Following the imprisonment of five Right2Water protesters in Ireland last week, DtRtP talked to Paul O’Connell a Reader in Law at SOAS who has been active in the anti-water charges movement in Ireland and building solidarity here in London. Interview by Jonas Liston.
Can you tell us about the movement against water charges that has developed over the last year? We’d especially like to know about what the protests are against, it’s size and scale and how it has been going?
The movement is against the introduction of charges for domestic water use, and the installation of meters to facilitate this new charging scheme. The position in Ireland has been that domestic water is publicly provided and paid for out of general taxation; the current government, as part of a broad based policy of neoliberal austerity reforms, has set up a private, semi-state entity called Irish Water to implement the proposed new scheme. The protests in Ireland over the last 12-14 months have been against the introduction of water charges as a matter of principle, with the movement rallying around the slogan of the ‘Right2Water’, and the insistence that water is a public good that should be available to all and paid for out of general taxation.
“Working class communities throughout Ireland have mobilised against the installation of water meters in their communities, in effect they have been peacefully obstructing the installation of these meters.”
As a corollary to this, working class communities throughout Ireland have mobilised against the installation of water meters in their communities, in effect they have been peacefully obstructing the installation of these meters. The movement is unprecedented; the level of self-mobilisation and politicisation amongst working-class communities has simply never been seen before, and the movement has been a success. It has led to hundreds of local street meetings and protests, but crucially to a number of massive national demonstrations (with as many as 120,000 marching through Dublin on two occasions in late 2014). This, in turn, has led to concessions from the government, such as dramatically reducing the proposed charges and introducing other incentives. Despite this, the activists involved in the movement have committed themselves to the complete abolition of the charges, and so the struggle continues.
What has been the response of the state and the media to this mass movement?
The response of the state and the mainstream media has gone through a number of phases. At the outset it was one of incomprehension: Ireland has been the “good student” of the European austerity school for the last number of years, and while there were sporadic protests and oppositional groupings, there was no mass movement in Ireland against the tide of austerity. The emergence, then, of the anti-water charges movement caught the establishment, and indeed many on the left in Ireland, by surprise. The movement is led by community activists; people who have not historically been politically active, but who have now embraced this struggle.
“The state now has become much more pro-active: late last year there was a dual strategy (which a pliant media acquiesced in) seeking to buy off part of the movement with concessions, while seeking to vilify the rest.”
The state, at first, did not recognise the seriousness of the threat posed by the movement, and so was complacent. The Gardaí were heavy handed with peaceful protesters resisting water meter installations, mainly in Dublin North East, but there was no coherent strategy, and this gave the movement room to grow. Following the large scale mobilisations of late last year, the state now has become much more pro-active: late last year there was a dual strategy (which a pliant media acquiesced in) seeking to buy off part of the movement with concessions, while seeking to vilify the rest.
The protesters were characterised as “thugs”, “dissident republicans” (a useful political slur in the Irish context, akin to calling someone a Communist in the US), instead of being bought off or cowed by this approach, the protesters embraced the slogan “dissident” as a badge of honour for their opposition to the status quo in Ireland, and rejected the concessions offered by the government on the charges.
Can you tell us a little bit about the charges and sentencing acted out against demonstrators and the logic behind the state’s recent moves?
The most recent phase of the state response is one of repression and intimidation. The carrot has been tried and found wanting, so the stick is to be wielded. The Gardaí conducted very public, highly publicised dawn raids on the homes of a number of protesters, including a Socialist Party TD (MP) who had taken part in protests late last year, whilst others have been arrested for tampering with or removing installed meters (“meter fairies” as they are known). Alongside this, the High Court has recently committed five protesters to prison, one of whom is out of the country. They have been committed on the basis that they refuse to abide by an injunction that was granted to GMC Sierra (a company sub-contracted by Irish Water to install the water meters) requiring them to desist from obstructing the installation of water meters.
