December 2014        

Government forced onto the back foot

Eugene McCartan

The success of the broadly based Right2Water campaign and the community groups that are actively preventing the installation of water meters has forced the government to backtrack to some degree in its strategy of imposing water charges.
     This is seen in the cap on the charges and a flat-rate quarterly payment to the end of 2018, the removal of the demand for PPS numbers, the bait of all eligible households receiving a water conservation grant of €100 per year, the promise of legislation to prevent privatisation, and holding out the carrot that the cap on charges could be extended beyond 2019 in exchange for registering.
     All the talk about one of the primary reasons for charges being to promote conservation and prevent unnecessary waste is shot down with the flat-rate charge now being proposed by the government.
     These limited measures from a very unpopular government do not go anywhere near the demand of hundreds of thousands of people who want the charges scrapped completely and Irish Water as a company broken up.
     The recent legislation presented by the government to address concerns about privatisation is hardly worth the paper it is written on. We can confirm that during the past year this government has commissioned one of the largest commercial law firms in the country to draft a strategy on how best to privatise Irish Water.
     People know from experience that laws are twisted, repealed and changed at the whim of governments. The only guarantee of the people’s interests is a constitutional amendment enshrining public ownership and control. People also know that allowances, credits and other measures included in the latest government proposal mean little and will quickly disappear when it is politically convenient.
     The government and the state have laid out a strategy for dividing and breaking the broad coalition of groups opposed to these charges. They hope that over the next three to four years they can pressure, cajole and spin enough confusion for people to begin to register. They will apply the old trusted weapon of splitting campaigners into those who are “reasonable,” those with sensible and genuine concerns who are experiencing financial difficulties, and those “unreasonable” or “subversive” campaigners who refuse point-blank and do not appreciate the real efforts by the government to address reasonable concerns.
     They seem keen to pass on this particular poisoned chalice to the next government while the state continues to pressure people into compliance, hoping that by 2019 they will have a significant number signed up. The penalties for non-payment are relatively small, so that if people hold out for a year, with further possible crumbs falling from the budget table in 2015, they can bring more into the net.
     The Labour Party wants to push for some small tweaking of the universal social charge, in the belief that they will get some electoral bounce in the general election, with some trade unions preparing the ground for them.
     Those unions such as the TEEU and SIPTU that have taken a position of opposition to water charges can only strengthen the campaign and further broaden its support by joining the Right2Water campaign. They need to move beyond paper resolutions to active campaigning. It is what their membership demand.
     What is needed now is maintaining the maximum unity of all those opposed to water charges. It may take a little time, but those within the coalition who may have a more limited mandate in opposing the charges can be given the opportunity to develop their mandate with their membership. There should be enough space within Right2Water for all opinions to find expression. Rash and opportunist demands by sections of the left show that their main focus is not on winning this campaign but on exploiting the people’s anger for selfish, short-term electoral advantage.
     There is certainly a need for a deeper debate within Right2Water about the best way forward. The sustaining of prolonged non-payment has been shown to be very difficult. There is a need to deepen the political knowledge and understanding not just of the charges but of the attempt to commodify water, which under EU competition rules can only lead to privatisation.
     One of the driving factors for charges and privatisation is the socialised private bank debt, as well as the heavy indebtedness of the state itself.
     The imposition of these charges exposes in a small way the deeply inhuman nature of a capitalist society. All economic activity is solely for profit, and nothing else matters, while socialist economics is about the social and economic development that is centred on fulfilling the people’s needs.
     It’s time for a full and wide-range discussion within the trade union movement, people’s organisations and campaigning groups about a better way forward. It’s time to open up a national debate about a transformative economic and social strategy, centred on the needs of the people and not of big business and the monopolies and regardless of what the European Union allows or does not allow.

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