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Hot water: the protests are a catalyst.

By Rory Hearne.

Last month’s Village editorial missed the point in disdaining the water protests and favouring a campaign about the (admitted) injustices of NAMA facilitating the return of the delinquent developers.

The water protests are most important because  they represent a new form of citizens’ action and empowerment in Ireland. The water movement is in the process of transforming Irish politics and society. Its significance is that a large proportion of (extra)‘ordinary’ people, along with critically analysing the system, are actually engaged in political resistance and with the political system by seeking out political alternatives.

This contrasts with decades of citizen passivity and acceptance of a corrupt political establishment.

It would appear that space for a new Podemos-type political movement is emerging. It could be a movement for a New Republic, that would represent the desire for citizen-led and democratic political change. This is the evidence from research into the views of 2,556 water protestors recently undertaken by myself and MA students in the Department of Geography Maynooth.

A majority of respondents (54.4%) stated that they had not participated in any previous protest.

Respondents felt that the water protests have been successful because it “is a genuinely grassroots and local movement and has mobilised every village, town and city of this country” and “rallied Irish people from all walks of life”.

The protests were motivated by a range of factors and not just water charges. People are protesting at the impacts of austerity (the most cited reason for protesting), a desire for complete abolition, and not just reduction, of water charges, and against the privatisation of water.

People are also motivated by the belief that the current, and previous, government have, through austerity and the bailout, put the interests of the banks, Europe, and the bondholders before the needs of the Irish people. They feel that working, poor and middle income people have paid an unfair burden of austerity.

Respondents identified “corruption”, “cronyism” and a belief that the “establishment parties look after a golden circle of wealthy business people and corporate elite” as reasons for public anger.

Respondents sought change in the way politics is operated in Ireland such that politicians stop making false promises and could be held democratically accountable. They described, for example, how “our political system is broken, our politicians and political parties are owned by corporate elites who act in their favour. I’m not standing for it anymore. I want a government for the people” and, “The Republic has failed its people. The country needs to start anew”.

Very significantly, 45% said they had voted for the main large parties (FF/FG/Labour) in 2011 but indicated that they are changing their vote to the opposition Left parties and independents in the forthcoming election. 31.7% said they will vote for People Before Profits/Anti Austerity Alliance, 27.5% said they will vote for Left Independents, 23.9% for Sinn Féin and only 5.6% for ‘Right’ Independents. 77% of respondents said that they believed the most effective way of getting change was through protesting while only 28% saw contacting a political representative as effective.

Despite the strong support for ‘Left’ parties, a large proportion (79%) want to see a new political party formed. They identified that the issues such a new party should stand on include anti-austerity; anti-corruption and anti-cronyism; and radical political reform and democracy. They want a new party to stand for fairness, equality, social justice, and the right to housing, health, water, education and protection of the poor and vulnerable. These issues, particularly equality, are the very things Village elsewhere has editorialised for. It should also stand up to Europe (particularly on the debt), and ‘take back’ Irish natural resources (gas, fisheries etc) ‘for the people of Ireland’.

It has become clear to ordinary people that they have to look elsewhere for new politicians and parties that will represent and fight for a New Republic.

Three key developments have emerged with the potential to develop such an alternative.

The first is the emergence of popular community struggle, protest, citizen’s initiatives and self-empowerment. The second is a new civil society leadership in smaller trade unions. The third is a new Left and anti-establishment politics in the form of Sinn Féin, the radical Left and independents.

Major questions lie ahead as to whether some of these forces, together, can define and build a new political movement for a New Republic.

This will depend on whether or not those who are arguing for a pluralist, community and grassroots politics, can link together and mutually strengthen the diverse struggles and campaigns over water, housing and other issues while also developing an alternative political, economic and social vision for Ireland that can attract a majority into supporting such a new political movement.

Perhaps the Right2Water union’s successful May Day initiative holds out some hope in this regard. •