Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ireland: Massive water protest keeps pressure on government

Water protesters in Dublin, March 21
On March 21, nearly 90,000 people took to the streets of Dublin, in an unprecedented fifth mass protest in six months against the introduction of water charges by the Irish government.

Protesters from across the country gathered at three different locations in the city, before converging on O’Connell Street, home to Dublin’s iconic General Post Office – site of the Easter Rising in 1916 that began Ireland’s War of Independence nearly a century ago.

The human sea of flags, banner and placards was addressed by a range of politicians, community activists and union leaders. Between speakers, the crowd chanted slogans against water charges, including “Can’t pay! Won’t Pay” and “From the rivers to the sea, Irish water will be free”.

The protest was organised by the Right2Water campaign – a broad coalition of community groups, NGOs and political parties, led by some of Ireland’s largest unions.

Since October last year, Right2Water has coordinated a series of massive protests in Dublin and across the Republic of Ireland, involving hundreds of thousands of people in what is being described as the biggest mass mobilisation of people the country has ever seen.

Right2Water coordinator and Unite trade union official Brendan Ogle called the turnout "truly historic".

"It was the biggest mass mobilisation of people we've seen on any single issue, ever."

Speaking to RT, Ogle said that the Irish people “will not put up with this ideologically driven extra tax.”

The high price of austerity

Water charges are just the latest in a range of punitive austerity measures forced upon Ireland under the terms of an economic “bail out” in 2010 by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of the European banking crisis.

The loans came conditional on a series of austerity measures that have seen public services and a series of onerous new taxes and levies imposed on an already struggling population.

The official unemployment rate has soared into double figures, and would be significantly worse if not for the fact that a staggering 10 percent of the country’s population has emigrated in search of work.

While the Irish economy is slowly beginning to grow again, the benefits have failed to “trickle down”.

The number of Irish children in living in consistent poverty now exceeds 130,000 – equal to the population of Mayo – and a recent study by the National Suicide Research Foundation linked the economic recession to an additional 500 suicides in Ireland.

Worryingly, the rate of home foreclosures on unpaid mortgages has begun to rise dramatically in recent months, with some local courts listing hundreds of matters in a single day.

It was the move to introduce water charges, however, that has proved the final straw for many people.

The cost of water is already covered by general tax revenue, so the new charge is widely seen as blatant double taxation, and the corporate structure of Irish Water – the new organisation administering the charge – is seen as a prelude to privatisation.

Irish Water is also plagued with claims of corruption, nepotism and financial waste, and billions of euros from other funds have been redirected to cover the spiraling costs of setting up the corporation.

Government in denial

Despite the mass protests and ongoing series of community pickets in towns and suburbs across the country, however, the Irish government continues to insist that the population is “coming with” it on water charges.

Irish Water claims that 990,000 households have registered for water charges – approximately 66 per cent of its target number. However, many of these households were registered against their wishes, and the revelation that some councils have handed over household details has provoked further outrage.

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan
Addressing the protest on March 21, Lynn Boylan, MEP for the anti-austerity republican party Sinn Féin rejected claims by Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s claims that the water movement was receding.

“Enda Kenny, does this look like a dying movement to you?” she said.

“Irish water must go. We cannot, and we will not, pay.”

“We will not and we can not because there are people out there struggling to keep a roof over their head. There are families struggling to put food on the table. And this government now wants them to pay for water a third time," Boylan said. "Well for six months now, hundreds and thousands of people have taken to the streets.”

“The government’s day of reckoning is coming … whether it is defeated here on the streets, like it was in 1916, or we will defeat them at the next ballot box.”

“Water charges is a red line issue for Sinn Féin, and the toxic quango that is Irish Water must be confined to the dustbin of history.”

“Irish Water must go, water charges must go, and this government must go!”

In the aftermath of the protest, however, Environment Minister Alan Kelly indicated that measures were being initiated to allow water charges to be deducted directly from wages and welfare payments, a move described by Right2Water as a sign of government panic.

The first water bills are due to be sent to Irish households from April 1, with the average bill expected to be €240.

Election looming

Right2Water's Brendan Ogle
Right2Water’s Ogle claimed that while the Irish government was unwilling to publicly acknowledge the opposition to water charges, it is “terrified” of the growing movement, particularly as a general election is due within the next twelve months.

Ireland’s largest anti-austerity party, Sinn Féin, is consistently polling over twenty percent, and the unions involved in Right2Water are developing an election manifesto for all potential election candidates to sign up to. The manifesto will focus on reversing austerity in favour of services, job creation and workers’ rights.

The manifesto is likely to be completed before a Right2Water meeting on May 1 and 2, where union members, community activists, and officials from political parties involved in the campaign plan to sign off on the document.

Ogle described the upcoming general election as a “game changer”.

“They thought they had gotten away with socialising €65 billion of private debt, with a vicious five year austerity agenda. For five years those events caused nothing less than a national collective trauma,” Ogle said, “But now the Irish people have had enough and the government know it”.

"People who are opposed to the water charges ... are realising that if we put the same people back into the Dáil again, all the protests are a waste of time," he said.

"First of all we can protest. Second of all we can deliver change and third of all, if we really organise, we can get a different government."

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