By Frank Connolly.
Judging by the speakers at the massive rally in Dublin on 10th December against the Government’s water charge regime, the protest is far from over – and it is no longer just about water. Despite media efforts, most notably in RTÉ, to downplay the scale of the mobilisation on a mid-week, mid-winter, working day, the turnout was impressive with up to 60,000, at its peak, gathering at Merrion Square for the speeches and entertainment.
Although there were plenty of Right2Water, Sinn Féin, anti-austerity and People Before Profit banners the crowd largely comprised working people, young and old, from across the country who are clearly of the view that water is one charge too many. While there are differences of opinion on whether water charges, even as a conservation measure, are wrong in principle, or whether people should be encouraged to break the law and refuse to pay, those on the march appear to be of a mind that the issue has moved on: to the credibility of the Government itself.
In their contributions from the platform, Gerry Adams, Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly, among others, predictably made the government parties the target of attack, not only for their mishandling of the water debacle but for all the other austerity measures that have devastated the lives of so many, and forced the young away in droves, over the past six years. Trade-union speakers warned of the hidden agenda of privatisation that clearly influenced the architects of the new water regime, most notably the former environment minister and now EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan. The dramatic climbdown on charges and the decision not to deploy metering until well into the life of the next government may not be enough to persuade sufficient numbers of a deeply sceptical, and cynical, public to register with Irish Water by next April.
Already the forces of the Right are railing against the prospect of Sinn Féin as the lead partners in a Left administration. Efforts to construct a new party from former Fine Gael and other right-wing independents around Lucinda Creighton or Shane Ross, or even Michael Fitzmaurice, reveal a level of disarray that is seriously frustrating for those most fearful of a Left alternative.
Within the government parties there is an element of panic over opinion polls that suggest that many first-time TDs elected in the 2011 ‘democratic revolution’ will remain just that. The desperation is most acute for Labour given recent figures that suggest it will be lucky to retain 10 seats from the remarkable 37 they won last time. But Fine Gael too is in trouble as it drops below 20% from its election high of more than 36%. Although these trends can, and most likely will, be reversed as the election approaches and voters interrogate the actual detail of party policies, there is no question that a fundamental change can be expected in the historic year of 2016, if not before. Fine Gael may cobble together something with a bloc of like-minded independents, or if it comes to it and needs must, in a coalition with Fianna Fáil.
The Left, on the other hand, can always snatch possible defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to take an opportunity to generate fundamental political and radical change. It can do its best to convince people that socialists and their progressive allies could never really run an economy (unlike those bright sparks in FF, the PDs and FG) or it can seek to provide solutions to the challenges that confront the Irish people over the coming decade.
There is a potentially sizeable bloc of progressive parties, and of left-wing and independent TDs who could help propel a real alternative to the various formations on the right. This would require a dramatic initiative by trade unions, community organisations, progressive NGOs and think-tanks, Sinn Féin, Labour and other serious left-leaning politicians and parties, in the new year.
It would be aimed at finding an agreed charter for government that can embrace the key concerns of an austerity-fatigued electorate and be focused on radical political reform; the replacement of regressive charges, including the hated USC; on water and property taxes; and promote a progressive taxation system that targets corporate and other wealth. It could address fairness and equality, low pay, poverty, youth unemployment and emigration, and public and private debt. Given the approaching anniversary of the Rising, it could set out the strategy for an agreed, democratic and genuine Republic. To succeed it will require a degree of ambition and political courage that has been absent for too long in the culture of the Irish left. •