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Whither the Water Tax? March 29, 2007

Posted 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?


1. WorldbyStorm - March 29, 2007

It’s hard not to see the whole water tax issue as a means of goading the DUP in. Consider the situation in Scotland where the Parliament is given restricted, but nonetheless real flexibility in the area of tax. It’s hardly the end of the world for the UK central govt. to throw some money at the North in the hope it damps down antagonism. They probably think it’s the money well worth spent.

I agree with you, I think it was a leap in the dark for SF to take the approach it did, even if it has – so far – paid off. But, on the other hand where next?


2. Mark P - March 29, 2007

Actually I think Sinn Fein’s decision not to support non-payment and instead push the vote for us and we will abolish it stance is something of a watershed in their transformation into a safe party of coalition government.

Anyone who was involved with the bin tax campaign in Dublin can tell you that with a few honourable exceptions (Dessie Ellis most notably) Sinn Fein did very, very little to build non-payment on the ground. However, and this is important, they were very firm and clear in their public pronouncements that they supported non-payment. Just a few years later, facing an identical issue, non-payment was suddenly beyond the pale. Why the shift?

One reason is that the face SF wants to present in working class areas of Dublin is very different to the face it wants to present across the North (or for that matter in rural areas in the South). In Dublin it is courting a disenchanted, angry, working class vote and that means that a radical face on this kind of community issue is useful. In the North it’s main target area for growth and expansion is the more comfortable, often middle class, traditional SDLP base. Having ditched the “armed struggle”, the last thing SF needs in its approach to those voters is a burst of social radicalism.

The above is certainly a big factor but it doesn’t quite explain the change on its own. Non-payment would be a big step, but it isn’t all that terrifying to many middle class people either. An absolute majority of Dubliners never paid the water tax for instance. And even some nice do gooding NGOs were backing nonpayment. Not to mention those bastions of radicalism in the upper echelons of the union bureaucracy, who had been pushed into supporting non-payment.

The other big factor is a more general change in emphasis. Sinn Fein is setting itself up as a responsible party of government. Like other responsible parties of government it doesn’t advocate widespread refusal to pay taxes or charges. Instead, like Labour and DL in the South, and like Labour during the poll tax campaign in Britain, it makes the traditional call: Vote for us and we’ll abolish it.

(By the way I suspect that franklittle’s honest statement that the Socialist Party did much of the “heavy lifting” on this, will attract quite a few narky anonymous responses!)


3. WorldbyStorm - March 29, 2007

Not a huge amount to disagree in that analysis either, although I wonder if I’d be as sure as you that SF in the North is quite as willing to effectively jettison it’s working class base (or ignore them, which amounts to much the same thing) in a bid for middle class respectability? I’d have thought that it would recognise that the SDLP will always attract a core middle class vote, probably in perpetuity (although following Monday, perhaps not). Nor could it take the working class base for granted and arguably vis Policing has been pushing them as far as they would go. But yes, you’re right that the shift often occurs around the point where future abolition takes over from outright resistance. On the other hand, I’m not a great believer in the one last push school of thought re activism, particularly on an issue like say bin charges where truth was while as you say many middle class people weren’t agin, many just didn’t give a toss about paying it, nor did many working class people. In a sense that’s what scuppered the campaign in the long term despite some great activism on the ground from various quarters, including the ISN, WCA, SP and so on.

Rereading your comment, it strikes me, as a matter of interest MarkP are you SP?


4. Mark P - March 29, 2007

I am indeed in the SP.

I agree with you, by the way, that Sinn Fein aren’t about to abandon their working class base. They will continue to appeal to them as the best, most vigorous advocates of “their” side in the zero sum struggle for communal advantage. They will continue to build their truly awesome clientelist machine in working class Catholic areas in the North. They will even make radical noises on the ground in those areas.

