No Easy Victories


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The campaign for the Right2Water in Ireland is rapidly growing in strength and confidence. Working class communities have been staging determined and inspiring protests to prevent the installation of water meters in their areas, the best of the trade union movement has mobilised to help support and coordinate these efforts at the national level and the Irish political left has rallied to the cause. In response to the growth of the movement, the Irish State has let loose its dogs of war. As a result of which recent days have witnessed heavy handed and provocative policing from An Garda Síochána, concentrated mainly in Edenmore, Donaghmede and Coolock.

Footage of Gardai man handling women and minors, and generally trying to intimidate and bully peaceful protestors has emerged. Many protestors have reacted to this with dismay, and believe that the Gardai are in breach of their “oath” because of the way in which they are trying to force through the installation of unwanted meters. This idea that the Gardai are acting abnormally ties into other quasi-legal arguments within the movement about the need for “consent” to be liable to pay the water charges and related matters.

As the movement grows in strength, it is important, also, that its energies be focused, so with that in mind it seems right to dispel some of the misconceptions about the role of the law, and the police, in the struggle for the right to water. The movement and campaign for the Right2Water is the most electrifying and significant development in Irish politics for some years, but in order for it to reach its full potential we should heed Amilcar Cabral’s advice that we ‘tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures [and] Claim no easy victories’. By dispelling some of the appealing, but ultimately unhelpful, arguments swirling around the movement, it will be possible to move forward in a more determined, focused and effective manner.

One of the important points to dispel is the idea that Irish Water requires a residents consent in order for them to be liable for the water charges. This is not the case. It is true that in the ordinary course of things, when, for example, you want to subscribe to a particular TV or broadband provider, you would need to enter into a voluntary contract with them for it to be valid. However, Irish Water is not an ordinary company. It is a semi-state entity created specifically to install water meters and impose charges for water use on Irish citizens. The Irish government, imagining itself to be cute and mimicking practices elsewhere in the world, has opted to package a tax as a service charge, on the understanding that it would be less politically controversial.

What the Irish Water Service Act 2013 does, among other things, is transfer the ownership of the national water infrastructure to Irish Water, and grant them both a statutory right and duty to levy and collect charges from “consumers”. This means that, legally, you do not have to consent to the charges; they are being imposed upon you. In real terms this means that returning the Irish Water application packs with “no consent, no contract” or burning them, does not alter the legal position; you are still liable for the charges. With that said the symbolic and political importance of returning the packs, or burning them is immensely important. These charges will be defeated by a mass campaign of resistance and non-compliance, so rejecting the Irish Water packs is crucially important, but for political, not legal, reasons.

With respect to the role the Gardai are now playing in aggressively intimidating peaceful protestors, a few key points should be noted. First, under Section 16 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, newly appointed members of An Garda Síochána make a solemn declaration that, among other things, they will ‘faithfully discharge the duties of a member of the Garda Síochána with fairness, integrity, regard for human rights, diligence and impartiality, upholding the Constitution and the laws and according equal respect to all people’. For some protestors this declaration, or oath, implies that the Gardai should respect and protect their right to protest, and not intimidate and bully peaceful protestors. In turn, this idea ties into a broader common sense that the role of the Gardai as guardians of the peace is to protect and serve ordinary citizens.

This is simply not the case. Even on a formal, legal basis, the Gardai could, and no doubt will, argue that they uphold their “oath” by upholding the will of the Oireachtas, and facilitating the implementation of the Water Act. They can also argue that they are protecting the right of the Irish Water contractors to go about their lawful business. But more importantly, it has to be understood that the Gardai, like the police in every country, are not there to serve and protect working people, but to contain and control them. If you want to see the real face of An Garda Síochána, look to the West of Ireland were they have been involved in a protracted campaign of intimidation and low-level terror against local residents opposed to the Corrib gas line. Invariably in Ireland, when push comes to shove and citizens seek to oppose government policy, they will be met with the Public Order Act and all of the other tools of low-level repression.

Irrespective, then, of any “oath”, the Gardai are performing the very role they are designed and accustomed to play. As a force they are are structurally unaccountable, as a result of this unaccountability they are quite comfortable and confident in their ability to make a mockery of citizens right to protest. Going forward, then, the movement for the Right2Water has to be absolutely clear that the Gardai are not neutral arbiters between competing sides to an argument, instead they are the bared teeth of a threatened Irish establishment. The very aggression and violence of the Garda operations in recent weeks are not evidence of their confidence and power, but of their fear and weakness. The Gardai know what their role in Irish society is, and will perform that role dutifully. As the movement grows in strength and confidence, the repressive response of the Gardai will grow proportionately and the movement has to be prepared to meet this with the same determination and dignity it has mustered so far.

