Lessons from beating the water charges in the 1990s


This text looks at the successful fight against water charges in Dublin a decade ago (the author was Secretary of the Federation of Dublin Anti Water Charge Campaigns) and asks what lessons campaigners preparing to fight water charges in the North can take from that campaign. (Image: The strength of the campaign: working people)

First of all, I’d like to thank the organisers of today’s meeting for inviting me to speak to you, and I hope that my recounting of some of the experiences and memories of the successful fight against water charges in Dublin a decade ago, and of some of the lessons learned in that fight, will be of benefit to you as you organise your own battle against the unjust imposition of a water charge here.

It’s not necessary for me at this meeting to make the arguments about why the water tax should be opposed, I’m presuming that everyone here is agreed that it is a bad thing. What I’d like to focus on is the how – how a campaign can be built, what are the most effective tactics, what worked for the campaign in Dublin ten years ago and what were our weaknesses?

Firstly – in case anyone’s under any illusions – you’re facing into a titanic struggle, it’s not going to be easy. The forces of the state see the imposition of this tax as an important weapon in their strategy of the privatisation of the water service. That privatisation agenda is at the core of the neo-liberal politics which is dominant all across Europe and the Western world today. According to current mainstream political thinking, everything’s got to turn a profit. Be it public transport, energy provision or – in this case – water supply, the bottom line is the bottom dollar. If it can’t make money, they don’t want to know. And the fact that you’re already paying for the service through rates and general taxation is irrelevant. They want more money from your pocket and they’re determined to get it. After all, how else can they afford to pay the water service chief executive £150,000 per year and keep the rest of the executives in the luxury to which they’re accustomed?

So, as I said, it’s not going to be an easy battle. But there’s one simple truth which can change that – one basic principle on which the campaign in Dublin was built and which, if it is maintained as the foundation stone of your campaign here, will make it practically impossible for the state to defeat that campaign. Put simply – If nobody pays the water tax, it will be impossible to collect. Non-payment was the cornerstone on which our campaign was built, and building a campaign in which non-payment is the key tactic is the challenge which faces you over the next six months as the lead-up to the introduction of the tax continues.

I know that a considerable amount of work has already been done on this front, and the work which is done estate by estate and area by area in building non-payment will be key. Before ever the Federation of Dublin Anti water Charge Campaigns was formed at a conference in September 1994, months of work had been done in local areas convincing people of the primacy of this tactic. This was done through local public meetings, door-to-door leaflets and even knocking on doors and talking to people. Much of this work was done by members of Militant Labour as they were then known (now the Socialist party) and by anarchists from the Workers Solidarity Movement and – in the small few areas were active residents’ associations existed – community activists. The building of the campaign in this way was crucial. Local campaign groups were built and then came together and federated, rather than a central committee being formed first and then coming along to organise people. Efforts – not always successful – were made to ensure that there was maximum participation by local activists and delegates from the local campaign groups. Quite often in practice the delegates were political activists simply because of the difficulty in getting people to take on the responsibility.
And the building of these local campaigns wasn’t always easy or straightforward. On one occasion a number of us spent several nights and a wet Saturday afternoon trudging around Templeogue leafleting for a meeting which we had organised in the local GAA club. If we were easily dishearthened we would probably have given up when only two people – one of them a reporter for a local newspaper - turned up on the night of the meeting. This was one of the areas where there was no living memory of active residents’ associations or community activism so there was a certain amount of apathy to be overcome. Mind you later in the campaign – when water disconnections were threatened – this area sprung into life and it became clear that while people might not have come out to the meeting, they had kept the information about the campaign and the campaign contact numbers had their place on a lot of fridge doors.