But there’s no room for expanding the vote in the working class Catholic areas. They already have almost the entire vote there and, as SF see it, those voters have nowhere else to go. The room for expansion is in the SDLP’s direction. To have a chance at being the largest party at some point, to keep up with the DUP for now and to make themselves the once and for all dominant party within nationalism they need to keep encroaching on the SDLP vote. They’ve been doing that and they will continue to do it.

As for the bin tax, by the way, what screwed the campaign was primarily the absolute determination of the trade union leadership to prevent any meaningful industrial action taking place, particularly in the truck depots.


5. WorldbyStorm - March 30, 2007

Cool. Always good to hear a new voice. And particularly one which has a good strong analysis.

I don’t disagree with you that TU leadership was unwilling to push the envelope, just not sure that that in itself would have secured success.

Call me cynical, but we’re all quite unusual in that we love this sort of stuff, the activism, the engagement. Most people aren’t that fussed. I’ve never worked out a way to engage them. But perhaps there is one.


6. franklittle - March 30, 2007

I think Mark is mostly right in his analysis of the bin charges but I think he underestimates the level of sectarianism within the campaign. There was never really one anti-bin charges campaign. There was the one run by the SWP and the one run by the SP, and co-operation between the two was far less than competition. I happened to be present, along with members of the media, when an two SP and SWP full-timers basically went for each other, accusing the other of trying to hi-jack the campaign.

I think the Shinners played a slightly, though not greatly, enhanced role than you outline. Two of their members were among the people who went to prison for example. But talking to SF activists at the time, they were made very, very much aware that as far as the SP was concerned, this was their campaign and the only role SF could have in it was to be accused of selling out.

While I agree that, as with the water charges, the SP did a huge amount of work, you ignore the other point I made, that the SP once in control of a campaign is ruthless at keeping everyone else out, be they Shinner, SWP or Anarchist.


7. Mark P - March 30, 2007

Hi Frank,

I can’t agree with your last comment, I’m afraid. To take some of the points:

I did not underestimate the role played by Sinn Fein in the anti-bin tax campaign. Ellis and some of the people around him helped build non-payment on the ground in Finglas, along with members of the Socialist Party and the Irish Socialist Network in that area. Other than that I am unaware of any significant sustained effort being put in on the ground by the Sinn Fein organisation anywhere and I’m more familiar with the ins and outs of the campaign than most.

In some other places they did the odd bit, photo opportunity stuff. In most places they did nothing at all. And of course in places like Tallaght they were an active hindrance to the campaign. It is possible that I am missing out some other area where SF did something useful, of course, but if so it’s another abberation like Finglas. By the way, one rather than two of their members went to prison. Unsurprisingly she was from Finglas.

Far from trying to keep other groups out of non payment tax campaigns, the Socialist Party has worked closely with other groups in all three of them. We worked closely and harmoniously with the Workers Solidarity Movement in the Dublin anti-water tax campaign, with the WSM, the Irish Socialist Network and Working Class Action during the anti-bin tax campaign, and we continue to do so with the Belfast anarchist group Organise! in the anti-water tax campaign in the North.

Where there were real tensions with other groups in the campaigns – ie the SWP – these have been over real tactical or strategic issues and not over some kind of small proprietor mentality on the Socialist Party’s part. It is, by the way, the universal experience of every group on the left that the SWP is a nightmare to work with because of their utter disregard for honesty, accountablity and basic democratic procedures. Any prolonged attempt by anybody to coexist with them in a campaign will lead to at the very least an occasional row.

In so far as Sinn Fein ever tried to get involved in the anti-bin tax campaign, they were able to do so on the exact same basis as anyone else. In Finglas, the only place where they tried to do so, they did just that. They weren’t kept out of the campaign elsewhere, they just had no interest in doing years of slow, careful work to build non-payment with no immediate pay off. They don’t need to do that kind of thing – as the biggest party calling for non-payment, and as the favourite bogeyman of the right wing press, they would be generally associated with the campaign anyway without having to put in the resources. Their hands off approach made sound tactical sense from their position, which means that the idea that the nasty Socialist Party wouldn’t let them in the door is just so much self-justifying guff.

