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Cometh the hour

Brendan Ogle has a vision and a plan, starting with the water campaign

‘From Bended knee to a New Republic: How the fight for water is changing Ireland’ by Brendan Ogle, promises in its opening pages to take us on a journey “through the travails of a nation broken, sold and left in penury”. Ogle, unlike the many politicians and political parties he describes, fulfils this promise. The book brings you on a fascinating, inspiring, informative, and thoughtful journey through inequality in Ireland and “a nation’s fightback against it”. It should be clear from this that the book, just like the protest movement itself, is about much more than water. It comprehensively answers the question that many have asked: why was water the “issue that Irish people would take their first and biggest real stand against austerity?”.

Ogle is the Education, Politics and Development organiser for the Unite trade union in Ireland and one of the founders of the Right2Water and Right2Change campaigns. The first quarter of the book provides detailed analysis of the political, economic, and social circumstances that gave rise to the Irish water protests which are “the biggest (per capita) and most peaceful protest movement for social change anywhere in the world”. These include the global water privatisation agenda, austerity, poverty and the health and housing crises. Neoliberalism is explored before an analysis of the self-evisceration of social democracy through Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ acceptance and implementation of neoliberalism, and its adoption by the Irish Labour Party. He suggests the Labour Party has become an “obstacle to progress toward a more equal Ireland, and is in fact an enabler of neoliberal inequality”.

Ogle spends the rest of the book describing how the Right2Water campaign was organised and the challenges it faced in becoming a mass movement. He recounts how he and Dave Gibney, the other main organiser in Right2Water, withstood difficult negotiations with local communities who had been let down by trade unions in the past but had started this new movement in order to build trust and a strong working partnership with them. He writes about how ‘civil society’ organisations failed to offer much support to the movement. He describes the constant work required to build unity amongst the fractious left-wing parties that make up the ‘political pillar’ of the movement.

We can read how he and others in the water movement which “could so easily have been just another failed campaign in a failed Republic”, actually developed the most successful mass-protest movement in modern Irish history. It is, therefore, an essential read for those looking to understand not just how and why the water movement developed in Ireland but for those seeking lessons of how to build successful social movements.

A central purpose of the book is to set out the origins and purpose of the water movement, and to tell the story of the water activists, which, as Ogle rightly says, you won’t read about in the media or many other places. The book provides an important contribution to documenting Ireland’s recent socio-political history and geography, particularly the excluded voices and views in society which are too often ignored.

The book documents how the movement was built from the grassroots up in working class communities like Edenmore in Coolock in Dublin and by “wonderful people” from all over Ireland “who were determined to make a difference”. It tells the inspiring story of water activists such as Karen Doyle, a “housewife and mother who also works part-time outside the home” from ‘Cobh says No’. She got involved in the water charges movement and formed one of the hundreds of ‘meter watch’ groups, which were the heart of the movement across the country, to obstruct water meters being installed.

It is from such actions that a broader social movement was born. Ogle writes: “every week-day morning someone would rise about 4.00 to 5.00 am and find where the meter contractor vans were heading. Text alerts were sent so that by the time the vans arrived people like Karen were at estate entrances to protest. A caravan and trailer were procured and soup, tea and coffee produced every day for sustenance. Margaret Thatcher would have hated it. Society! People came from their homes, their individual isolated bolt holes, to start sharing stories about where it had all gone wrong, how their lives had been impacted by the breaking of a nation, which gave them the strength, the determination, to do something about it”.

These groups, according to Ogle, faced problems from “some on the ultra-left” who saw the local groups “as a vehicle for advancing their own agenda, viewing people like Karen as potential recruits”. He describes how “people who got involved in a campaign out of genuine concern for their community and their country”, were hurt as they found themselves “the focal of bitter and personalised attacks”. He notes that in the past “many have walked away from the campaigns, surrendering them to the dogmatic ultra-left and the inevitable failure to deliver on their promise”. But not this time.

Karen and many other community activists like her continued on and developed their own spaces and confidence to keep building a broad and inclusive movement. important in this was the support given by the Right2Water trade unions, and Unite in particular through its political economy education. It ran nine free ‘political economy’ courses for 150 ‘non-aligned’ community activists “with the objective of giving activists who were central to the growing water movement access to the type of information that would enable them to understand the political economic agenda behind water privatisation”. This was a very innovative approach which provided an important longer term empowering aspect to the movement. Ogle writes how “through the training we not only helped them connect with each other on a national level but showed how the tax and privatisation agenda are global issues…giving renewed energy as to how to challenge the neoliberal consensus”.

Ogle persuasively tackles the critiques of the water movement in relation to water conservation. He highlights how people in the UK, which has water metering and water charges, have higher water consumption than here in Ireland. He points out that the most effective and efficient way to ensure investment in water infrastructure is through progressive general taxation funding a state-based public model. He describes how the government has admitted that it did not conduct any research into the environmental impact of introducing domestic water charges and the water-meter programme. There is an impressive level of detail in the book about the impact of water privatisation and charging, and the global corporate agenda to commodify water.

The book is also the personal story of Brendan Ogle as he navigated the various challenges resulting from being in a leadership position and a public spokesperson. It is clear that there were some very difficult moments that affected him deeply, personally. In particular he describes the hurtful impact of sectarian attacks on his “personal integrity” by some within the AAA/ Socialist Party and their broader “union-bashing agenda” and disruptive role in attempting to infiltrate and disrupt Right2Water meetings and events.

In an important reflection on recent talk of a resumption of social partnership, Ogle is strongly critical of the “shameful” role of the wider trade union movement “in collaborating with the policies that wrecked a nation (so-called ‘social partnership’ from 1987 to 2009)”. But he highlights that there were those “within the movement who not only resisted that lazy partnership consensus but who are now trying to forge a new model of community and workplace-based ‘lifelong trade unionism’”. The Right2Water unions have spearheaded this vital new approach to trade unionism that was central to the success of the movement and he notes that “this model seeks to assist citizens acting ‘in union’ through campaigns”.

The book ends with an exciting chapter that asks “where will our progressive government come from?”. Ogle believes that the Right2Change policy principles, developed last year by the Right2Water unions with strong participative community and political input “could form the bedrock, the founding principles of a new egalitarian Republic”. He argues that this progressive government is unlikely to come from the various political elements that make up the ‘political pillar’ of Right2Change as “the existing players provide no real hope of delivering a broad progressive Government around these principles”.

Unless “there is a new broad popular political evolution”, he warns, “I see Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin in talks as Sinn Féin will quite reasonably look at the rest of this movement and point out that no alternative potential partner exists”. He writes that “unless the citizens who are now more alert, organised, educated and capable of taking control of their destiny, develop, or are helped to develop, a broad progressive movement for change, then the opportunity will be lost and the forces of century-old ‘conservative consensus’ will recover the ground they have lost”. The new movement he says must be, “‘Broad’, as opposed to ‘narrow’ or ‘sectarian’, ‘progressive’ as opposed to ‘regressive’ and ‘iniquitous’”. “Can we do it?” he asks, and then answers defiantly: “We have the policy platform, a mobilised movement, the opportunity as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael contract, the young and dispossessed looking for something that is hopeful and fair. We have the support from unions like Unite…We can bloody do it alright, and we must”. This movement’s time has come.

Rory Hearne

Rory Hearne, author and researcher, writes here in a personal capacity.