The battle against Irish Water and their regressive charge has been the defining movement of a generation. For two years people have organised against meter installation community by community, protested locally and participated in massive national demonstrations tens of thousands strong.
Networks of people who had never been ‘activists’ before mobilised to stop water meters, creating text trees and booking buses to the major mobilisations. People Before Profit activists were key to creating these activists’ networks in many communities- in Clondalkin, Bray and Ballyfermot, in Cork, Sligo and elsewhere, People Before Profit activists worked with local residents to organise street meetings in every estate.
These street meetings saw people debate the water charges and vote to resist the charge.
This tidal wave of popular mobilisation has also shifted working class communities across the country to the left with a growing politicisation taking place and a huge left vote coming in the election. The radical left groups, like People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, have placed themselves at the heart of the movement on the streets and the building of a strong boycott campaign in the communities.
There were massive debates within the movement as people threw off their old traditional political affiliations and tried to find a new way of looking at things.
Can we win?
But can we still win? The first mass protests against the water charge from October to December 2014 saw the government left reeling- they quickly made promises to reduce the charge and even tried to bribe people into registering by offering a €100 ‘conservation grant’- nothing but a carrot designed to lure people into payment and future bills at a higher rate.
In early 2015 the government realised the carrot alone wasn’t going to work and so they arrested protesters including Paul Murphy TD- a blatant attempt to demonise the movement and split the activist networks at the heart of this movement from support in the wider population. There was slander heaped on the movement- we were even compared to ISIS!
But in both March and August 2015 the mass movement appeared on the street tens of thousands strong. The resilience of the street movement helped to feed a determination to boycott the bills. The government were terrified of releasing figures for the payment rates and when they finally did the boycott of the first bills was over 60%.
Despite harassing phone calls, texts and threatening letters- over 50% of people are still boycotting these bills. Even those who have paid will tell you at the doorsteps that they did so under duress- a lot of old people were scared into paying. But Irish Water is not viable faced with such a strong boycott level.
The election campaign had all the mainstream parties trying to avoid the issue of water charges and this despite polls showing that it was a key issue for huge numbers of people. That’s why the protest march on February the 20th – the first time a major national protest has taken place during an election- shows that we will not go away and will continue to protest and boycott until water charges are abolished.
Where next? The movement needs to return to the streets after the election to send a clear message to any incoming government that we want this charge abolished. We also need to build up a strong boycott campaign in our areas- this means re-assuring old people and others who are worried about the bills. If we continue to refuse to pay there is nothing they can do.
For many of the new activists who have been politicised by this movement- our message is that it’s time to find a political home. This movement has always been about more than just water charges. The working class communities that have mobilised have confronted an elite who don’t care about our health or housing needs.
In order to have a decent society where we can all be housed we are going to have to redistribute the wealth of the super rich. But to do that we need to be organised.
Sinn Féin are willing to go into coalition with the old mainstream parties- hence their fear of illegal tactics such as the boycott. We have marched and will continue to march with Sinn Féin members but we have to be honest with each other- there are questions of trust with regard to the leading circles in Sinn Fein.
We need a genuine left that is willing to stand up to the rich.