Author: People Before Profit Cork
In the past week Fianna Fail abstained on a vote for a motion to scrap water charges. This is not a surprising development even if it is contrary to their election promises. The introduction of the double taxation of water charges (a sizeable portion of general taxation is meant to pay for water) is part of the neo-liberal drive to eventual privatisation and FF are a wholeheartedly neo-liberal party.
The deal struck within recent weeks allows the weakened right-wing parties of Ireland to occupy government (via a minority) and opposition as well. Water charges were apparently at the heart of discussions. The deal, which involves temporary suspension of water charges, as well as a commission to look into water charging mechanisms, is little more than an attempt by an establishment feeling enormous pressure from citizens to side-line the issue, buy time, and hope that the protest movement dwindles. While a temporary suspension of water charges should be welcomed as a victory for the movement, it is important to stress that the fight to abolish regressive water charges is not yet over.
Over the coming months, we are likely to hear a lot more from politicians and columnists as they try once again to convince the public that water charges are necessary, and this will be coupled with a continued demonising of those opposing the charges. We have already seen Alan Kelly and Leo Varadkar demonstrate how upset they are that water charges will not continue in their current form, where every household, regardless of income, pays for water usage. This was accompanied by a fanatical media response desperately questioning how the water infrastructure will be funded now that households won’t be paying for water. The blatant lie has been repeated so often that water infrastructure can only be upgraded by charging households that it has become common wisdom. The majority of Irish pundits and journalists do not even venture outside of this narrow frame and question whether taxing the wealthiest and the corporations could pay for the upgrades.
The movement against water charges will stay strong and mobilised, and should take great energy from the electoral loss that the right-wing parties experienced in February. Below, three of the common arguments that have been made in favour of water charges over the last two years, which we are likely to hear again and again as the fight against austerity continues, are addressed.
Argument 1: Ireland’s water infrastructure cannot be upgraded without charging for water
This has been used as an attack on the movement against water charges since day one and operates as (a) a threat and (b) a means to portray those against charges as irresponsible. In an apparent attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility for Ireland’s water infrastructure, the government has been continuously peddling the idea that those opposed to water protesters stand in the way of the upgrades to the network in places like Roscommon, where boil notices were in place. More recently, following talks of suspension of water charges, Alan Kelly said in the Dail that Dublin may experience water shortages if charges are ended. Government ministers find it perfectly acceptable to threaten the population with boil notices and water shortages instead of investing public money in the public water supply and waste water networks.
To see an example of how capable the Irish government is at implementing a large infrastructure project regardless of the cost, one needs only to observe the speed and efficiency with which water meters have been installed around the country. This has been an enormous undertaking of huge cost and appeared to take precedence over upgrading the problems with water supplies in areas like Roscommon. The reason this took precedence was, it would appear, because it was seen as a step necessary to charge for water supply.
The funding of maintenance and upgrades to water infrastructure can be maintained and upgraded using public tax money, particularly through the implementation of a more progressive tax regime which asks the wealthy and multinational corporations to pay their share. The results of the recent general election suggest that popular opinion is in favour of alternative funding mechanisms.
Argument 2: Citizens of other European countries pay for water, so Irish people should too
This is akin to the arguments we have heard in recent years that Ireland had one of the highest minimum wages in the EU, and it is nothing more than an attempt to portray an image of greedy Irish citizens who want more than their share or something for free. It is used to deflect from the real issue and portray those who don’t want to pay as less obedient than their European counterparts. Naturally, any European government could say this to people when they have protested about issues of austerity – it’s an easy way to create a race to the bottom as austerity is imposed upon citizens.
Obviously, every government around the world has different tax systems and mechanisms of charging (or not) for public services. The point of this tactic isn’t to make a valid comparison; it is purely to try and drum up support for water charges. If comparisons like this are made, we might perhaps respond by demanding that Ireland should provide a free healthcare system, as this is the case in neighbouring United Kingdom.
Argument 3: People are so obsessed with water charges that the government cannot focus on issues such as housing or health
This argument is put forward by politicians and pundits, who suggest they are ‘tired’ of the water charge debate. The line is that the protests are over, the fun has been had, and now it’s time to get on with life and let the country’s elite continue to make the ‘difficult’ and ‘unpopular’ decisions about how the country is run.
It needs firstly to be stressed that the water charges are the latest in a list of regressive taxes (Property tax, Universal Social Charge) to which Irish people have been subjected since the 2010 bailout. These new taxes have not resulted in an improvement in public services or significant investment in infrastructure; in fact the opposite has happened. One reason for this is that enormous sums of taxpayers’ money are now being spent on servicing debt from Ireland’s bailout. In 2014, the equivalent of 40% of all income tax collected in Ireland (€7.5bn) was used to service European debt. Figures like this rightly anger those who see that their tax money is being spent on odious debt while public services deteriorate.
What the pundits who are ‘tired’ of water charge protests fail to grasp is that the movement which is now mobilised is by no means limited to water. The water charges, when defeated, will demonstrate that austerity and regressive taxes are purely an ideological choice. The Irish right-wing parties, like all austerity parties in the EU, will attempt in the meantime to staunchly stick to their austerity programme simply because if they are to concede that water charges are not necessary, the entire austerity ideology will be exposed as being based on lies. The water charges (unlike larger issues like health and housing) are a blatant weak spot in the austerity agenda and this is a reason why they are symbolically being tackled on the streets – this is an issue that can be won in the short-term. Continuing this movement will damage further these parties and their ideology and open the space for a political alternative.
FF’s attitude to the bill and the likes of Waterford TD John Halligan’s traitorous support of Fine Gael and the not unexpected attitude of people like West Cork TD Michael Collins effectively lining up against the campaigners he supposedly supported before the election point to a very real need to keep the water charges issue to the fore where it really matters…on the streets. We need to maintain large shows of resistance to keep sending the message ….No Way We Won’t Pay!