Protests are a new type of active citizenship politics here

The water charges protests are unlikely to go away because they’re about much more than water charges, writes Dr Rory Hearne

The Government parties are just not getting it. They think if they reduce the water charges to a modest fee then the people will back down and allow the Government get back to business as usual.

The reality is that opposition to the water charges is going to continue; the December 10 protest is likely to be another large event and, ultimately, a majority will not pay the charge.

People believe water is a human right and should not be turned into a commodity to be profited from. They believe that if charges are introduced they are likely to grow significantly, just as bin charges did. And Irish Water will be privatised, just like the bin collection services.

But there are two fundamental reasons why the movement will grow and force the Government to suspend the introduction of water charges.

Firstly, it is because the majority of people, particularly lower income and poor households, are devastated by the cumulative impact of austerity and the absence of any ‘recovery’.

The recent Unicef report shows, for example, that the child poverty rate in Ireland rose from 18% in 2008 to 28.6% in 2012. So now, more than one in every four children living in this country are in poverty. Unemployment remains extremely high at 10%, while youth unemployment is 27%. Parts of Limerick, Cork, and Dublin have unemployment rates of over 30% and some even as high as 55%. A majority earn very low incomes and we have the second highest proportion of low-wage workers in the OECD.

Analysis by NERI shows that just over 50% of income tax cases (earners) had a gross income of less than €30,000 per annum. The top 5% of income cases had a gross income in excess of €100,000 and 1% had an income in excess of €200,000. ESRI figures show that the top 30% have 51.6% of income, while the bottom 30% get a mere 14%.

So, despite the claims that all suffered equally during the crisis, the reality is that inequality in Ireland has worsened. It is the fact of not being able to afford any more austerity, combined with a sense of injustice at an increasingly unfair society, that has enraged people.

The second reason why the water protests are going to continue is that they are the culmination of many different protests over the last few years that have been ignored or downplayed by media commentators, establishment political parties, and academics. Despite the portrayal of general passivity, the truth is that the Irish people did protest austerity. More than 100,000 participated in an ICTU-organised march in February 2009 and 150,000 attended in November 2010 against the imminent troika bailout. However, the marches ended and people went home feeling powerless as Fianna Fáil told them that the crisis was their fault as they had “partied too hard” during the boom. But the sense of injustice grew as that government acquiesced to the ECB’s demands not to burn the bondholders and to lump the Irish people with €64bn of bankers’ and developers’ gambling debts through Nama, bank recapitalisation, and the Anglo debt.

People expressed their anger in the ballot box in February 2011 by decimating Fianna Fáil and electing Labour and Fine Gael on the promise of “mending the pieces of a fractured society, a broken economy, and to provide a sense of collective hope in our shared future”.

But the promises were reneged upon. The large trade unions in ICTU decided not to protest as they were supporting Labour in government and, in this vacuum, small grassroots protests emerged. These included the Ballyhea Says No to Bondholder Bailout weekly march in Cork; disadvantaged communities who were being decimated disproportionally from the cuts in Dublin; and local hospital protests in Waterford and Galway. There were disability groups, youth groups such as We’re Not Leaving, lone parents, special needs assistants, and the successful protests against plans to sell off the national forests.

April 2012 saw the largest protest, and the foundations for the water charges campaign, when half the population refused to pay the household charge. The socialists, independents, and community groups led the campaign despite huge media vilification.

Indeed, by September 2012, there was still a 40% non-payment rate nationally. The transfer of power to the Revenue Commissioners to collect the charge meant the campaign was defeated as people had no choice but to pay it.

In February 2013, ICTU organised its only protest against the current Government. A reported 100,000 marched across the country against the annual repayment of €3.1bn of the €25bn Anglo debt. The annual payment was stopped but the €25bn debt remains and the Central Bank is in the process of converting it into national debt. This will add to the €8bn of public funds that will flow out of this country in annual interest repayments on government debt, at least €2bn of which is bank-related.

In this context, last year’s Anglo Tapes added to people’s growing sense of injustice. The people were taking all the pain while being made fools of, and the banking and political elite remained protected.

So it is clear that the water charges protests didn’t suddenly emerge out of nowhere. They came from the small left-wing groups, communities, anti-partnership trade unions, and individuals who have been protesting and organising at grassroots level for years with little recognition from the media or political establishment. They were wrongly ignored and written off.

They also come from a fracturing of the social contract that has underpinned the Republic since its foundation. The protests are a new type of active citizenship politics in Ireland. The Irish are turning to a more European-style citizenship, or social movements. This involves regular protests that express a refusal to accept injustices and new forms of democratic self-empowerment. It is a logical response when the system fails you. Protests, as the water charges movement shows, are a way of influencing political systems without having to wait for elections. It can be even more effective than voting as it is a direct and immediate way of changing policies. And that’s why the political establishment detests them and tries to ignore or repress.

The water protests are about much, much more than water charges. They are the people’s expression of their pain and anger from the disproportionate and devastating impact of austerity, the injustice of the socialisation of the banking debts, growing inequality and a belief that they have the power to stop this. It has echoes of moments in history when ordinary people have stepped on to the political stage and forced an end to corrupt and failing orders that each establishment believed would never change.

We could be witnessing the Irish Occupy, the Irish ‘Spring’, or crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps it is completing the unfinished social and political revolution from 1916. The centenary commemorations could be very interesting indeed.

Dr Rory Hearne is a lecturer with the Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences at Maynooth University



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