NB: This article was written about the 11th October 2014 demonstration but arrived too late to use. Normally that would mean it just getting binned or at best getting mined for useful bits to put in a future article. However, the decision is to use this now in the run-up to the forthcoming demonstration at the end of this month against the water tax.
The size of the turnout for the anti-water charges demonstration in Dublin on Saturday 11th of October must have been something of a shock for the Irish ruling class and for their current government, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. The implementation of water charges forms an important part of their programme to make the ordinary people pay for the crisis caused by financial and property speculators. Other parts of this programme that people have been experiencing to date over the last few years (and including the Fianna Fáil government preceding this one) have been bailing out the banks and their bondholders, financed first through the Household Charge and, after that was defeated by massive resistance, the Household Charge taxed through the Revenue Department; then the pension levy on public service workers; followed by the extensive cuts in social spending at the same time as implementing the “Social Charge”.
The ruling class and their government are of course well aware that the water charge is unpopular among the vast majority of the population – supporters of the tax have failed to convince the people that it is anything but another way of “paying the bankers”. But the unpopularity of a measure is no guarantee whatsoever of wide-scale mobilisation against it and the Government was probably expecting the resistance to meter installation to remain local, marginal and uncoordinated. Clearly this was one case where “Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear”.
But the size of the demonstration surprised not only the ruling class and their government but also anti-water charge campaigners themselves. “I thought we’d be doing well to get 15,000” said one long-time community activist and “If we got 50,000, we thought it would be brilliant” according to an activist from one of the political groups active on this issue. A realistic estimate of the attendance at the demonstration on Saturday puts it at between 100,000 (as quoted by an unnamed Garda source to an Irish Times reporter) and 150,000. The march from the Garden of Remembrance heading across the river before turning again towards the GPO took over one-and-a-half hours to pass a fixed spot in O’Connell Street while another large number reportedly marched from another direction also toward the GPO.
So how was it that so many mobilised?
Any attempt to answer the first question must be speculative but there are a number of indications other than the widescale unpopularity of the water charge and any measure seen as “bailing out the bankers”. One of these is the highly-publicised police repression of local protests against meter installations in a number of Dublin areas, where the population is overwhelmingly working-class and lower-middle class. These protests and the police repression, completely ignored by the national mass media, however received widescale publicity through social media, with videos posted on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. And the people sharing and sometimes posting these reports and images were for the most part not political or even community or trade union activists. Another source tapped was that of past mobilisations against the Household and Property Taxes. Much of the mobilisation took place in small to medium-sized communities where for the most part, unusually but according to my sources, the activists promoted the resistance and the demonstration rather than their own political party or organisation.
“Apart from a few political activists, only the middle-class mobilise through Facebook”, said long-time political activist to us about a year ago. “Who cares how many ‘Likes” on Facebook an event or campaign gets – it doesn’t mean anything!” said another. Rebel Breeze would have agreed with them too, knowing that the way to mobilise working class people was mostly through personal contact, door-to-door and workplace leafleting. But it seems that is no longer true and that working people, who previously used Facebook only socially, have now begun to use it politically too.
Why did it surprise even the campaigners?
So much for how such a large number came to protest. But how is it that the campaigners themselves were taken by surprise? Of course there may have been unexpected mobilisations in some areas where campaigners had not been active but the main reason for their surprise is almost certainly their lack of coordination. Their are a number of Left organisation and “dissident” Republican organisations campaigning against the water charges, along with a large number of independent activists of a mainly political or community background. In some areas Sinn Féin activist have been out too, although the party does not advocate non-payment or prevention of meter installation.
In a united campaign where all the activists worked towards a united mass resistance, sharing information, the numbers would not have caught them so much by surprise. Of course, their expectations might have been exceeded but each group would have been aware of the actions in other groups’ areas along with the massive rise in Facebook hits, “Likes” and “Shares” to postings of resistance and police repression. Such a united campaign against the water charge does not yet exist. A previous attempt to float such a united campaign on the Household and Water Charges foundered on a number of rocks – political party opportunism, social democratic illusions and the failure of the traditional Left to engage with the independent activist constituency and the “dissident” Republican movement probably being the main ones.
There are a number of attempts to portray the active resistance to the Water Charge as spontaneous but it is likely that where there have been no campaigners active locally, the people have responded to what they have seen elsewhere, both through anger and encouragement. On the other hand, any attempt by any group or individual to take the credit for the growing resistance or for the mass attendance at the demonstration would have to be laughable.
The “passive Irish” jibe refuted once again
Rebel Breeze has long been tired of the wailing often heard to the effect that “the Irish are not like the Greeks”, or that the Irish are passive, accept all kinds of shit without resistance, etc. etc. With the history of class and national struggle of the people of this island it is extraordinary that such an notion ever gained wide acceptance among commentators – but it did. The Irish working class has generally responded militantly and enthusiastically when they have been called to battle by what they consider a credible leadership. In Ireland, that leadership was the trade union movement and no other. In 1913 a fighting trade union was forged in Ireland and, when the employers tried to break it, the workers of Dublin (mostly) fought that attempt for up to eight months, in a city of wide-spread poverty and with most charity services discriminating against strikers and their families. In that struggle, the workers faced also the hostility of the media and state (not much has changed there) and of the main churches. Although defeated in that struggle, the union did not break and came back years later stronger than ever.
Deprived of revolutionary and militant leadership, the movement nevertheless maintained a fighting front for workers through decades of high unemployment and emigration. But in the mid-1980s the trade union leadership opted for what they called “social partnership”, an arrangement in which employers, trade union leadership and the State (which is also a huge employer) sat down and agreed the salary levels for the next period. This had a disastrous impact on the trade union movement. “Use it or lose it” is a general physiological rule about muscle : the trade union leadership became unused to strike action and, when strikes did occur, to instructing members of unions not directly involved to pass the pickets. Recruitment fell dramatically and, when in 2010 the employers and State no longer saw any point in negotiating with the trade union leadership, as they believed the leadership to be no longer capable of resistance, the latter lacked the spirit and confidence to take them on. After a demonstration called by ICTU with a threat of a general strike days away, which received a massive response from trade union members, the leadership instead opted for more negotiations, in which they agree to the pension levy on public servant workers and industrial peace in the private sector: Croke Park I (June 2010). So the workers no longer have a leadership they consider credible and the revolutionary and radical socialist organisations are too small to be thought credible and also have not generally built bases within the trade union movement from which to offer a leadership for struggle.
Nevertheless, the working people of Ireland turned out in huge numbers once again on Saturday to protest an unjust tax which is being used for an unjustifiable purpose. The class is still there, it never lost its fighting spirit – what it needs is a viable leadership. It remains to be seen whether this will be built and whether it can lead a broad militant movement against this tax and other attacks on the working class, without repeating the errors of the recent ‘broad movements’.