Fighting The Water Charge – Non-payment the only way to win after huge Oct 11th mobilisation


Saturday last, 11th October, saw tens of thousands take to the streets of Dublin in a powerful, colourful and vibrant display of opposition to the Irish government’s attempts to impose water charges.

The numbers who turned out were so large and took everybody by surprise to such an extent that nobody – media, gardai or organisers – could give an accurate estimate of actual numbers.  Estimates varied from 30,000 to 100,000, but whatever the exact figure was it was clear that this was the start of something huge.  

It was an energising and invigorating protest to be part of.  From well before the start time, people were arriving in their droves at Parnell Square.  To see groups of people arriving in by bus from all over the city and from around the country was inspiring and should have a huge impact on the political confidence of all those who took part.

Building on and developing that political confidence is the challenge for all those co-ordinating and organising the fight against the water charge.  Instinctively, large numbers of people are opposing what they see as an unjust double taxation and yet another ‘austerity tax’.  After years of austerity, cutbacks and extra taxes people are finally saying ‘Enough is Enough’.  Furthermore people realise that the manner in which this charge is being imposed tees the water service up for eventual privatisation and the ultimate extract of super-profits for multinational vulture capitalists.

No Way. We Won’t Pay” – or will we?

Perhaps the most prominent slogan being chanted on Saturday’s protest was “No Way.  We Won’t Pay.”  This reflected a view that we have in our arsenal a weapon that can inflict maximum damage on the government’s plans and ultimately make the charge uncollectible – we can simply refuse to pay.  When bills pop through people’s doors in January, the challenge will be whether enough people will join a campaign of non-payment and make the charge unenforceable.

While this slogan resounded through the streets on Saturday, and was used by many of the speakers from the platform, it was and remains worrying that the principal organising group – Right2Water – has not endorsed the position of non-payment as the only possible way to win.

Right2Water is being built as a “broad coalition” of political organisations, trade unions and community groups on the platform of calling for the Government to recognise and legislate for access to water as a human right” and “demanding the Government abolish the planned introduction of water charges.”

It is because it is being built on this broad basis that Right2Water does not call for non-payment of the charge.  Among the constituent groups is, for example, Sinn Féin whose position is that they are committed to abolishing the charge if in government after the next election but that they will not call on people to refuse to pay the charge now – a call that they have described as “irresponsible”.

The difficulty with Sinn Féin’s position is that it reflects precisely the position adopted by both Fine Gael and Labour prior to the last general election.  Both were implacably opposed to the water charged agreed by the Fianna Fáil/Green government with the troika.  In government both “recognised reality” and proceeded with the introduction of the charge.

Even if people were to believe that Sinn Féin’s attitude will be different and that they will carry out their promise – that involves the presumption that Sinn Féin would be in government on their own and would not be part of a coalition with any of the pro-water charge parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour…  Even the most die-hard Sinn Féin supporter is unlikely to argue that such a scenario is possible.

Indeed, the victory of Socialist Party/Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Paul Murphy in the bye-election in Dublin South West should prove that large numbers of people have already moved beyond the ‘trust us to abolish the charge’ position.  The weaker position of Sinn Féin (‘vote us into government at the next election and we’ll abolish them’) lost out to the AAA ‘Don’t Pay’ position.  And while election results are just that and don’t necessarily always transfer into participation in direct action campaigning such as is needed to get rid of the water charge, the rejection of the ‘trust us’ position is surely relevant.

Trade Unions

Right2Water hopes also by keeping its message broad to attract a number of trade unions into its ranks.  And to some extent this has been successful, with Mandate, Unite, CPSU, CWU and OPATSI all affiliated.

It is of course significant to see trade unions taking up this fight.  The battles against the bin tax and, more recently the household charge and the property tax, were severely weakened by the failure of trade unions to oppose the imposition of these taxes on their members.

What is necessary now, though, is that the position being adopted by these unions is challenged – in a friendly and comradely way – and that they are moved to a position of backing the only tactic capable of winning.  Everybody knows that we can ‘demand that the government abolish water charges’ until the cows come home.  But the only way we can make them listen to that demand is to make the charge uncollectible.

There is a fear that the potential political confidence that can emanate from and be built from the magnificent protest last Saturday will be dissipated if the campaign is seen to be divided, dithering or doubtful about non-payment as the principal tactic.  There is of course no simple mechanism by which trade unions can be easily won to backing non-payment, but at the very least what is necessary is that all political organisations which back non-payment must be loud and bold in their support of this tactic and must set out to convince maximum numbers to adopt this tactic over the next couple of months before bills arrive in January.

“Lobbying politicians”

At the moment it seems that constituent groups of the Right2Water campaign have effectively conceded on the idea of making non-payment the key tactic.  The event page for the next protest organised by Right2Water – a nation-wide series of local demonstrations on 1st November – calls on people to “hold local demonstrations and to lobby their local politicians. Tell them you want them to support our two fundamental demands:1-Recognise that water is a human right; and 2-Abolish water charges”

The call for people not to pay is not even mentioned.  The idea that “local politicians” (presumably members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour among others) can be “lobbied” to abolish water charges is instead pandered to.

What is needed now is a campaign of mass opposition to – not lobbying of – local politicians who are attempting to impose this charge and line the water service up for privatisation.  Instinctively, workers in their tens of thousands are instituting such a campaign and are adopting the ‘We Won’t Pay’ stance.  It would be a shame if the confidence that people have in such a tactic was to be dissipated by a failure of all those who are in a position to do so to rally behind the “We Won’t Pay” slogan.

Hell of a fight

There is clearly going to be a hell of a fight on this issue over the next number of months.  It is clearly going to draw in layers of people that have never been involved in political battles before, and that even recent campaigns such as that against the household and property taxes failed to attract. 

Across many areas of Dublin and elsewhere, community protests have over the past number of months delayed and halted the installation of water meters.  The people involved in these protests are providing inspiration and hope for many others, and are proving that ‘ordinary people’ are more than capable of making a stand. 

The challenge for those – political organisations, trade unions, community groups – who see themselves as leaders of the fight against the water charge is whether they through their words and deeds enthuse and invigorate the layers of people getting involved, or whether they dissipate the energy by failing to boldly and clearly call for and build the only tactic capable of winning – Don’t pay the charge.

There are, of course, no guarantees.  And none should be given.  People should be told clearly that there are risks involved in not paying (although in reality they are not very huge).  Of course, the possibility exists that the government will attempt to take people to court over non-payment.  Of course, the possibility exists that water pressure will be reduced and that the law could be changed to allow water cutoffs.  Of course the possibility exists that we could lose and ultimately end up having to pay the bills anyway.

But all those ‘possibilities’ presume that we lose, that we fail to get enough people to stand together.  And that’s something that everyone should be told clearly from the outset - without convincing hundreds of thousands of households to refuse to pay, we will not be successful.  There is however one certainty.  Without a refusal to pay all the opposition in the world will not defeat this charge.

WORDS; Gregor Kerr