installing water meters and fixing outdated pipes and infrastructure, Irish Water’s budget was exposed, showing that it would spend 180 million euros to just establish itself, with 86 million euros going to consultants, contractors and lawyers. Irish workers saw this as a clear handout to corporations and private firms, as their services were not being improved. Outrage continued as it surfaced that Irish Water’s CEO, John Tierney, would be taking home a salary of 200,000 euros.
But when Irish Water trucks arrived in a Cork housing estate to install meters, they were met with resistance from residents. Residents blocked the diggers from coming into the estate, and refused to move even when the gardaí (the Irish police) were called. Irish Water was forced to retreat after a monthlong standoff. Soon, residents from housing estates across Ireland were physically blocking Irish Water from coming onto their properties and created a crisis for Irish Water and the Irish government.
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A coalition of unions and progressive and left-wing political parties and organizations came together and founded Right2Water to stop the water charges. In October, tens of thousands came out to Dublin for a national protest, giving confidence to residents around Ireland to continue to organize in their localities against Irish Water.
On November 1, Right2Water called for a national day of protest in every city, town and village across Ireland. There were reports of over 100 separate protests organized on that day. More than 200,000 people joined a local protest. Some 10,000 came out in Cork, and there were at least 20 different local protests within Dublin itself. Some 10,000 people marched in Letterkenny in County Donegal, a town of about 20,000 people. The chants from the protesters ranged from “No way, we won’t pay” to “From the river to the sea, Irish water will be free,” a clear signal of solidarity with Palestine.
Protesters have employed a variety of tactics throughout the year. They have scouted out the Irish Water trucks and set up mass texts to alert people where the trucks were going in order to stop them, blocked the entrances of housing estates, occupied Irish Water’s headquarters, blocked the car of Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton, held town hall meetings where people took votes on whether or not they would pay water charges, publically burned the Irish Water application packs, and held large rallies.
Still, the government attempted to paint the protesters as dissidents and outsiders. However, the widespread support and independent organizing showed otherwise. For there to be 100 different protests on November 1, there had to be at least 100 different groups of people working together to organize against the water charges.
Feeling the heat of the protests, Environment Minister Alan Kelly announced revised water charges, capping family levies at around 260 euros. However, as November came to a close, an Irish Times poll showed that only 48 percent of respondents said they would pay the water charges, and 33 percent said they would definitely not pay them. This was in spite of constant reminders by the government that failure to pay is illegal and will result in fines.
The year of protests ended with a midweek, midday protest at the Dáil in Dublin on December 10. Tens of thousands came to protest, rather than go to work or school on that day. Buses came from every corner of Ireland—with signs and banners representing unions, political parties and independent organizations. The anger and resolve was palpable as the Irish government is thrown into crisis—the protests have created a political crisis from which the ruling parties likely will not escape.
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This explosion of struggle was both a complete surprise and entirely predictable. Rage against the austerity measures has built up in Ireland, but until now there has not been the type of fightback against the government and the troika that we have seen in Greece, Spain and elsewhere across Europe. Many in Ireland have asked why the Irish were so slow to resist.
There had been campaigns led by People Before Profit, the Socialist Party and other independent parties and unions against many of the taxes and policies that are forcing the working class pay for the bailout. However, none have been generalized across Ireland and have gained momentum like the water charges fight.
One explanation for why the water charges campaign has exploded is that, after years of austerity, the water charges tax was the “tax that broke the camel’s back.” Under capitalism, we know that people will be exploited and exploited in order for the ruling elite to make profits, and inevitably people will fight back.
Another reason for the explosion in struggle now is that it comes as the politicians and the ruling elite have claimed that Ireland is finally in recovery and the economy is on the mend. Yet, ordinary Irish workers look around and see that the recovery is only for the 1 Percent.
Similarly to the U.S. recovery, the bankers, bondholders, CEOs and real estate moguls have made out like bandits, and real wages have plummeted for workers. In fact, there are five Irish billionaires and 90,000 Irish millionaires, as Ireland has maintained extremely low corporation tax and a resurging real estate prices. The recovery is for the wealthy, and the taxes on ordinary people are just too much.
Additionally, there is complete outrage at the prospect of being charged for a natural good. The Water Tax is not just about charging for use, but also about privatizing water. Water is a human right, and many feel that the attack on water is the attack on survival. Water privatization is nothing new under neoliberalism, but neither is resistance against it.