But those meetings weren’t all hard work and no return. Just down the road from Templeogue, in Firhouse, the first public meeting attracted an audience of about 70 people. There was plenty of anger and lots of stirring speeches against the tax. Then there was an intervention from a local resident who also happened to be a water inspector with South Dublin County Council. He argued that the Council needed the money and that the meeting was unrepresentative and that the vast majority of people obviously supported the tax since they hadn’t come along to the meeting. This intervention actually turned out to be extremely useful from the point of view of the campaign. Our immediate response was to challenge his contention and to propose a survey of the area to find out what people really thought, and a further public meeting to report the findings. Within 15 minutes we had a dozen volunteers to carry out the survey and these went on to form the nucleus of what became one of the most active campaign groups in the federation. The follow-up meeting 3 weeks later heard that something like 85% of the local residents opposed the tax. The fact of carrying out this survey gave everybody the confidence that the silent majority were with us, and for those who carried out the survey, they realised that it wasn’t such a difficult thing to knock on their neighbours’ doors and talk to them and it gave them the confidence to go on to become key campaign activists.

It’s something I would recommend that campaigners try – doing a survey such as this or even collecting a petition in an area, knocking on doors and talking to people about the issue gives those people who we are hoping will become campaign activists a sense of ownership of the local campaign as well as demonstrating quite clearly the strength of feeling on the issue. People need to feel that it’s their campaign – not one either owned by or controlled by any political organisation or party. And sometimes, despite the best efforts of campaigners to be inclusive in this manner, people can tend to take a ‘consumerist’ attitude to the campaign rather than a ‘participative’ attitude. Most people’s experience of politics has always been one of sitting back and relying on others – politicians, trade union leaders, community activists, ‘someone else’ - to do stuff for them. Turn up at the public meeting, give about about whatever the issue might be and then go home and leave someone else to sort it out.

Can I give you one example, which occurred actually during the later anti-bin tax campaign but which replicated in many ways some of the issues facing us in the initial phases of the campaign - I remember speaking at a public meeting in Lucan attended by about 70 people at which there were the usual condemnations of the tax from the floor. I stressed at the meeting – as I did at every meeting I spoke at – that the campaign to defeat the charges needed the active involvement of everyone who opposed them, that there was no ‘leadership’ or political party or anything else that was going to do it for them. I asked for people to volunteer to help build the campaign in the area, and it was agreed that we should draft a local leaflet, distribute it in the area and work towards a bigger meeting a couple of months later. Those who put their names down came together for one meeting, some ideas were drawn together for the leaflet content and about a week later I called to everyone who had volunteered with bundles of leaflets for distribution. Some of the leaflets were distributed, many excuses were made and the majority of the leaflets didn’t go through anyone’s letterbox. A couple of months later another attempt was made to get things going in the area. A public meeting was again attended by about 70-80 people – some of whom had been at the previous meeting and some new faces. About halfways through the meeting someone from the floor spoke and said words to the effect that – That’s all well and good but you were here a few months ago and nothing’s happened since. When she was asked ‘What did you do since? What have you done to build the campaign?, she had no answer. Eventually a campaign was got going in the area but it took a lot of work to break people away from the expectation that ‘someone else’ was going to do it.

If I appear overly negative, please don’t take that from what I’m saying. I’m stressing some of the negative experiences because I want to let campaigners know that despite the difficulties a successful campaign was built. If you call a meeting and no-one shows up, don’t give up and be aware that the clientist nature of politics means that you will often have to forcefully put forward the argument to people that they themselves must get involved. Do-it-yourself politics is an absolute must in terms of building a campaign such as that needed to end the water charges. It’s not an added extra but absolutely central.

I should point out that the vast majority of the work in terms of building local campaigns took place after the imposition of the tax. It was only after people actually got bills through their letterboxes that the threat of the imposition of the charge became real. I would suspect that the situation here will be somewhat similar. Important groundwork can take place between now and April but the key will be what happens in the couple of months immediately after the bills arrive.

The tactics that the water authorities here adopt in order to respond to a campaign of mass non-payment might not be a mirror image of what happened in Dublin. In fact I know they won’t be because the legislation currently in place does not allow for the disconnection of water supply. But be warned – they make the laws. If you thwart them on one front, they could well change the legislation and try to take you on on another front.

But anyway I’d like to give you a brief overview of what we had to face and how we dealt with it as a pointer to how you might approach things. And you’ll see that at every stage along the way it was mass participation and direct action tactics that were the key.

