Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Irish win on water charges… war on the left

Reading Time: 5 minutes

On the surface, one legacy of the last two years of Socialist Party (CWI) action in Ireland will be the suspension, once again, of water charges. The mass movement against the charges cannot be overstated in a country that has seen the complete lack of a fighting trade union leadership and the capitulation of the Labour Party. Despite this, the Irish working class has struck a significant blow with water charges being suspended.

This is a massive climb-down by the government, a real marker for working-class people, achieved through mass demonstrations, confrontation, and organised non-payment. The boycott of bills by over 50% of the population was the fulcrum on which the movement swung. Despite the unwillingness of Sinn Féin and the trade union-led Right2Water campaign to endorse and promote this tactic, the Socialist Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) were able to popularise and politicise this message and raise aspirations toward victory and a broader political fightback.

As well as the many mass demonstrations in Dublin and across the whole country, small often spontaneous actions by communities were an important feature. This came through the disruption of water meter installations, occupations and protests against government figures. One such protest is now synonymous with the water charges campaign: Jobstown.

Three Socialist Party members, including Paul Murphy, AAA TD (Irish MP), are among 19 adults and one youth charged with the false imprisonment (and related charges) of the deputy prime minister, Joan Burton, and her assistant. These charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. A six-month sentence would remove Paul Murphy as a TD. This would represent a major scalp for the capitalist establishment.

Despite media portrayals of violence, the protest in Jobstown would not raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances. The betrayal of election promises by the Labour Party, which went into a coalition government with the right-wing Fine Gael party after the 2011 general election, was a key catalyst. Local disgust at the invitation of Labour Party leader Joan Burton to an education awards ceremony in Jobstown, on 15 November 2014, was obvious. Students made it clear they did not want her present.

Organised by word of mouth and social media, the protest grew to approximately 700 people from the nearby community. The presence of female protestors of all ages was particularly noticeable. As minister for social protection, Burton had been directly responsible for deep cuts to children’s allowance and family support payments.

The initial sit-down protest has become a real point of contention. During this sit down, Paul Murphy, who had been elected to the Dáil to represent the area in a sensational by-election the previous month, was assaulted and stripped by police. Local women intervened and physically prevented his removal by the police. At a later stage, a sit-down protest was used effectively when the riot squad moved in as Burton’s vehicle was being slowly driven out of Jobstown. The action lasted about three hours, the Labour leader leaving with the chants of ‘We Won’t Pay!’ ringing in her ears and the unfurled protest banners in her rear-view mirror. Most people were glad to see the back of her.

The return of the police riot squad after Burton had left, in a show of strength challenging younger members of the community, has been used by the establishment to blur the lines of the day’s events; to demonise the role of the alleged organisers and to distract from the political nature of the day.

The instant carnival of reaction by the media verged on hysteria, with radio stations and tabloid papers backed up by the state broadcaster (RTE). All official news stories were introduced by RTE’s chief crime correspondent. The word ‘guilty’ was used liberally and unconditionally, with Paul Murphy and the AAA identified as the chief organisers. Independent News and Media, owned by Fine Gael-backing tax exile Denis O’Brien, screamed outrage. His company, now under investigation, had ‘won’ the lucrative contract to install the water meters.

Despite the barrage of media pressure, Paul Murphy steadfastly refused to condemn the events. Instead, he turned the discussion on its head by repeatedly highlighting the betrayal of working-class people by the Labour Party. The state’s response was to increase its attacks on the AAA and the movement. TDs publicly compared the AAA to ISIS. Reams of newspaper print and weeks of air time were dedicated to ridiculing protesters and the left.

As the movement forced concession after concession on water charges, speculation mounted that the government would pursue Jobstown protesters. Leaks and media exclusives ran alongside Irish Water’s billing cycle and, as the boycott of water charges increased, so did the establishment’s attacks. It became known that police had set up an incident room with a fully dedicated team of officers scouring internet footage and social media accounts for evidence to be used against protestors.

In February 2015, dawn raids were carried out, with three Socialist Party members arrested at their family homes, by teams of six officers. A sixteen-year-old, facing trial this September, was arrested by nine police officers. The political tone of the operation was immediately apparent. Dawn raids continued with approximately 28 adults and young people, predominantly male, seized in the early hours and questioned under caution for up to eight hours.

Each day the raids were met with protests at Garda (Irish police) stations, with local and city-centre demonstrations, media interventions and solidarity action from communities across the country who were fighting similar battles. Simultaneously to the arrests, four people were jailed for their ongoing protests against the water metering programme.

In August 2015, after a serious of high-profile leaks to the RTE, summonses were issued outlining the charges of false imprisonment and, for eleven of the 20, additional charges of violent behaviour. Those involved were informed by the media of pending charges. The defence minister would later confirm the existence of ‘Operation Mizen’, a secret surveillance operation tracking the activities of water protestors, including the potential use of electronic bugging. In response, those charged have organised under the #JobstownNotGuilty banner to organise protests and material in defence of themselves and the broader movement.

In October 2015, with an election looking very possible, the AAA was refused permission to fundraise on the basis that funds would be used to encourage illegal activity. When the election finally came in February 2016, Paul Murphy retained his seat to the Dáil and the AAA made significant gains with massive support from the Jobstown community and similar working-class areas.

Seven court appearances later, the dye had been cast for the largest political trial in Ireland in decades. The Jobstown protest is being used by the state to attack the developing left. Just months before Jobstown, the AAA had 14 local councillors elected. Then Paul Murphy won the sensational victory over Sinn Féin in a Dáil by-election, including the area of Jobstown, giving a clear political voice to the anti-austerity sentiment.

In recent trials in the Children’s Court, a clear statement of intent has been made. One judge stated: “This attack on the elected Tánaiste of Ireland [Burton] is an attack on the Irish state”. He imposed a six-month sentence on one youth, also charged with other unrelated offences. Any idea that the state is not serious in its pursuit of the Jobstown protestors should be immediately corrected.

The trials will begin in April 2017, under a deeply unpopular government, and will put the programme of the Socialist Party and Anti-Austerity Alliance centre stage. These events can impact radically on the re-emerging working-class consciousness, clearly highlighting the repressive role of the capitalist state. #JobstownNotGuilty is currently developing a plan for national and international solidarity action over the coming year, to highlight the threatened injustice and defend the right to protest.

By Kieran Mahon, Anti-Austerity Alliance/Socialist Party councillor, Dublin


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