Part of the austerity packages being implemented worldwide is for countries to sell off their “assets.” In other words, publicly owned services are being sold to private corporations. What’s more, water isn’t hard to come by in Ireland—you only need to go outside to find it. In a major gaffe, Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway said, as an attempt to justify paying for services, that water “doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” which in a country as rainy as Ireland, gave water protesters the last laugh.
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Right2Water have made explicit connections with other people fighting against water privatization. Marcela Olivera, a Bolivian leader of the Water War, came to Dublin to speak last May about the movement against water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000. There, California-based multinational corporation Bechtel set up a subsidiary called Aguas del Tunari to administer water. They hiked the cost of water 35 percent, which meant some Bolivians paid more for water than food. Trade unionist, students, peasants and workers protested against the water charges and the selling of water to a private corporation.
The protests became the “Water War” when then-President Hugo Banzer sent in the army to crush the protest, declaring a state of emergency. Through massive protests, strikes and blockades of roads connecting Bolivia’s major cities, the Bolivian people succeed on creating such a crisis that Bechtel and its Aguas del Tunari, had to pack up and leave. People, through their own organizing, were able to defeat a ruling political and economic elite committed to neoliberalism.
Additionally, Right2Water has linked arms in solidarity with the Detroit Water Brigade, which has been organizing in Detroit against the water shut off in Detroit. Over 19,000 people have had their water service interrupted or stopped in Detroit because of unpaid bills. People in Ireland and in Detroit know about the dangers of letting control of water be placed in the hands of profiteers.
Members of the Brigade came to Dublin for the December 10 rally and spoke from the stage, as well as visited the protesters in Cork, where civil disobedience against Irish Water began. Water Brigade political director Demeeko Williams said in a statement:
To take (water) away from those who cannot afford it by handing it to a private, for-profit company isn’t just irresponsible—it’s genocidal. We know that from firsthand experience here in Detroit and we can’t allow it to happen to Ireland.
International solidarity continues to be extremely important in building a movement that can win against rampant privatization and austerity. And the Irish have good reason to be hopeful given the outlook in Greece and Spain with left-wing parties Syriza and Podemos gaining popularity.
In Greece and Spain, the fight against austerity has become a political challenge to the status quo. Though the Irish protest movement is in its infancy compared to Greece, the protest movement has already begun to take on the elected officials, and there’s a huge opening for progressives and the left in Ireland.
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There is an intense political crisis in Ireland, with the majority parties in government, Fine Gael and Labour, losing support. The Sunday Independent opinion poll gives a glimpse of the political openings to the left of the historically dominant parties. Sinn Féin has seen their support rise to 26 percent, and independents have seen their support rise to 23 percent.
Sinn Féin’s popularity has grown immensely from only 7 percent vote before the bailout. Yet, they were slow to join the water charges protests, including refusing to back the demand on “no payment” of the water charges on account of not wanting to support measures that would be illegal.
As the water charges protests have become more militant and grown, Sinn Fein has moved, at least rhetorically, to the left in order to capture the mood in Ireland. However, it’s not lost on many people that Sinn Fein is in a power sharing government in Northern Ireland and is currently administering austerity and cuts.
Other left and independent parties have grown as well, including the Socialist Workers Party-led People Before Profit Alliance and the Socialist Party-led Anti-Austerity Alliance. The Irish Times recently reported that four new political parties or alliances will likely be formed in the coming months. There is also widespread belief that there will be snap elections before the scheduled elections in March 2016 if the protests force a further political crisis.
The Right2Water coalition is also looking ahead to the possibility of fighting the political establishment in the ballot box. Right2Water issued a statement describing next steps that said:
At the launch of the Right2Water campaign, we said we would ensure that water charges would be the number one issue in the run up to the next general election. This may mean working with political parties, community groups and trade unions to mobilize on a constituency-by-constituency basis forming a cohesive electoral strategy. This will all be developed in the coming months.”
While left organizations continue discussions aimed at forging a united alternative for Ireland’s next national election, there continues to be a focus on building grassroots organization and militant action. The fight against the water charges is not yet won. Local communities are continuing to block the installation of water meters and organizing town hall meetings to discuss non-payment and other local demands. Swaths of the Irish working class are getting a taste of participatory democracy.
On January 31, local rallies have been called throughout Ireland to keep pressure on the politicians. Of course there are debates within the movement about how to win: whether focusing mainly on elections, mainly on protests or on non-payment will be the correct strategy. What is clear is that through ordinary people standing up to Irish Water, the Irish working class has created a political crisis for the status quo. The fight is not over, and 2015 is sure to bring another year of resistance for the fighting Irish.