“The High Court has recently committed five protesters to prison, on the basis that they refuse to abide by an injunction that was granted requiring them to desist from obstructing the installation of water meters.”
The protesters have held to their conviction that what they are engaged in, is a legitimate peaceful protest, the High Court has acted on the pre-text of balancing competing rights (to protest and carry on one’s lawful business), but in effect has used the injunction to eviscerate any meaningful right to protest in this context. The four, Bernie, Damo, Derek and Ollie, are now detained in prison.
News from Ireland has often come out in dribs and drabs, making it difficult for activists here to get a good picture, so could you clear some things up. Is it true that some of the prisoners are on hunger strike and others have been put in 23 hour solitary confinement? How are they doing?
Some of them were confined for 23 hours in the first days, but that has ceased. Three of the prisoners, Damo, Derek, and Ollie, were on hunger strike, but they have ended this now, reserving the right to resume it if they see fit.
What has popular opinion towards the arrests and sentencing been like?
The general response has been one of dismay. People see the patent injustice in peaceful protesters being imprisoned, while corrupt and reckless bankers, civil servants and politicians carry on with impunity, so it has definitely struck a chord. The Irish establishment has taken a gamble with the latest round of arrests, with the committal of the five protesters, and the ramped up anti-protester rhetoric; they are hoping that they can intimidate enough people, and thereby weaken the movement. My sense is that this is a mistake on their part, and the increased authoritarianism in their response will in fact serve to galvanise the movement.
Where does the movement in Ireland go from here?
For anyone familiar with Irish politics this movement has been truly inspirational. For the first time since national independence, thousands of working-class people have been mobilising themselves around a clearly class defined issue, and that brought into question the entire political status quo. At first some greeted this movement as “anti-political”, indeed many of the protesters identified themselves as “non-political”; in truth, what these activists are and have been engaged in is an unvariegated omni-politics. They know in the marrow of their bones that there is something fundamentally wrong, the water charges are a clear symptom of this; they understand also that everything (government, police, courts, media, business, political parties and unions) is in some way implicated in the maintenance of this “something wrong”, but there is, at times, a lack of clarity in analysis, and organisational weaknesses. Both of these factors are being remedied, the unprecedented numbers of people that have been brought into this movement have, of necessity, had a crash political education, and structures, such as Communities Against Water Charges (CAWC), which seek to strengthen this working class self-organisation and leadership, are consolidating themselves.
“The movement has mobilised unprecedented numbers of working people, most for the first time in their lives, and is now moving into a new phase which focuses on an active, nationwide non-payment tactic.”
There are problems ahead, maintaining momentum is always difficult, but the arrests and imprisonments may prove a shot in the arm in this regard. Certain parties that identify as left and who should be the natural allies of this movement have not really covered themselves in glory, and an over-emphasis on impending elections and “building an Irish Syriza” could distract energy from the educational and organisational work that still needs to be done, but the movement is still in a very strong position. It has mobilised unprecedented numbers of working people, most for the first time in their lives, and is now moving into a new phase which focuses on an active, nationwide non-payment tactic. The movement can continue to grow, and can defeat these charges, but its central values (not the distraction of elections), and the centrality of community groups in leading the movement need to be maintained going forward.
Yourself, along with several others have been involved in organizing solidarity with protesters in Ireland. How can activists here best deliver solidarity and in the same vein, is there anything coming up to attend, build for and tell others about? Are there any websites or the like, we can follow for more information?
There was a protest outside the Irish Embassy after the arrests earlier in February, but there has not been much so far this year. We did hold a good solidarity rally outside the embassy in December, but this question just reminds me that we need to do more. In terms of keeping in touch and up to date, people should follow the Facebook feeds of Communities Against Water Charges and Right2Water Ireland.
#FreeThe5 Four of the five protesters currently in prison are Bernie Hughes, Damian ONeil, Ollie Moore, Derek Byrne. To keep up to date with campaigns for their release go to Release the Water Warriors Facebook Page.
Look out for more announcements about solidarity action on our website soon