First off, the weeks just before Christmas of 1994 saw a number of letters issued to non-payers by South Dublin County Council threatening to disconnect their water supply. Remember the charge was now 12 months old but because it was an annual charge, it was only now that people could be claimed to be in arrears. Our response to the issuing of these letters was immediate. Huge public meetings were held all over the county – several hundred turning up at a Sunday afternoon meeting in Tallaght. People were told how to block up their stopcocks to make it difficult for their water to be cut off. Empty bean tins and a little bit of cement were the necessary ingredients. Campaign groups in local areas arranged patrols to watch out for council water vans. Through contacts in the trade union movement we were able to discover the names of all the water inspectors and imagine their surprise the night before disconnections were due to begin when each of them received a hand-delivered letter appealing to them as trade union members not to cut people’s water off. They decided not to respond positively to our polite request so the next morning when they left home under the cover of darkness, they each discovered a car-load of activists sitting outside their homes ready to follow them wherever they might go to try to do their dirty work. One of them didn’t like it so much that after driving around and being followed for an hour he went to the local copshop to complain about being intimidated.

Over the following days, local campaign groups successfully resisted attempts to disconnect water and in the couple of instances where water was cut off, campaigners re-connected it within hours. The first round was won hands down by the campaign and it was back to the drawing board for the councils.

A new government was formed shortly after that. A Fianna Fail/Labour coalition was replaced by a Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left government. New faces, same old story. The Democratic Left part of the new government claimed to be opposed to water charges but the campaign knew nothing significant was going to change. And how right we were. The only change was that now instead of being able to directly disconnect water, the councils had to go to court to get permission to do so.

This gave the campaign a new challenge. Obviously the council/government tactic was to try to individualise their intimidation. By summonsing individuals to court maybe they could bypass the mass participation that the protests against disconnections had seen. The campaign immediately took a decision that when any individual was summonsed to court, we would turn up and contest every case – and that we would turn up in force. It was at this time that we made a decision which would prove crucial to the success of the campaign. We decided to initiate a membership of the campaign at £2 per household. This money would go into a warchest to pay legal fees so that no individual would be left facing a legal bill. The idea that the individuals being taken to court were representing all of us was paramount. Within weeks 2,500 households had paid the £2 membership fee, and within 12 months there were over 10,000 paid-up households making the campaign without doubt the biggest to have existed in decades.

The Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union put an office at our disposal, and we distributed tens of thousands of leaflets with campaign phone numbers. The vast majority of people who received summonses to court had our phone number by their phone and got in touch with us immediately. Ironically, my phone number was one of those on the leaflet and I would bet that it’s probably one of the only times in world history when even cops were ringing an anarchist looking for legal advice.

And when the first court appearances took place, over 500 people turned up outside Rathfarnham courthouse to support their neighbours. We marched to the courthouse, had stirring speeches, several songs including ‘You’ll never Walk Alone’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and an amazing sense of our unbeatability.

Every possible legal angle was pursued by the campaign’s legal team – down to legal definitions of what constituted a householder, making the councils prove that the person they had summonsed actually lived at the address, that they owned the property etc. etc. We weren’t doing this because we had any illusions in the impartiality of the court system. We knew that even though we were successful in finding various legal loopholes these would all be closed one by one and that the judges would be doing their best to facilitate the councils. This was demonstrated most clearly when a judge in Swords invoked the Public Order Act to close several streets around the courthouse to prevent a protest outside it.

But by contesting every detail of every summons we could make the system unworkable. There were tens of thousands of non-payers. After several months the councils had only managed to get a couple of dozen cases through the courts. Someone calculated that at the rate they were managing to proceed it would take them something like 220 years to process all the cases. And it was costing them more in legal fees than they could ever hope to take back in charges – even if they managed to bully everyone into paying.

Any time the council did manage to get a court order, it was appealed – again the objective being to clog up the system. Except in one case. There was a very strong campaign group in the Greenhills area and when one of their number – pensioner Larry Doran – was taken to court he defiantly delivered a stirring speech about the injustices of the taxation system in the court, and basically said to the Council ‘Go ahead, make my day’. He walked from the court to the cheers of the protesting supporters and that night there was a protest march along his road of several hundred people delivering a clear message to the council that if they decided to come to cut off Larry’s water they would be taking on the whole community. Needless to say, the Council declined Larry’s invitation to come take him on.

