Five activists from rs21, Jen, Shanice, Lois, Soren and Jonas spent a weekend in Dublin, Ireland, took part in a city-wide demonstration against the Irish Government’s recent Water Charges bill, and spoke to several activists on the Irish left. The following words, photos and videos document those experiences.
Special thanks goes to Shane for helping write part of this piece, and filling in gaps and factual errors upon its initial publication.
If you had asked activists on the Irish left a year ago, what they thought the prospects were for a working-class response to the global economic crisis’ manifestations in their homeland; you would have received a reply full of an understandable amount of demoralization and pessimism.
These characteristics were contextualized by a sustained programme of neoliberal austerity which contained the reduction of the minimum wage, massive cuts to social welfare and the slashing of public sector wages, all amongst growing unemployment, increasing taxation of working people and much more. This combined with increasing emigration from the country and the lack of any sort of generalized revolt against these policies meant optimism on the left was difficult to find.
However, throughout the last year, a movement has emerged which has transformed the terrain of Irish politics, posed a widespread, deeply rooted threat to austerity and potentially pointed towards the growth and revival of the left.
The emergence of this movement has come as a result of the right-wing Fine Gael-Labour party coalition’s attempt to impose a domestic water charge on the Irish people through a recently formed corporation, Irish Water. Already paying for water through their general taxation, the attempt to force through these charges, instil water metres in working-class communities and once again, make workers and the poor pay for the crisis, has revived working-class struggle on a scale you couldn’t imagine.
For months on end working-class communities had been organizing themselves, peacefully blocking the installation of water metres in their areas, calling countless street and estate meetings across the country every night as well as local protests. This eruption of a creative, decentralised self-organised social movement, felt like it had suddenly took over social media and everyone was interconnected. It all hit home on the 11th October of last year, when much to the surprise of committed activists on the left, the witty minds of Irish government and international observers, over 100,000 people took part in a national demonstration against the water charges.
This was followed by the government then falling over itself to announce concessions, such as the ‘end of austerity’ in advance of the second of the three “big days” of protest: 1 November.
However the concessions emboldened people and showed them for the first time that protest actually works, resulting now in people protesting in big numbers at the beckon of a simple Facebook event page. This confirmed the power of the movement when 200,000 people across the state protested in huge numbers in every town and city. In some counties, historically large protests were organized in multiple towns simultaneously, and in others, such as Limerick, around 20% of the population came out.
Fast forward to the 10 December. Another national demonstration, similar numbers on the streets of Ireland, and local organizations against the water charges going from strength to strength. All this, despite the fact that a) Right2Water, the trade union-led anti-water charges united front called the demonstration on a midweek day, during working hours, just before Christmas; b) the repeated state violence on the streets and the arrest, trialling and injunction of anti-water charge activists; c) the attempts by the government and the capitalist media to smear the movement with various labels, one of which being “dissident republican”, to which many in the movement responded defiantly, “we are all dissidents”; and d) emerging questions in the movement about its strategic direction (to boycott or not to boycott, national or local, etc).
In order for comrades in England to fully get a grasp of what is going on here, it is worth understanding the depth of this organic crisis and the historic importance of this movement and moment. It’s not just about water. Since 1922, partition and the defeat of the Irish revolution, the south of Ireland has been heavily dominated by the right and conservative institutions. In recent years – accelerated by the economic collapse – the pillars of that old order, one after the other have cracked, fallen in stature and become discredited. There isn’t the time to elaborate here, but the Catholic Church, the police force, banks, property developers and big business, the mainstream media, tax-havens for multinationals, the European Union, almost all political parties have all lost their unquestioned authority for the first time. Mainstream media is openly fretting about class conflict and “reds under the bed”. The novelty of it is met with humour, but they’re not far off.