When the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia succeeded – in spite of massive State violence and repression – in reversing the privatisation of their water supply, it wasn’t through appeals to specific legal rules, but through the determined and steadfast action of a movement mobilised around the idea that irrespective of what the law said, water was a right that they would not allow be treated as a commodity. In a similar vein, the people of Detroit in the US have recently had their hopes of a legal victory to protect the right to water dashed. However, this has not deterred them and they are moving forward with their movement for a human right to water on the basis of The Detroit Water Pledge of Resistance. This pledge commits the movement, and all its individual members, to ‘if necessary, to join others in my community, and engage in acts of dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could result in my arrest in order to protect and uphold the human right to water in Detroit’.

The growing movement in Ireland should, at this juncture, take guidance from James Connolly, who correctly observed that

‘It should be remembered … that every movement for the improvement of the condition of the human race, every step forward in civilisation, has of necessity had to face the opposition of Law, and disturbed the stability of Order. The pioneer of progress has ever been an enemy of Law, and directed all his efforts to the destruction of Order’. 1

Advancing the struggle for the Right2Water in Ireland and against the water charges cannot and should not rely on appeals to the law as it is, or to the conscience of individual Gardai. Appeals will not work, but demands can. When the campaign for the Right2Water succeeds, it will do so in spite of the law, not as a result of it. This movement will not only overturn the policy of commodifying the water service, but can genuinely precipitate a fundamental transformation of the Irish political landscape. For this reason it will be resisted and fought by the Irish establishment. The law will not provide the movement with a silver bullet, there will be no easy victory, but a determined and united movement, rallying around the central claim that water is a right and a public good, can prevail.

Paul O’Connell is Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London.

Images of protests in Grangemore, Donaghmede and the City Centre, taken from the Dublin Says No campaign’s YouTube channel.

Show 1 footnote

  1. James Connolly, ‘Law and Order’ Workers Republic, 26 August 1899.
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4 Responses

  1. James Askin

    October 6, 2014 10:49 am

    An inspiring and painfully accurate description of our current struggle on Irelands Streets.

  2. Peter Weber

    October 6, 2014 5:49 pm

    I studied law in Germany. My opinion: the state is allowed to act as a private company. If the state decides to act as a private company the state has to obey contract law. If the Water Services Act 2013 creates a contract without consensus, then the Water Services Act 2013 is not constitutional.

    It would be possible to see an implied contract. Mr. Paul O’Connell obviously sees no need for a contract at all.

    But: Fluoridated water is not ‘water for human consumption’ as specified in EU Directive 98/83/EC.

    It is a medicinal product – a ‘medicinal water’ as excluded from regulation under the Directive (Article 3 Exemptions)

    As such, it is not the product that you are entitled to expect within the terms of that implied contract with the State. By substituting a ‘medicinal water’ for ‘water for human consumption’, the State offers to supply you water that is – supposedly – fit for the purpose, but which is in fact a medicine. You are, of course, perfectly entitled to reject that contract, and refuse to pay for such a supply.

    Council Directive 65/65/EEC of 26 January 1965

    Article 1

    2. Medicinal product:

    Any substance or combination of substances presented for treating or preventing disease in human beings or animals.

    Any substance or combination of substances which may be administered to human beings or animals with a view to making a medical diagnosis or to restoring, correcting or modifying physiological functions in human beings or in animals is likewise considered a medicinal product.

  3. Cathy Gibson

    October 7, 2014 10:32 pm

    i am irish and would just like to add that there was not a mention of the blackmail of Ireland as a nation where weak inept corrupt politicians singed an agreement they had no mandate for the people to sign, Ireland has been the victim of attack from europe which is supposed to stand for democracy for all it’s citizens, we have been forced to accept 42% of the gross european debt and are being forced to privatise our most precious of resources, all agreed to by corrupt politicians again for their own gain with a campaign of media lies. it is only through the internet that we can bring the truth to our people, this coming saturday the 11th at 2pm irish people from across the country will come in their 1000’s to protest this out right to steal that which belongs to the people of Ireland and is not now nor ever for sale, Ireland will not be bullied anymore, we have taken as much as we can,
    kindest regards,
    Cathy Gibson,

  4. Gewerkschaftler

    October 10, 2014 1:57 pm

    Hi Cathy.

    Ireland is under attack from the European (actually global) owning and ruling class who’s wishes in this case are carried out by the Troika. That’s a different kettle of fish from ‘europe’.

    But otherwise you’re bang on.