OPINION: Water protests are an organic expression of the power of people

Ireland is in the midst of a massive popular awakening as hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest the introduction of water charges, suggests Andrew Flood.

AFTER too many years of austerity it would appear some people have decided enough is enough and spontaneous protest has appeared in every town and city.

Confrontations that are reminiscent of the Rossport protests have erupted in Dublin suburbs.

I would argue that Victoria White’s opinion piece - 'Anti-water campaigners protest too much. Their real goal is power' - needs to be understood in that context.

The piece, I would suggest, is part of a growing fear among the political establishment that the wrong people will come to power or, worse still, the people in general will take power.

Victoria must also be very familiar with the way support for the community in Erris was undermined by the concerted effort from certain sections of the media and politicians to suggest that their resistance was really the work of republicans, anarchists or other sinister forces.

As too was the earlier campaign against the bin tax. Her method in the article is neither new or unique but a reliable staple of establishment voices combatting popular movements in Ireland and elsewhere.

Resistance to the Water Charges has been rumbling on for months, in particular estates around the country residents have mobilised for weeks on end to try to prevent the installation of meters.

But it is only in the last couple of days that establishment voices have switched strategy to one familiar to anyone who follows popular movements in Ireland, suggesting that whatever real grievances exist sinister forces are behind them.

Thursday morning saw Minister Leo Varadkar stating that a ’very sinister fringe’ were behind some protests. Victoria’s article appeared the same day and today, Friday, the Independent chimed in with ‘Water protests infiltrated by dissidents as meters on hold’.

The Independent article follows a very well established pattern with no requirement for actual evidence beyond quotes from anonymous Garda sources.

This has already shifted the boundaries of coverage in the media so that two interviews with water tax campaigners on RTE radio one this morning focused almost exclusively on this sinister elements trope.

For the establishment, politics is really only meant to be something that a narrow, privileged section of society engage in.

Every few years at election time we are told we have to vote but any attempt by ordinary people to organise ourselves outside of this is met with considerable alarm and, if we persist, repression.

For most of the history of the Irish state popular movements, like that against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have been contained by such methods. A big street protest lets the 99% blow off steam, some conciliatory noises are made from on high, the minority who want more are shut up and then business continues as normal in the Dail and the IFSC.

Victoria’s piece came to my attention because towards the end she includes the Workers Solidarity Movement, an organisation I’m involved in. She uses a very truncated quotation from a speech I gave during a debate with the Green Party - way back in 2003 - to question our environmental credentials.

In context, that quote is a very standard environmental justice observation that the poor tend to be stuck where environmental problems exist and the rich tend to locate themselves elsewhere. Read it in context and judge our understanding of environmental justice for yourself HERE.

She goes on to argue that groups which she imagines to be behind the water charge resistance, like the WSM, are unrepresentative according to election figures. I would suggest a much more interesting, and indeed frightening, comparison is the level of interest shown on Facebook for the various political parties that have been in government.

All those parties have Facebook pages that anyone can identify with by 'liking' and so, as it happens, does the WSM.

As of midday Thursday these followings broke down as below:

* Workers Solidarity Movement - 39,516

* Green Party - 2,536

* Fianna Fail - 6,594

* Fine Gael - 8,915

* Labour Party - 10,477

It turns out that the WSM has more people publicly identifying with it on social media than every party that has been in government during the crisis combined.

I would argue that something has changed in the world. Perhaps it was once true that the organisational capacity and resources of ‘sinister fringes’ were essential to the coming together of large movements.

Back then simply exposing those required elements was enough to scare many away from such movements. But that was before the explosion of the internet and the mass use of social media.

Anyone who has tracked the emergence of the water charge resistance has been struck by the way that, far from being developed only by radicals organising meetings in the local community centre, it has been very much produced by ordinary people sharing their experiences on Facebook.

It’s no coincidence that weeks earlier Minister Burton whined about campaigners with mobile phones. Incidentally in very similar tones to Erdogan whining about Twitter when faced with the Gezi park revolt in Turkey.

The political class cannot imagine ordinary people self organising on a previously unprecedented scale and so imagines that the real forces must either be the technological tools that enable this and/or ’sinister fringes’.

The water charge resistance is not driven by any fringe. It’s driven by hundreds of local pages, like Edenmore Says No, some with followings in the thousands and some in the tens of thousands.

This isn’t a movement that has a single centre the establishment can decapitate. It’s a multi-headed organic expression of the power people have when they create collective solutions through co-operation, empowerment and real solidarity.

* Andrew Flood is the national secretary of the Workers Solidarity Movement. @WSMIreland

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