On the worker’s side, eight long years of among the most brutal austerity and one-sided class war in the Eurozone has forged a determined, well-connected and battle-tested working class. The exhaustion of the old regime of 1922 as a mode of rule has – through a disastrously inept and confrontational implementation of water charges – provoked and galvanised this resistance, a lifetime in the making. Despite a long tradition of social movements fighting against the grain, on only a handful of occasions in the South have any achieved such a sustained, anti-systemic and mass character. The working class – through a united front of self-organised communities, its political parties and the left trade unions – is feeling its strength and confidence through independent action in a way that it hasn’t since perhaps the late 1970s. For example, three separate days of mass protest in as many months at the end of 2014 would each count among the largest in the history of the state.
What we saw
One weekend, one demonstration and some conversation with a handful of left-wing activists might not give the most wide-ranging, rooted view of the social movement in Ireland, but it certainly gave us tourists a lot of food for thought.
Present at the latest demonstration against the water charges, organized on a city-wide basis rather than a national one, there was mixed opinions amongst activists about what to expect on the day. The surprise was a good one. 15,000 people took to the streets of Dublin, organized on the basis of their local areas. The character of the demonstration was massively working-class, saturated with families, parents with prams, children out on the streets and a sizeable presence of Eastern Asian and Eastern European migrants. The equivalent here would be to imagine 600,000 of the most vibrant, well-organized, angry proletarian Londoners converging on the River Thames.
This doesn’t even account for the protestors who, in their thousands, took to the streets in counties and cities across the rest of the Republic.
This sort of turnout in the context of the long Christmas break (and the silence and waiting that goes with it), divisive tactical arguments growing within the movement itself, and police intimidation, is testament to the strength of the current social movement in the south of Ireland.
What was also a noticeable aspect of Saturday’s demonstration was what Polish Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg called its “mental sediments”, meaning the “intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle.”
Concretely this refers to way in which slogans, ideas, organizations and tactics are passed down and inherited through successive moments of struggle. In the anti-water charges movement, it is noticeable the influence of Ireland’s pro-Palestinian movement, in one of its leading chants: “from the river to the sea, Irish water will be free”, as well as the presence of predominantly young, women pro-choice activists (http://choiceireland.org/), young militants from the “We’re not leaving” campaign (http://werenotleaving.com/) and an array of anti-eviction organizers. In the same vein, the imagery and language of a left republicanism, evoking the legacies of Easter 1916 and the republican struggle, was also noticeable.
These various dimensions and intricacies give life to a social movement that continues to succeed in inspiration as much as surprise.
“Last year we beat the bill, now we wanna’ bury it…”
As protestors dispersed at the end of the demonstration, it would be interesting to speculate on the level of political, strategic and emancipatory discussions that took place in front of TVs, in pubs and over dinner that night. It was clear from discussing with Irish comrades that Dave Widgery’s reflections on 1968 are coming true in their day-to-day practice: “the ideas we had treasured in pamphlets and argued about in tiny pub back rooms were now roaming, alive, three dimensional. Marxism had come out of the cold”
The left, of various currents and none, has a new lease of life, intimately connected to working-class reality. It is also noticeable that debates within that same left are on the rise. How should one relate to a Sinn Fein that waxes left-wing lyrical in the South, in awe of Syriza’s recent electoral victory in Greece, but implements the worst of neoliberal austerity in the North? What direction should the anti-capitalist left embark on organizationally in relation to one another? What are the necessary tactics, from boycott to blockade, that could push the anti-water charges struggle towards victory? All these questions will emerge and take on a new significance in the coming months and then through to next year’s general elections.
In this context, it is absolutely clear, that from Greece and Spain, to Ireland and hopefully soon, to little old blighty, the question of anti-capitalist strategy has experienced a revival beyond our usual ranks and outmoded theoretical confines. Let’s embrace it where it lurks, learn the very real lessons our Irish sisters and brothers continue to provide us with and watch this space for more of the same.
Thanks to Jen, Shane, Seamus, Tiarnan, Moira, James and Paul for a series of comradely discussions which have formed the basis of this contribution.