As establishment pundits and politicians alike survey the damage in the wake of #GE16, it has become obvious that the eulogies they sang for the anti-water charges movement were as ajar with the vox populi as their predictions of a Tory style general election victory for Fine Gael were ill judged. Instead, what is now clear is that the movement against water charges along with being the largest social movement in Ireland in a generation, it is among its most successful, encompassing numerous sections of Irish society, it has solidified opposition to the troika imposed program and has accelerated the decline in support for Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, a process ongoing since the 1970s. If the 2011 election marked an unprecedented crisis for Fianna Fail, it may be said that this years general election has indicated how a generalised crisis of conservative politics is likely to result in a grand coalition of pro-troika party’s faced with a broadly left or austerity critical opposition.
Whilst the movement against water charges appeared spontaneous and without precedent, erupting in the autumn of 2014 and catching both career politicos and anti-austerity activists off guard. However, the mass demonstrations had their roots in a general disillusionment with establishment politics and were indicative of a seething anger that had reached boiling point. Reaching its height with a nationwide day of protests on November 1st 2014, these demonstrations brought 150,000 onto the streets in 90 locations around the country. The movement has seen thousands involved in organising in their communities using direct action but it also encompassed a wider range of tactics from street meetings, blockading water meter installations, mass demonstrations in Dublin city center and crucially the boycott of Irish Water bills which – in spite of threats and intimidation from both the government and Irish water – has endured at over 50%.
When the structural adjustments implemented by the Troika were initially not met with the same resistance in Dublin as they were in Athens or Madrid this was cited by numerous government officials as evidence of the innate passivity and conservatism of the Irish public. Most famously when in 2009 Brian Lenihan, the then minister for finance, boasted about the ease with which the government implemented severe cuts in social services and wage deflation, stating “In France you would have riots.” But by the summer of 2014 the conditions were ripe for a new movement to organize a fight back. As is noted by the most in-depth survey of participants of the Water movement:
“The impacts of austerity had reached a tipping point in 2013 and 2014 in terms of the real impacts of austerity, and that austerity had extended out to impact a broad section of the population by the end of the troika bailout. A number of societal crises were emerging together – from the housing crisis to unemployment, emigration, mortgage arrears and the cumulative impacts of cuts such as medical cards and disability services.” (The Irish water war, austerity and the ‘Risen people’. April 2015)
This reality also flew in the face of government rhetoric which claimed to have exited the EU-IMF bailout and boasted inflated growth figures 4.8%. Contentious in their own right and identified by many as little more than a product of an accounting trickery that allows multinational corporations to funnel money through Ireland for tax reasons and book this capital as exports, these figures if true would have made Ireland the best performing economy in all of the EU, an assertion that anyone of the 30.5% of the population – living in poverty or economic deprivation – could only consider a sick joke. In truth Ireland’s recovery is a two tier one, felt by only a small section of the population and geographically uneven in its development. This has meant that for most lower and middle income workers as well as those living in rural areas, wages have remained unchanged while new charges have been continuously levied upon them.
Irish water also galvanized anger against the corrupt and cosy nature of Irish politics. With revelations surrounding the involvement of Irish billionaire and Maltese tax exile Dennis O’Brien in buying Siteserv from a state owned bank (IBRC) and securing three contracts worth 62m Euro each for Siteserv to install the water meters.
The fact that the water charges hit numerous sections of Irish society simultaneously, allowed for the mobilizing of a broad opposition. Whereas the household charge affected only homeowners, the rise in rents only tenants and the pension levy only affecting public sector workers, the imposition of water charges was felt across numerous social strata and provided a perfect opportunity to rally with those already disenchanted with the system. The surveys of participants also established that far from being simply a realignment of the existing left this represents a transformation in political thinking for large swaths of those previously uninvolved in politics or supportive of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour. 54.4% of participants have never attended a protest before becoming involved and 65% changed their support since the 2011 general election with 74% of these previously voting for Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour. (The Irish water war, austerity and the ‘Risen people’. April 2015)
The electoral impact of this grassroots struggle is now obvious after securing the largest Dail majority in the history of the state with 55.6% in the 2011 general election, the Fine Gael and Labour government has been decimated capturing only 32% of the vote. While the media have made much of a supposed resurgence of Fianna Fail, they have in reality suffered their second worst ever election result in the history of the state. After dominating the Irish political landscape for 80 years, rarely dipping below 40% of votes cast they have scored only 24.3% managing to win over 5% of disgruntled Fine Gael voters at a late stage of the campaign. Claiming this as a resounding victory is indicative of the deep crisis that the party finds itself in. The Labour party has been wiped out with only 7 of their TDs re-elected.
The election has presented no clear victors and a political landscape dominated by the big three party’s since the foundation of the state is now one deeply fractured. Sinn Fein have made significant gains and won over much of Labour’s working class base through promoting themselves as an anti-establishment party and criticising the politics of austerity. They have however not performed as well as expected. The revelations of Thomas “Slab” Murphy’s tax evasion and the party’s implementation of the Stormont ‘Fresh Start’ agreement have cast doubts for many voters in the South, over their credentials as a left party. More important for anti-water charges activists has been their refusal to endorse the boycott. This has been the point of divergence between the local activist groups and the Right2Water leadership which is dominated by Sinn Fein and the trade unions. While the former have been most militant element of the campaign placing the emphasis on people power and grass roots organizing the latter have focused largely on an electoral strategy and lobbying TDs to sign up to their ‘Right2Change’ policy platform.
The most concrete expression of this particular social movement from the general election is to be seen in the rapid rise in parties of the radical left. Capturing 6 seats and doubling their Dail representatives relative to 2011 the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit were most closely associated with the grassroots who organized in locally and built for the major national demonstrations. After several years resistance at a low ebb anti-water charges activism has breathed life into radical left parties and allowed them to put down deep roots in working class communities. The disproportionate level of support the radical left has won amongst those involved should not be overlooked. Polling at 4% nationally 31.7% of those in surveyed stated that they would vote for the Anti-Austerity Alliance or People Before Profit. There has also been a number of left wing independents returned to the Dail with some representing rural counties such as Donegal and Tipperary where conservative parties and the Catholic Church had up until recently a vice like grip on politics.
While the definite outcome of this election cannot yet be known, it is clear that with such a sustained level of non-payment Irish Water will soon be an unworkable entity. Any new government formed will be extremely reluctant to abolish Irish Water as it would be appear not only as a capitulation by Fine Gael but also would make the Irish government the first to break a memorandum of understanding with the Troika, a thought unfathomable to the Irish political elite. Furthermore the success of this movement will give confidence to those struggling against Dublin’s housing crisis, workers suffering depressed wages and Thatcherite labour laws as well as women denied the right to access free, safe and legal abortion and will prove that protest works. In summation the general election has provided a snapshot of a society in which the old order is dying a slow death, and the new is yet to be born.