The autumn of 2014 saw a massive revolt by the Irish working class against the attempt by the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition to impose swingeing water charges. The charges were the latest in innumerable austerity measures imposed at the behest of the Troika — the EU, IMF and European Central Bank — as part of the immense bail-out of the Irish banks.
They were also part of a plan to privatise Irish water, drawn up with Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s richest businessman. O’Brien, who controls half of the Irish media, was given the contract to install water metres in every household in Ireland. The issue of water charges was flagged up earlier in the year in an important conference organised by People Before Profit, Unite the Union, Mandate and others.
That conference proclaimed water is a human right. It provided the springboard for the formation of the broad Right2Water campaign which has brought together various unions, the left, Sinn Fein and many community campaigns to call demonstrations.
But it was on the working class estates of Dublin and elsewhere, in places such as Clondalkin and Edenmore, that real grass roots resistance developed in opposition to the meters.
People in these areas have taken an absolute hammering over the past six years and were at the end of their tether. At the same time water meters are something which, unlike many of the cuts and the hated Property Tax (which can be taken out of people’s wages or benefits), can be resisted by people in their communities.
People organised local street meetings when they heard Irish Water are due to arrive and then came out in the early mornings to block meter installation. This was often very successful, forcing Irish Water to withdraw, but also led in some cases to aggressive interventions by the guardai (police). Then, on 11 October, came a national demonstration in Dublin, called by Right2Water. Some people thought it would be just another anti-austerity demo with the usual suspects. Others, with their ears more to the ground, anticipated 20,000 or more. In the event 100,000 marched.
The population of the Irish Republic is only 4.5 million — 100,000 in Dublin is equivalent to over a million in London. What is more, although the union leaders in the Right2Water campaign played an important role in providing a focus, the demo itself had an amazing spontaneous, bottom-up character. From this moment it was clear that people were in open revolt.
This was confirmed three weeks later when the campaign held local marches in every town in Ireland and every area of Dublin, a total of 106 demonstrations in all. Again the turnout was immense — probably 200,000 in all — with people marching in their thousands through small towns and local neighbourhoods. The government, seriously shaken, responded with major concessions on the issue and a major media attack on the movement.
On the one hand they substantially reduced the charges, postponed their introduction, drastically cut the penalties for non-payment, and offered a €100 incentive for compliance.
On the other hand they seized on an incident where protesters peacefully blockaded the Labour leader, Joan Burton, in her car to claim that the anti water charges movement was becoming “violent”, taken over by “extremists”, infiltrated by “sinister elements” and even, in a moment of absurd hyperbole, resembled ISIS.
The strategy was clear: split the campaign by separating the “moderate” and “reasonable” majority from the “militant” and “far left” minority. It was a spectacular failure. The Irish working class bought neither the concessions nor the propaganda.
The clearest answer was given by the third monster demonstration of the campaign, the 100,000 who rallied outside Leinster House (parliament) at 1pm on Wednesday 10 December — the middle of a working day. One of the reasons for this is that, as everybody understands, this is about more than water.
The question of water charges has become a lightning rod for accumulated anger about the state of Irish society and what people see as their betrayal by politicians, especially the Labour Party. They have the bit between their teeth and for the first time smell victory. Another reason is the rapid radicalisation and politicisation that has swept the working class. The consensus of the movement now is that the government must go.
According to the latest polls Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since the 1930s, could not form a government between them and Labour faces utter annihilation.
This leaves Sinn Fein as the largest single party, and independents, including the smaller left parties such as People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, ahead of everybody.
This situation presents the left with two major challenges. First, how to press home our advantage and actually defeat the charges this year. Second, how to ensure that the great revolt receives adequate political expression in the coming election. The Irish left now has a serious responsibility to deliver on these urgent questions.