study finds the water charge protest has politicised and energised Irish citizens

Study finds the water charge protest has politicised and energised Irish citizens who are no longer willing to take things lying down, writes  Rory Hearne.

Anti water charge demonstration O'Connell Street, Dublin on Saturday April 18,2015

Anti water charge demonstration O'Connell Street, Dublin on Saturday April 18,2015

IT MIGHT appear to some that some of the political heat has evaporated from the Irish Water debacle and that the Government has won the “water war” by its acceptance of its mistakes, the water charge reductions and extension of registration deadlines.

However, the results of research into the views of water protesters, research I undertook recently, suggests that this battle is far from over.

A large majority (70%) of the 2,556 water protesters who completed the online survey (developed and analysed by myself and some of my students in the department of geography in Maynooth), believe that the campaign will be successful.

Some 92% stated they do not intend paying for water charges and 90% felt the tactics of the Right2Water movement have been effective. This indicates a high level of confidence and determination among protesters that the water charges and Irish Water will be abolished.

It is also very supportive of the Right2Water trade unions, political parties and grassroots “says no” groups. Survey respondents believe the protests have brought the water charges to the top of the political agenda and made the Government “take stock and realise that the people of Ireland have had enough” and that “they are not taking this one lying down”. Protesters intend to extend the campaign to boycotting the water charge.

Respondents explained that their opposition to the water charges is motivated by anger at the cumulative impacts of austerity (which was the most cited reason for protesting), and the bailing out of the banks, developers, and the European financial system at “the expense of the vulnerable, working and middle income people in Ireland”.

They highlighted that they could not afford the charges because of pressure from household bills, rent increases, illness, reliance on welfare such as disability, being a student living off loans, and facing repossession and homelessness. Some explained they were going without basic necessities such as food.

They also described feeling “betrayed”, “let down”, and ‘ignored’ by the Government and highlighted that the people were “citizens” and not just “consumers”. The water protesters believe “the peoples’ natural resource [water] is being given away to the governments’ corporate friends in the golden circle”.

They criticised corruption and cronyism and claimed the Government is “putting the interests of big business, corporations, Europe, bankers and bondholders, before the interests of the Irish people”.

The protesters do not trust either the Government or Irish Water, and believe that charges will increase in the future and that Irish Water will be privatised unless “the people” stop it.

Respondents felt the protests have been successful because they were “a genuinely grassroots and local movement and [have] mobilised every village, town and city” and “rallied Irish people from all walks of life”.

A majority of respondents (54.4%) stated that they had not participated in any previous protest. Indeed the water protests are the largest and most sustained social movement in Ireland since independence.

At a local level, communities have been engaging in protests against water metres for over two years. At a national level, there have been five demonstrations that have drawn between 20,000 and 150,000.

The respondents explained that, in their view, they have the power to stop the implementation of the water charges through large-scale protest, non-payment and protest at water meter installations. This is different from other austerity measures such as the household charge where people did not have the same power to protest as it was enforced by revenue or cuts were made directly to wages and public services.

Media portrayal of the anti-water movement was criticised with 86% describing it as “negative”, being “biased”, and acting as “government supporters”. Some 82.6% said they were most informed about the campaign from social media while 6.4% relied on traditional media outlets.

There was an overwhelming desire expressed for a fundamental change in politics. Very significantly, 45% said they voted for establishment parties (FF/FG/Labour) in 2011 but indicated that they are changing their vote to the opposition Left parties and independents in the forthcoming election.

One in three (31.7%) said they would vote for PBP/AAA, 27.5% said for left-wing independents, 23.9% for Sinn Fein and only 5.6% for right-wing independents. Some 77% of respondents said they believed the most effective way of getting change was through protesting, while only 28% saw contacting a political representative as effective.

This suggests the water movement represents a new form of “people-empowered” politics. Also 79% of respondents stated they would vote for candidates affiliated to or endorsed by the Right2Water campaign, again highlighting the important role water charges could play in the coming election.

Despite the strong support for leftist parties, a large proportion (79%) want to see a new political party formed. They want this new party to be anti-austerity; anti-corruption, anti-cronyism; for radical political reform involving a “clearing out” of “establishment” political parties and for a democracy where “government acts for the people and not the elite or golden circle”.

They want it to stand for fairness, equality, social justice, and the right to housing, health, water, education and protection of the poor and vulnerable. It should also stand up to Europe (particularly on the debt), and “take back” Irish natural resources (gas, fisheries, etc) “for the people of Ireland”.

The opinions, values, and language used by the majority of respondents could be classified as broadly left-wing but only a minority of respondents used this term. A new political party aiming to involve and represent water protesters is, therefore, more likely to be successful if it develops an inclusive anti-austerity, rights and equality-based platform, that attempts to reflect the diversity of excluded groups, from the rural to the urban, the poor, working and suffering middle classes. Interestingly, respondents also made reference to the failure of the establishment parties to live up to the ideals of the Republic.

A new Podemos-type party calling for a new republic could be well placed to build in this space. Whether this happens or not, what is clear from this groundbreaking study is that the water protests have catalysed a process of empowering significant numbers of Irish people who had not been involved in protest or anti-establishment politics before. They are becoming politicised and active citizens. The Irish Water movement is indeed transforming Irish society and politics as we know it.

Rory Hearne is a lecturer at the department of geography, NUI Maynooth

Rory Hearne is a lecturer at the department of geography, NUI Maynooth