Political policing against Ireland’s water movement

Oliver Eagleton writes on the arrest of activists and the growing revolt over austerity

February 11, 2015 · 5 min read

Four prominent anti-austerity campaigners including Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy were arrested in Dublin last Monday. During his twelve hour detention, Murphy was questioned about a protest last November in which demonstrators surrounded the car of Joan Burton, a Labour Party politician who has extended neoliberal cuts and Troika-backed privatisation since her appointment as Tánaiste. The commotion, which saw Burton held up for over two hours in a working class suburb, and the subsequent crackdown (which will result in up to forty more arrests over the coming days) highlights several key developments in Ireland’s struggle against austerity.

First, an appetite for civil disobedience, sit-down protests and mass rallies against the government’s introduction of water charges testifies to the population’s growing disenchantment with parties such as Labour. A Milward Brown opinion poll found that 73 per cent of Burton’s electoral support was based on the condition that she “should end the government’s austerity policy”. And it is increasingly clear, from her seething reception in working class communities and from the mounting acclaim of figures like Paul Murphy, that voters have not abandoned these demands: rather, more and more are willing to actualise them. A large-scale boycott of the insidious water charges – which will make citizens pay twice, through both income tax and meter charges, for this basic human necessity – is already underway. Candidates who challenge the principles of austerity, not merely on the basis of Keynesian budget-balancing (ie. Sinn Fein) but through a radical indictment of the capitalist system, are soaring in popularity. Last weekend, a Syriza delegation trip to Ireland packed out lecture halls and community centres in the capital. If these facts are anything to go by, it appears that a movement of dissent, spearheaded by unapologetically Trotskyist outfits like the Socialist Party, will soon disrupt establishment politics in Ireland.

Yet the second, more nefarious trend demonstrated by Monday’s arrests is the government’s move towards political policing. After 200,000 people marched against the water charges on November 1, several concessions were put forward in a last-ditch attempt to assuage public discontent: Irish Water (the new, soon-to-be privatised body in charge of water infrastructure) pushed their registration deadline back to February, rates were lowered, and, in an act of tear-jerking magnanimity, prices were dropped for households with water deemed “undrinkable”. The Anti-Austerity Alliance, a coalition of TDs and local councillors united in opposition to water charges, rightly stated that this minor easing of the tax is not sufficient, nor does it satisfy large swathes of the electorate for whom abolition is the only option. Indeed, the campaign for non-payment has only gained momentum since the introduction of these measures: a survey taken prior to the government U-turns says one in five will ignore their bills in April, whereas this month’s poll on TheJournal.ie sees that figure rise to 54%.

Enda Kenny’s cabinet are well aware that resistance on this scale would threaten the fundamental tenent of their administration – namely, unwavering compliance with EU/IMF bailout conditions. Hence January’s leaked European Commission draft document which expresses the Irish government’s “fear [at a] boycott of new water charges” and predicts that the programme’s implementation “is likely to take years”. This week therefore marks the ruling parties’ acknowledgement that, since support for austerity cannot be won via cheap concessions, rejection of austerity must be suppressed via police raids, unwarranted detentions, and the demonisation of peaceful protest. Yesterday, four more protestors including a sixteen year-old boy were arrested at their homes under suspicion of “falsely imprisoning” Joan Burton during the November rally. Despite the government’s refusal to comment on “Gardaí matters”, there can be no doubt that the timing of these investigations (just prior to Irish Water billing) and the excessive mobilisation of state power (six officers were sent to apprehend Murphy) constitute a grossly authoritarian attempt to denigrate the Anti-Austerity Alliance at this critical point in the struggle.

The smear campaign directed at opponents of austerity has not come solely from Kenny’s government, however. It has permeated media reports and political commentary since demonstrations began, reaching a new low during the past two weeks. The Weekend Review ran a front page story titled “The Privileged Revolutionary” replete with Paul Murphy’s smiling headshot. One minister likened anti-austerity activists to Islamic State, while yesterday’s Irish Independent stated that those impeding Burton’s passage were “local thugs with criminal records”. It is not difficult to uncover the intention behind this: the aim, from respected broadsheets and elected representatives alike, is to attach unfounded stigmas about the working class – violence, criminality and so on – to the emerging left movement, and thereby vilify it as an imposition on “respectable society”.

If we are to foster the potential for a Syriza-like uprising in Ireland, and protect the right to free association in Europe, it is necessary to counter such propaganda through working class unity. The Socialist Party has called protests at Irish embassies in England and Wales for today, 11 February, recognising that international solidarity is the appropriate response to Ireland’s flagrant persecution of activists and misuse of police.

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