As far as the water taxes are concerned, in Dublin in the 1990s, they simply showed no interest in the issue. In the North at the moment they are actively opposed to non-payment, which again makes it a bit bizarre to suggest that they aren’t involved in the non-payment campaign because the Socialist Party won’t let them be. They don’t want to be in the campaign, because they are opposed to its central tactic.


8. franklittle - March 30, 2007

I don’t disagree with a lot of your points but I think you should at least be open to the possibility that other people’s perceptions of the SP role in the campaign might be different to yours, as an SP activist.

SF, SWP and Anarchist people I knew who were involved in the campaign at various levels were absolutely scathing at times of the SP’s efforts to ensure they ‘retained control’ of the campaign.

Now how much of that was sour grapes and petty sectarianism and how much of it was valid would take wisdom greater than mine to sort out. The perception, among the wider Dublin left, as far as I could see was that the SP dominated the campaign and did whatever was necessary to ensure others were kept out.

In terms of your point on the water tax, north and south, we agree and I’m not saying the Shinners are kept out of the campaign in the North by the SP, they chose not to get involved, which was kind of the point of my initial post.

BTW, the two Sinn Féin activists who were jailed that I know of were both from Crumlin. I didn’t know any from Finglas were jailed.


9. Ciarán - March 31, 2007

frank: “While I agree that, as with the water charges, the SP did a huge amount of work, you ignore the other point I made, that the SP once in control of a campaign is ruthless at keeping everyone else out, be they Shinner, SWP or Anarchist.”

That’s a very interesting point. At a recent water charges meeting in West Belfast organised by We Won’t Pay, when challenged on which organisations were actually involved in the campaign, the speaker basically admitted that the anarchists had been jettisoned, leaving it entirely in the hands of the SP (if his statement were true).

Regardless of the fact that the anarchist involvement was always quite small given that there’s only a handful of them, it’s also possible that this speaker was just attacking them as part of his general rant against everyone who supports the non-payment campaign but isn’t SP, including voluntary community workers and activists, the trade unions, and the SWP/People Before Profit with particular bile being directed towards Seán Mitchell.

What made this sectarian outburst especially pathetic was that most of the people in the room were hostile* to the non-payment campaign and the speaker just undermined it further with his sanctimonious rant.

(*Hostile may be too strong a word to use but at several public meetings SF people were haraunged over the party position on the charges – obviously some people were looking to get some anti-Provo points but others are disappointed that SF isn’t leading the campaign – and since then there have been more Shinners at meetings to prevent their reps from being “ambushed”. This has led to a few heated arguments at meetings.)


10. Mark P - April 13, 2007

I’m sorry for resurrecting this thread some time after it bit the dust, but I’ve only just seen the last two responses. For different reasons each deserves a response.

Regarding Franklittle’s post, there doesn’t seem to be much we actually disagree on here. I’d even agree that perceptions of campaigns can be different depending on where you are standing, particularly when you concede the possibility that negative perceptions can often be coloured by “sour grapes or petty sectarianism”.

I do however stand by my earlier account of the campaign, and I make no concession to the notion that the Socialist Party kept the likes of Sinn Fein out of the campaign. Even the idea that we were organisationally capable of keeping SF out of the campaigns if they wanted in should we have decided to do so is, unfortunately, well wide of the mark. SF are a significantly larger organisation and if they had been willing to mobilise and actively campaign for non-payment the Socialist Party simply wouldn’t have had the option of keeping them out. That they weren’t actively involved outside of Finglas was their own strategic decision.

Ciarán’s contribution on the other hand is both less honest and less helpful. It does at least have the delightful irony of being a bitter, sectarian whine allegedly about someone else allegedly saying something sectarian. Ciarán also, unsurprisingly, avoids mentioning his own affiliations and, to top it all off, actively spreads misinformation about Organise!, the Belfast anarchist group. For the record, most of the very succesful recent conference of the We Won’t Pay Campaign was chaired by an Organise! member and Organise! is represented amongst its officers.


