From Bended Knee to a New Republic

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The mass movement against water charges in Ireland stands on the brink of a historic victory, helping accelerate a realignment of Irish politics. It is a movement rich in lessons for everyone committed to fighting austerity.

Local protests against the installation of water meters grew into regular demonstrations involving well over 100,000 in the centre of Dublin and in one case 250,000 people across Ireland (the equivalent of more than 2 million people marching in London). This in turn drove a mass campaign of non-payment, which has thrown the government’s plans into chaos. The protests were about more than water: millions wasted on consultants, corruption, the demonising of protestors, and a general anger at the wealthy.

The coalition which coordinated the mass protests was initiated by the radical left and, significantly, drew in five trade unions helping to make it a national campaign. The process of building the widest unity alongside various political forces has been particularly sharp in Ireland. The need to keep the movement broad enough to include parties such as Sinn Féin, who opposed the tactic of mass non-payment, along with the radical left, who encouraged and built the non-payment campaign, was a source of flux and creative tension.

Brendan Ogle is one of the national organisers of the water campaign. His book is good in detailing the global neoliberal agenda and what this has meant for working people from Detroit to Thessaloniki. He charts the process of how the movement generalised from the politics of water to a much wider critique of neoliberalism.

The book is particularly damning about the Irish labour Party and the reasons it was deservedly punished at the 2016 election. It is less convincing when he argues about the strategy for the movement. The analysis is informed by the view that neoliberalism is primarily a set of policies and priorities that can be reversed with a parliamentary majority rather than being driven by an underlying crisis of profitability in Western capitalism since the 1970s. In the case of Ireland, this translates into the hope that the water charges movement would propel a “progressive government” to office which would implement a programme drawn up by activists, known as Right2Change. While 2016 saw a blow to the parties of the Irish establishment, the results came nowhere near providing enough Members of Parliament to form a progressive government, despite many candidates endorsing the Right2Change principles.

The explanation for both the significant votes for the radical Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit and the disappointing results for many new independent water charges candidates, lies in years of patient work in local communities. It is unfortunate that Ogle instead tends towards blaming elements of the radical left for not working closely enough with Sinn Féin when in fact Sinn Féin were slow to call for a mass boycott.

The minority Fine Gael government is still in retreat on water charges but they are still manoeuvring to hold onto charges for “excess” water usage.

The water charges movement has encouraged a wave of strike action and wage demands aimed at pushing back against austerity. Combined with radicalisation of Irish society on questions such as gay marriage and abortion rights, this has the potential for an even bigger earthquake to come, one that goes far beyond merely parliamentary change.