By now, the charge was dead in the water (excuse the pun). It was uncollectable. It was unenforceable.

Ironically now that victory was in our grasp, it was at this stage that the campaign had its first major political disagreement. A bye-election was called in the Dublin West constituency and Militant Labour decided to put Joe Higgins forward as a candidate. Joe, as chair of the campaign, had put in tremendous energy and work in helping to build the campaign. An all-Dublin activists’ meeting was called at which it was proposed that the campaign should endorse Joe’s candidacy. (I should explain that the basic campaign structure was local groups, a central committee which included delegates from these local groups which met very regularly, and monthly all-Dublin meetings open to all activists from all local groups).

Members of the WSM who were present at that meeting argued strongly against the proposal to endorse Joe as an election candidate. We argued that the charges were unenforceable and uncollectable, that this situation had been brought about as a result of people power and direct action, and that we should continue the battle in that vein. We said that we would much prefer to see the charge defeated – as we were confident it was going to be – by the strength of working class people organising on the streets and giving the two fingers to the establishment. The basis of our politics was – and is – a belief that people have to seize control over our own lives and that this cannot be done by electing someone to talk on our behalf. A real community empowerment would come, we argued, from defeating the combined forces of the state – both national and local government – through the force of people power. Now that we were winning, we just had to keep on going and by telling people that electing Joe or anyone else was going to make any difference we would be giving people a message of disempowerment.

We lost that argument - if you think there’s not many anarchists around now you should have been around 10 years ago. Joe stood in the lection and in his own words ‘shook the political establishment’ by almost taking a seat against all the odds. There was no doubt but that opposition to the water tax was the key issue which won him the vast majority of his votes.

The establishment was shit scared. But what scared them even more than the sight and sound of Joe’s almost-election was the fact that the charges were totally unenforceable. Despite all their efforts over a two-year period, over 50% of households still had not paid a penny, not one person had had their water successfully disconnected and despite having spent tens of thousands of pounds and months of frustration in court appearances, all they had managed to get were a few court orders telling people to pay which were being duly ignored.

A general election was due to be held within a few months and, following Joe’s near-election, many people began to see the election as the key battleground, with the idea put forward of having a slate of anti-water charge candidates in the election. For all the same reasons as we had argued against the electoral tactic before, we did so again.

The state saved us the sight of the ‘anti water tax slate’ by bowing to the inevitable and announcing the abolition of the tax in December 1996. Two years almost to the day after we had spent several nights sitting outside the homes of water inspectors, the biggest mass participation campaign to have been witnessed in Dublin for many a decade – maybe ever – was successful, and the government climbed down.

I hope that my reminiscing about the highs and lows of the campaign will prove useful to you as you set our on a similar battle, and I hope that your campaign will ultimately be as successful. The issue of mass participation versus electoral participation is one your campaign will have to face. It will not be possible – no matter how much certain political groups or parties – claim it to have the two run side by side. We were lucky in that the campaign had won before the electoral issue raised its ugly head./ More recently the anti-bin tax campaign in Dublin has erffectively been defeated because from the outside participation in elections became one of the key strategies of the campaign.

This resulted in a campaign in which political parties were much more dominant and ‘ordinary people’ had much less involvement. If one of the key strategies is electoral participation, then it becomes important obviously that the potential election candidate dominate leadership of the campaign in each local area, resulting in that person becoming the media spokesperson, the contact person for local activists etc. It resulted in terms of the Dublin anti-bin tax campaign in some areas of the county of unofficial agreements between political organisations to divide areas up for the purpose of organising.

So if I have one key piece of advice it would be – the key tactic has got to be non-payment, the key strategy has to be mass participation and direct action. And the key thing to avoid is that dreadful phrase – ‘a slate of anti-water charge candidates’.

I hope what I’ve said is useful and I welcome comments or questions.

This is the text of a talk written for the Derry 'Anarchism Not Chaos' meeting held on September 30th 2006.