11. WorldbyStorm - April 13, 2007

Sorry, who is Ciarán affiliated to?


12. Mark P - April 13, 2007

I have no idea if he’s in any political group.

However in my experience people who display the amount of bile shown above towards particular small left groups, as opposed to a general hostility to the left, tend themselves to be left activists of some stripe or other. His blog links and his blogger profile point to some form of left republicanism. It’s not particularly significant in any case – my point was only that he isn’t some disinterested observer but is a political opponent of the Socialist Party.


13. WorldbyStorm - April 13, 2007

I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, but yeah, I can see the logic of what you say.

Having said that Ciarán appears to cast his net a bit wider than that, at least in terms of blogs and such like that he links to (and I’m not just talking about this one!).


14. franklittle - April 25, 2007

Like Mark, hadn’t checked this thread in a long time and in response to this final post, two points.

Firstly, I agree that if the Shinners had wanted to get heavily involved in the bin charges campaign in Dublin then organisationally, the SP couldn’t have kept them out. The fact that they chose not to do so is not something I am glossing over. They seemed much more electorally focussed.

But where we disagree, is the perception of the SP involvement. I fully accept that your view is absolutely genuinely held and is your experience of the campaign. Mine, as someone based in the city, was of an SWP dominated campaign where anyone other than the SWP was unwelcome. Both the SP, who controlled the South Dublin and Fingal campaigns, and the SWP in the city, did take actions to keep other people out, including Sinn Féiners, but also Anarchists and Independents. That is my personal experience, and also what I have heard from people in a variety of political groupings.

Maybe, and I’m being really, really open-minded on this, these were the actions of individual activists rather than a determined plan. Considering the SP activist who had a heated row with the SWP activist in front of the media is now an SP elected rep, I doubt it, but I probably wasn’t as heavily involved in it as yourself so, as I said, I’ll crack my mind open a little.

On Ciaran’s post, I had heard that Shinners were going to those meetings to prevent their people being ‘ambushed’ after a number of clearly planned verbal attacks (Not necessarily undeserved) on SF representatives, so that much of his post I can vouch for. The rest, I hadn’t heard before.


15. ejh - April 26, 2007

“Ciarán also, unsurprisingly, avoids mentioning his own affiliations”….”I have no idea if he’s in any political group.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across Mark P trying to unmask people he disagrees with: there was a fairly unplesant episode on Dave Osler’s blog, as I recall.

The view that my party behaves well whereas our rivals are always behaving appallingly is not uncommon among SP people (nor confined to them) but it’s precisely the tone – sectarian, ultra-hostile – that I think puts people off engaging in politcal activity. They don’t particularly want to be denounced or to hear other groups permanently denouncing one another.

It’s true that not everybody’s complaints about political groups “taking over” or “hijacking” campaigns are valid – there’s more than a few people who play little part in organisational work, who think things will happen spontaneously and then when they turn up to a meeting or demonstration are dismayed to find that it’s not being organised precisely as they’d like. They annoy me. However, it’s also true that small leftwing parties have a habit of trying to make sure their rivals are either absent or subordinate in campaigns they consider important. They rarely understand either that they’re doing this or how much it can upset other people. But it’s noticeable how few people come out of these campaigns saying “I was really impressed with the work done by the SP/SWP/insert the name of your choice”.

My personal experience of the SP, for instance, when I was an active trade unionist in the old CPSA, is that they insisted on having the lions’ share of Broad Left positions and of places on the electoral slate – and that no policy position was ever allowed to be taken if it was not their policy too. This thoroughly alienated everybody else on the Left. (Indeed it was only when the left shook itself free of that control that the PCS union was won by the left again.)

SP people may do good work as individuals but their attitude to political rivals is noted by an extremely high level of hostility that I think poisons the political atmosphere. “Sectarianism is what other people do”, of course, but when your first reaction is to denounce your rivals then there’s something wrong with your outlook.


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