For good and bad Kelly killed the issue [of water charges], even if tens of thousands of diehards continue to protest the principle at occasional marches in Dublin
(Village, May 2015)
Alan Kelly got it wrong. The mainstream media got it wrong. Village got it wrong.
They were united in the rhetoric that water charges were environmentally progressive and that the non-payment movement would go down to defeat. In Alan Kelly’s words, “Ruth Coppinger and her band of people will lead people up to the top of the hill and then abandon them”.
Instead, the movement has forced the suspension of water charges. They are very unlikely to be re-imposed in the course of this Dáil. Fine Gael salvaged what they could – the continuation of Irish Water. The project of commodification of water is badly damaged but remains intact to make a return at a more opportune time.
In response, a whole new genre of writing has been spawned – one bemoaning this suspension, which “embodies all that is wrong with Irish politics” (the headline on Una Mullally’s opinion piece in the Irish Times on 27 April 2016). Competition for the worst example is fierce, but the winner is arguably Daniel McConnell’s who concluded in the Irish Examiner on 30 April“… this is why we need the Troika back in town”.
This is the gratifyingly honest logical endpoint of the denunciation of ‘populism’ (read: ‘democracy’). Village will undoubtedly join in, but in a more ‘progressive’ tone.
The arguments are predictable. We need increased investment in water infrastructure and water conservation. Yes, clearly, but why water charges, which lost money, and borrowing by a semi-state at higher rates than direct state borrowing would increase spending on infrastructure is never explained. The evidence of the limited impact of charges on usage by comparing Ireland and Britain is ignored. The significantly greater impact on conservation, but at a cost to developers and builders, of proper building regulations is not addressed.
The other favoured argument is to cite the very many things that are undoubtedly more important than water charges. Donal O’Keeffe in The Journal (28 April) helpfully put together a list of ten issues, including homelessness, the living wage and the need for repeal of the 8th amendment. Village has its own list, which includes equality, NAMA and corruption.
One could in passing question whether most of those making this argument have ever done anything about these issues either – in contrast to most of the leading figures in the anti-water charges movement who are also active in movements on housing, wages and abortion rights. The key question, however, is whether the movement and partial victory on water charges make change on these other issues more or less likely?
The answer gets to the heart of the matter.
What is missing from the analysis of Village and others who share with the radical left a wish for a more equal and socially just society, is class.
We live in a deeply divided class society, where the ruling capitalist class, through their traditional parties, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and latterly Labour, try to implement policies that improve their relative position in society. That’s what water charges were about – shifting the taxation burden from the 1% to the 99%, as well as preparing the way for privatisation.
In this capitalist world, we can’t choose the issues upon which major class battles and possible victories turn. This was the case for water charges – because of the timing of their implementation when recovery was being loudly announced and because people could resist easily and effectively by refusing to pay.
A victory for our class over their class on any important issue makes it more, not less, likely that further victories can be won.
When Enda Kenny asked “it’s not about water, is it?” he was right – it is about bank bailouts, payments to bondholders and seven years of crushing austerity.
Suspension of water charges is not just about water either then. Irish politics has changed quite fundamentally as a result. A people-power movement of mass civil disobedience, of course with many flaws, forced the establishment back. Having experienced a victory, however partial, it is not likely that working class people return to the role allotted to them by capitalist ‘democracy’, voting every few years for parties which pretend to represent their interests and sitting passively waiting for the next election.
An active, politicised and confident working class can score further victories against a weak minority government on housing, precarious working conditions and abortion rights.
It is also likely to generalise from the experience of these movements, developing towards the kind of broad class consciousness that is essential to win socialist change.