Whither the Water Tax? March 29, 2007Posted by franklittle in Democratic Unionist Party, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The Left, Trade Unions.
As the terrifying prospect of DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers having to take decisions on social and economic issues comes closer day by day, the Coalition Against the Water Charges in the Six Counties is to proceed with rallies this weekend in Belfast, Derry and Strabane. The charges were deferred this week until next year as a result of the deal to restore devolution, but as much as Paisley and Adams will be tripping over themselves to take the credit, it was the mobilisation of people on the ground, due in large part to the unions and the Socialist Party, that actually delivered.
The failure of the main political parties to mobilise on the issue of the Water Tax in the North is, for most of them, hardly surprising. But the vacuum they left opened up an opportunity for the trade union movement, that bastion of hardline left radicalism, to step up to the plate with calls for non-payment from the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU and the largest unions in the Six. They were helped at ground level by a grassroots campaign organised by community activists with the Socialist Party providing a useful infrastructure. Yes, yes, it’s rare as hen’s teeth for me to praise the Trots, and there are more than enough reports to suggest they used it as a political bludgeon in some places to score a few sectarian points. The SP have, as people involved in the bin charges campaign in Dublin saw, an amazing knack for attacking people for not supporting a campaign while privately doing everything they can to keep political rivals out of it. But, credit where it’s due, they did a lot of the heavy lifting on this one.
The failure of Sinn Féin to support non-payment has attracted a great deal of absolutely justified criticism. The party’s position was often contradictory and seemed poorly thought out. The explanation for not backing non-payment was rooted in the failure of the rent and rates strike against interment of 1971. Not only did this protest fail, but for years afterwards the SDLP hunted down anyone who had initially supported a non-payment campaign they had backed and one can understand why the current generation of the SF leadership, involved in that campaign, would not want to revisit it. But as was pointed out, support for this campaign was limited to the nationalist community, the opposition to Water Charges cut across that with tens of thousands of members of the unionist community backing it. Furthermore, support from the traditionally Protestant organised labour in the North was a vital boost to the Water Charges campaign.
The other explanation for Sinn Féin’s refusal to support the campaign was that the re-establishment of the Assembly would mean the end of water charges and so there was no need for a non-payment campaign. This is based on the notion that London was never serious about Water Charges but was using it as a stick to beat the DUP with. While not necessarily as far-fetched as it sounds, it’s an awfully big leap to pin one’s entire analysis of the issue on the notion that it’s a British plot and the re-establishment of the Executive, never a foregone conclusion, would deal with the issue. If Paisley had balked, the water charges bills would have been dropping through doors right across the North and what would the Shinners do then? Shrug their shoulders and play ‘Blame the Orangies’?
With political parties providing no leadership, unions and local people provided their own. It was the campaign on the ground that ensured the issue remained live and it was the strength of opposition to the water charges on the doorsteps that maximised pressure on the DUP and Sinn Féin coming out of the Assembly elections. It was the threat of mass non-payment that forced the British to back down. It is important that this lesson be understood lest politicians in the Assembly take the credit. People need to appreciate what they accomplished, not men and women in suits in Stormont. Fundamentally, a cross-section of the North saw their political leaders failing them, and chose to empower themselves.
Finally, the issue is as yet not over. As Assistant General Secretary of ICTU Peter Bunting pointed out, “Water charges can be delayed now for short term reasons, but the challenge remains to scrap them entirely.” It is an issue that will be top of the agenda for the incoming Assembly.
According to the Department of Regional Development, £3 billion sterling is needed for water and sewerage in the North until 2023. While the Executive can choose to abolish water charges once it is up and running, it either has to find this money somewhere else, and Gordon Brown is putting on the poor mouth, or demonstrate that the Department’s figures are wrong.
It’s also worth noting that, much like the Bin Charges in the South, if the Assembly chooses not to make water ‘self-financing’ then they will lose the grants from the British Treasury for capital investment in the water services. Down here, if a Council does not apply bin charges, they lose some of the money they get from the Local Government Fund.
In short, the campaign on the Water Tax is not over. Activists have won a victory and inflicted a substantial defeat on proponents of the scheme, but unless the political parties finally step up to their responsibilities, they will have to be prepared to fight again next year.
The question is, will they fight alone again?