Why water, why now? Ireland takes to the streets

Opinion: ‘The idea of having to pay for a substance so natural that it falls from the sky and without which we’d die sparks a particular anger’

‘Commentators who would never be seen dead at a demo came close to lamenting that the working class was letting the country down. Oh for the days of Jim Larkin, they sighed, relaxed that the preacher of discontent was safely entombed in Glasnevin.’ Above, an anti-water charges protest march, in O’Connell Street, Dublin, last month. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

‘Commentators who would never be seen dead at a demo came close to lamenting that the working class was letting the country down. Oh for the days of Jim Larkin, they sighed, relaxed that the preacher of discontent was safely entombed in Glasnevin.’ Above, an anti-water charges protest march, in O’Connell Street, Dublin, last month. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Every mass protest carries within it the seeds of revolution. It is when the plain people come together to push against the powers that be that we can slough off what Marx called “the muck of ages” and look an unequal society full in the face, unafraid.

Today’s protests against water charges are, potentially, a case in point.

This is not to deny that, very frequently, mass protest doesn’t work and disillusion sets in. Any movement bringing disparate groups together in pursuit of a single aim can shoot up like a rocket, fall back down like a stick. What might be gained is not transfiguration but, perhaps, a glimpse of what could be. Some will be inspired to press on, some will retreat into cynicism and sense of futility.

Both possibilities have been in play since the onset of austerity, and will flit among the protesters today.

Protest will always leave a trace, even when some at the head of the march heave a sigh of relief as militancy fades. The Duke of Wellington is said to have said of troops newly arrived for battle in the peninsular war: “I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me.”

Many a union leader and constitutional politician might echo the sentiment as the crowds assemble this afternoon, concerned that this thing could get out of hand, undermine their authority, weaken respect for the institutions of State .

Then again, union leaders in particular might ponder the fact that the optimal conditions for, say, forcing an employer to back off in run-of-the-mill wage talks is to be able to draw attention to a dangerous mob outside, hammering on the door.

Already, mass protest has succeeded where parliamentary action has failed, in winning concessions on the way water charges might work, whetting the appetite.

Comeback

Voting in privacy is not an empowering experience, any more than looking to a secret army for liberation. Virtually always, winning significant victories for the mass of the people is a matter of do-it- yourself. Today, the mass of the people are making a comeback.

It’s been commonly observed over the years since all the major parties caved in to the banks and resolved that the usual suspects should be made to carry the cost that the Irish have lacked the spirit of Icelanders, Greeks, the Spanish.

Commentators who would never be seen dead at a demo came close to lamenting that the working class was letting the country down.

Oh for the days of Jim Larkin, they sighed, relaxed that the preacher of discontent was safely entombed in Glasnevin.

In this perspective, the water charge protesters are our best hope for saving the honour of the nation.

Of course, that’s not what will be in the forefront of the minds of marchers. To get rid of water charges is the order of the day. But many will also look back and see the meetings, pickets, demonstrations of recent times as dress rehearsals.

The fact that not a lot was won could have demobilised the possibility of further resistance. Instead, the experience has stiffened resolve. At preparatory meetings in Inishowen in the last fortnight, and it must have been the same everywhere, the observation was heard again and again. We took it all, we signed up for the household charge out of fear of a fine or the Revenue raiding our wages, or benefits, or bank accounts. We cannot give any more.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. The people have been pushed too far.

And then, this is water. Water is elemental. It is one the four elements of everything. We could live without electricity, without gas. We could even live without housing if we had to. Millions do. But no one can live without water. It is a necessity of life. Delivering water to homes is the most essential public service of all.

The idea of having to pay for a substance so natural that it falls from the sky and without which we’d die sparks a particular anger. The people are being corralled into a captive market. Being told under threat of retaliation to pay what could soon develop into a private operation for this privilege incites outrage.

Northern example

Those who pay attention to events in the North will know, too, that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water changes by Stormont in 2007. Unions and community campaigns with more than 100,000 pledged non-payers brought it home to all four main parties – the DUP/Sinn Féin Executive was in the process of formation – that any attempt to put the policy, devised under direct rule, into practice, would cast a dark cloud over the birth of a new Stormont.

It was a measure of the success of the non-payment campaign that all four parties have been claiming ever since that it was they who won the water war.

On the morning after the October 1968 Derry Civil Rights march – which detonated the movement that was to win almost every reform now in place – people in the Bogside would stop organisers in the street, all expressing exactly the same thought: nothing will ever be the same again.

It would be foolish to assume that the water charges campaign will leave the South similarly transformed.

But maybe.

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