Ireland’s Fight Against Big Water


Screengrab from Irish Water’s website.

From New Left Review:

If the potential was there for an outbreak by the autumn of 2014, why did water charges come to be its focal point? A scheme to impose user fees for household water consumption had been on the books for several years: the Memorandum of Understanding agreed with the imf in 2010 included a pledge to ‘move towards full cost-recovery in the provision of water services’, with responsibility for water transferred from local authorities to a national utility. [14] The Kenny government duly established Irish Water in 2013 and prepared to introduce charges by the end of the following year. From the coalition’s point of view, the idea had several points in its favour. In the short term, it would produce a new revenue stream; further down the line, it would transform a public asset into a profit-making firm that could be sold off to private interests. Most urgently perhaps, setting up Irish Water as a formally independent company would allow them to shave a few points off the national debt, as its borrowings would not be kept on the state’s books.

The project had the disadvantage, however, of striking a broad range of people simultaneously, instead of picking them off one by one: tenants and home-owners, private- and public-sector workers, the unemployed and those still in work. Moreover, there was a history of protest against ‘double taxation’ going back more than two decades. A previous campaign against water charges in the late 80s and early 90s, spearheaded by the radical left, had forced their abolition. Trotskyist MP Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, often referred to as a one-man parliamentary opposition during the boom years, was first elected to the Dáil in 1997 on the strength of his role in that campaign. The argument that local services should be paid for by progressive taxation, not user fees, was deployed again in 2003–04, when a struggle against bin charges that mobilized working-class communities across Dublin reached its peak with the jailing of several activists (including Higgins and other prominent leftists). The bin-tax struggle ended in defeat, but the experience was a valuable one for those at its sharp end. Having seen waivers for low-income households gradually withdrawn once the heat was off, they were unlikely to set much store by assurances from Irish Water that its charges would be capped. The privatization of waste collection in Dublin over the past decade, resulting in a chaotic service for residents and eroded working conditions for staff, supplied another useful lesson. Some of the community groups most active in the campaign against water charges had cut their teeth blockading scab drivers when the Greyhound bin company locked out its unionized workers in early 2014.

Irish Water also managed to condense much of the anger at corrupt ties between political and business elites in the wake of the crash, when a company owned by the state’s wealthiest citizen, Denis O’Brien, was awarded a contract to install water meters by the Fine Gael environment minister Phil Hogan (Hogan, a thoroughly unpleasant, bovine mediocrity, even by the standards of his party, has since moved to Brussels as Ireland’s eucommissioner). O’Brien’s leg-up in the world of business came from his acquisition of a mobile-phone licence in the late 90s: the Moriarty tribunal later found that the Fine Gael politician responsible for overseeing the tendering process, Michael Lowry, had received large cash payments from O’Brien, and condemned his ‘venal abuse of office’. O’Brien has gone on to become the dominant player in Ireland’s private media, controlling two national radio stations and a stable of newspapers. Not content with this commanding position, the businessman has repeatedly taken legal action against journalists and politicians who presume to criticize his affairs. Siteserv, the company installing water meters, passed into O’Brien’s hands in 2012; as part of the deal, the state-owned Irish Bank Resolution Corporation—formerly Anglo Irish Bank—wrote off €110m of its €150m debt.

There were a few warning signs in the early months of 2014. Reports that Irish Water planned to spend €85 million on consultant fees generated the first bout of controversy about corporate greed at the start of the year, and left and independent candidates made opposition to the charges a key plank of their campaigns during the local and European elections in May (the Socialist Party added ‘Stop the Water Tax’ to its name on the ballot paper). Local protests against the installation of water meters had already begun in a number of towns when a broad campaigning front, Right 2 Water, was launched in September, with support from Sinn Féin, the socialist left and a number of trade unions. Right 2 Water built on the foundations laid by an earlier campaign against a flat tax on home-owners, which had organized some big protests in 2011–12 before the government opted to deduct the charge directly from salaries, heading off the threat of mass non-payment. The most important union backing came from mandate, which organizes retail workers, and the Irish section ofunite. Both have struck a dissenting profile within the Irish Congress of Trade Unions over the past decade, speaking up against corporatist ‘social partnership’ deals. This marks them out from the two most importantictu affiliates, siptu and impact, whose leadership teams stand very close to the Labour Party and have done their best to keep things locked down on its behalf since 2011. Right 2 Water was the first major attempt bymandate and unite to organize protests against government policy outside the ictu framework; mandate’s general secretary John Douglas and the unite organizer Brendan Ogle would become prominent spokesmen for the campaign.

“Water Wars In Ireland”, Daniel Finn, New Left Review