The main movers in the campaign against water charges, whether they be the ‘Stop the Water Tax’ Socialist Party, the other factions within the Anti-Austerity Alliance or some anarchist movement, are the same people who tried and failed to organise around the bin tax in 2004, and who scuppered the last attempt to charge for water, in 1996. They are essentially the same people who defeated the poll tax in the UK, in 1990.
Don’t get me wrong: from where I’m sitting, the poll tax was regressive and it came on top of 11 years of Margaret Thatcher, whose governments’ damage to the UK is clearly visible to this day. But the significance of that campaign to us, in Ireland now, is the model, not the issue. The strategy of the campaign was to pick a new tax — which no-one ever likes — and organise resistance through demonstrations and non-payment.
Militant Labour claims the steering role in setting up the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, known as ‘the Fed’. Their version of history sees March 31, 1990, as the highpoint of the campaign, when 200,000 people congregated in Trafalgar Square, and its environs, and were subjected to police brutality. The march became a riot, and looting of shops went on far into the night, which Militant’s history describes as “understandable”: “The Fed had never advocated rioting or looting as a means of defeating the poll tax — only mass non-payment would achieve this — but its Militant (now Socialist Party) leadership fully understood that people’s frustration with Thatcher, the poll tax, and the police would sometimes boil over.”
These are the UK colleagues of our friends in the Irish Socialist Party, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Ruth Coppinger, as well as Paul Murphy, elected under the AAA banner.
The Irish Socialist Party — then called Militant Labour — records in its own history that it was inspired by the campaign against the poll tax, orchestrated by “comrades” in the UK, to mount a campaign against water charges in the early 1990s. They say that they saw “potential” in the issue.
That is the word that should scare us. It doesn’t matter to these people what the issue is, as long as it can inspire enough anger to mobilise people.
The lesson UK Militant’s historian sees in the poll-tax campaign is that “mass struggles can be built and can take on governments.” His Irish colleagues have learnt that lesson well, and now they are applying it to the Coalition.
They have a particular ‘in’ with this Government, because of the sensitivity of the Labour Party on the Left.
That is how they defeated the first attempt to introduce water charges, in the 1990s. Joe Higgins threatened a Labour seat and Brendan Howlin, as Environment Minister, dumped the charges. Howlin may rue that day, sitting in the hot seat he currently occupies.
When he was named CEO of Irish Water, John Tierney said that 40% of Irish homes would be metered now, if we had started back then.
It seems the Government’s Economic Management Council is considering extending the flat, unmetered rate for water use until 2018, conveniently kicking the issue down the tracks to the next Government.
I wouldn’t care too much if I thought that meter installation would be cranked up and that a fair pay-per-use system would be instituted in four years’ time.
But there is no guarantee this will ever happen. Already, Sinn Fein, desperately clambering aboard the AAA train, has committed to abolishing the charge, if elected to Government.
I fear the metering will stall and some of us will continue to use water as if it were going out of fashion, teaching our children to do the same when they are adults.
Because the main issue is changing our habits, it is not the revenue from charges, whether it is €300m as Sinn Fein claims, or €800m as the Government claims.
The issue is that we, the taxpayer, can’t continue to fund water that either leaks away or is wasted.
Clean water is a basic human right and every man, woman and child should be granted a reasonable free allowance, with adult dependents in full-time education classed as children. After that, they should pay, with special allowances where there are special circumstances. The cost should not be punitive.
The 22 cents charged for a plastic bag has changed my habits and made me bring a canvas one, though I wouldn’t run too far down the road if I dropped the coins. The effect of the tax has been astonishing, with per-capita plastic bag use down from 328 a year to 21. Plastic bags used to amount to 5% of our litter and now amount to 0.5%.
But the Anti-Austerity Alliance, and their friends, don’t seem to do environment. I particularly enjoyed, on this issue, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement’s thoughtful contribution to the bin-tax debate, which announced that global warming was a class issue, and cited as proof the fact that Ringsend and East Wall are hit by flooding, while “Howth and Dalkey are well above sea level, with a fine view to boot.”
The campaign against bin taxes was run by the same people as the campaigns against water charges, and depicted the charge as “class war, pure and simple.”
The idea was, apparently, that only “the ruling class” pollutes and that “the working class” can’t be expected to know black from green or brown.
The campaign was a failure and we can all be glad of that, because recycling has rocketed in this country, with 79% of packaging being recycled, for example, as opposed to less than 15% in the late 1990s.
The progressive privatisation of the service is regrettable, however, and I favour a constitutional referendum to keep water in public ownership.
But the AAA just wants to axe the tax and for the sake of ‘ordinary, decent working-class people’ pictured as wholly incapable of turning off the water while they brush their teeth.
I resent the infantilisation of massive swathes of the population, many of whom did, remember, vote this Government into power, in a free and fair democratic election.
The Government’s terrible messing on water charges gave old Militant Labour an open goal into which it has kicked ball after ball. They have been cheered on by an unquestioning media.
But I won’t cheer, no matter how I am intimidated. And I won’t celebrate the fact that three years into the democratic revolution we are being ruled by parties that garnered about 2% of the national vote at the last general election, as well as by forces that we can neither know nor name.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is, as long as it can inspire enough anger to mobilise people