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Irish Water Charges and a Mass Campaign of Opposition

23rd January 2015

Irish Water Charges and a Mass Campaign of Opposition

By Finn Geaney, Delegate to Dublin Council of Trade Unions
and Jimmy Kelly, Member of Executive Council of the Technical, Engineering & Electrical Union

The Irish Government has pursued a disastrous policy on the issue of clean water provision and waste water treatment. Such has been the outcry from the public in the form of mass demonstrations, trade union opposition and community actions that the Government has been forced to make considerable concessions. For five years the Irish public has had to endure high unemployment, pay reductions and changes in work practices, new taxes and charges, as well as cuts in public service provision and social welfare supports. The proposed water charges became the final straw.

On October 11th last year 100,000 people marched through Dublin to protest against the imposition of water charges. In the following weeks tens of thousands took part in similar protests around the country. On December 10th another massive demonstration took place in Dublin and other cities. Ten thousand turned out in Limerick.

Standing as an Anti-water Charges candidate, Paul Murphy who is a Socialist Party member, won a recent by-election in Dublin South West campaigning on the specific demand that people should not pay the water charges. This result forced Sinn Fein, whose candidate was the favourite to win, to immediately reverse their policy of encouraging payment of water charges to one of supporting non-payment.

The ‘Right2Water’ campaign, which was initiated mainly by socialist groupings , has become the principal organising force behind the protest movement, and has brought together many community organisations across the country and has the affiliation of a number of trade union bodies such as UNITE and the Dublin Council of Trade Unions. In some communities the installation of water meters was prevented by local mobilisations on the streets, even while the company installing the meters was securing injunctions against protesters and High Court hearings were being held.

The Irish Labour Party said during the last General Election that it would not introduce charges for water. However once in office, as part of the Coalition with the conservative Fine Gael Party, Labour Party leaders not only tried to introduce charges but they embarked on a programme of installing water meters in every household. In addition they set up a company ‘Irish Water’ that was separate from the Department of the Environment and was structured and primed for early privatisation. €20 million was spent on consultants who gave advice on the setting up of the company. A Labour Party Minister is now responsible for forcing through water charges.  A recent opinion poll put the Labour Party on only 7% support!

In their most recent volte face the Government have said that they will not be using the water meters for deciding the level of charges, even though they cost around €539 million to install. The company GMC/Sierra, in which the billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien has an interest, was one of the successful bidders for the meter-installation contract. Yet that company only became a legal entity after the deadline for bids had expired. Denis O’Brien had previously been involved in a Parliamentary Enquiry into the awarding of a mobile phone contract. According to the consultancy firm NERA, operating costs in Irish Water were found to be more than twice those of UK counterparts.

The Government has now backed down, at least temporarily, on the issue of privatisation, promising that a plebiscite would be held in the event of any such proposal in Parliament. The previous Minister of the Environment said that the average water charge per household would be €240, and that was widely accepted as being a significant underestimate; the new maximum charge will be €60 or €160, depending on whether there is single occupancy or multiple occupancy per household.  These are ‘carrot figures’ which includes a rebate element to encourage registration.

In Ireland the system of clean water provision and treatment is obsolete. Under the old system thirty four separate local authorities were responsible for the provision of clean water and for waste water treatment in their areas. In addition there are currently 365 privately-sourced group water schemes around the state and more than a thousand private systems that are connected to public sources. Previous governments invested little in the water infrastructure of the country. The operation of many of the water and sewage treatment facilities, including Dublin’s, have already been handed over to multinational ‘facilities companies’ as profitable concerns.

According to the Government’s own figures more than 20,000 people are currently on boil water notices. Forty two towns have their raw sewage running directly into the local sea or river. Up to 50% of treated water is lost through leakage. Eight hundred kilometres of pipe in Dublin are more than one hundred years old.

Until now the provision of clean water and the treatment of waste water were paid for through general taxation. (This is in contrast to Britain, where the water companies have been privatised and issue bills to households.) The current economic crisis is being presented by the Government as their excuse for raising funds through water charges to repair this debilitated system.  It is clear now that the proposed charges have nothing to do with water conservation.

The introduction of water charges, like the recently-imposed property charge, (a blatant austerity measure) is a legacy of the bank speculators’  bailout.  The general public can see through the subterfuge. Recent governments were able to find €60 billion from the public purse to bail out the banks. €8 billion is being paid out each year in interest payments on money that was paid out to bondholders in dead banks. The resulting gap in the country’s social wealth is being dealt with through a combination of cuts in pay and services and new taxes and charges. Everybody sees through this, and that is why the anti-water tax campaign has been receiving such widespread support.

Mass non-payment will become a feature when the first bills for water arrive on the doorsteps in three months time. Following years of wage cuts, job losses, social service cuts, extra taxation on incomes without allowances, and tax on family homes, already a considerable number of people are refusing to register for payment, a requirement under the Water Services Act. Water charges constitute the final straw for a people who have borne so much austerity since the recession began in 2008. The present government will face the ire of the people in a General Election next year. Already in the local and European elections in 2014 the government parties Fine Gael and Labour suffered massive losses. The Labour Party should make a break with Fine Gael policies and take its stand with communities and trade unionists that are fighting against austerity. Likewise those trade union leaders who are doing everything in their power to protect the Labour Ministers in government should change tack and stand with their members and actively join in the campaign.

The cost of creating an effective and sustainable clean water supply and waste water treatment facilities should be raised from general taxation through increased taxes on the very wealthy in society, the millionaires whose share of the country’s wealth, according to recently published figures, has increased during the period of recession. Regardless of the concessions made by the Government the campaign against the imposition of water charges has lost none of its momentum.
Two earlier attempts to introduce charges for water, in the 1980s and 1990s, were defeated through mass action.

This is a longer version of an article appearing in the February issue of Labour Briefing, the magazine of the LRC.

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