SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 186 March 2015

Police raids in Ireland’s water-charge struggle

A mass movement in Ireland has erupted against the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government’s water charges and austerity policies. The government has responded with a campaign of political policing, with nine arrests and a number of prison sentences. Protests have taken place outside the ministry of justice in Dublin, local police stations and overseas embassies. PAUL MURPHY Socialist Party (CWI) and Anti-Austerity Alliance TD (Irish MP) spoke to the Socialist (Ireland) on 13 February.

Q: For the last five days, activists from the anti-water charges campaign, including yourself, have been arrested for interrogations by the police. Why was it not possible to send you a summons for this?

It is normal procedure for police in Ireland to contact witnesses or suspects and to arrange an appointment for questioning. Indeed, this is the treatment that was given by police officers investigating corrupt politicians and senior bankers in recent years, including investigations connected with the collapse of the banking system.

In fact, when you contrast the treatment of the super wealthy to those who protested against water charges it is very telling about the real priorities of the ruling class and the nature of the state.

Recently, it has been revealed that billions of euros are on deposit in secret Swiss HSBC bank accounts held by Irish citizens. The Irish authorities have decided not to pursue these tax dodgers yet we have had a huge amount of police resources being poured into trying to pin charges on anti-water charges protesters.

So far approximately 100 police officers have arrested 17 people that were on the protest, including three elected Anti-Austerity Alliance representatives and community activists. The use of dawn raids, which involve numbers of police officers showing up before 7am and taking people out of their beds, in front of their families, is a political act designed to send a signal out that those who protest are criminals and to discourage people from protesting in the coming months.

Among those arrested and questioned have been 14, 15 and 16 year-olds who were preparing to go to school at the time of their arrest. This is creating a climate of fear in the community where people who were present on the protest fear being arrested.

What are the activists charged with?

Protesters were arrested under suspicion of ‘false imprisonment’. [This arose from a sit-down protest which held up the car of deputy prime minister (Labour) Joan Burton.] This is a very serious charge which is essentially the same as kidnap. There is a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. If they press these charges they will get nowhere. They may press other charges such as breach of the peace or public order offences.

What is the political background to such kind of police action?

It is not an accident that we are seeing this repression now. Over the past number of months we have seen an explosion from below over the issue of water charges. In October we saw 100,000 on the streets of Dublin against the charges. This was followed up by similarly large protests in November and in December. We are also seeing a plethora of local groups spontaneously springing up to campaign against the charges.

In April people will be sent their first bills for water. We are advocating that people boycott the bills and refuse to pay them. If we get large non-payment we will see a serious escalation of the pressure on the government on this issue. The stakes are high and the government know this. This is why we are now seeing attempts to damage the movement with these arrests.

The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, has said that the protests are about more than water. That is one thing that we can agree with him on. For six years we have seen vicious austerity being imposed by successive Irish governments and the troika. There has been a serious erosion of the living standards of working people. Public services have been devastated resulting in an acute crisis in hospitals and in schools. There is also a massive housing crisis with homelessness at record levels. The most vulnerable have been hit hardest, throwing thousands into poverty. During this crisis, young people have been forced to emigrate at levels not seen since the Great Famine of the mid-19th century in search of work. Huge anger has built up on these issues. Water charges are, for many, the straw that broke the camel’s back and the pent-up anger is now exploding.

This movement is a major threat to the pro-austerity political establishment. If water charges can be defeated it will probably collapse the government but, crucially, it will completely transform the situation and make it extremely difficult for any future government to continue with austerity policies. It will be a major boost to people and give confidence to stay active and to fight for austerity policies to be reversed, and for a different type of society that puts people’s needs first.

Will Ireland join Greece and Spain in the struggle against austerity?

In the international press it is often reported that Ireland is the troika’s ‘success story’. Despite what the European Commission, the Irish government and pro-austerity governments around Europe would like us to believe, this is simply not the case. The Irish economy is in a very precarious situation and still has record levels of debt. The repayment of banking debt is crippling the economy, with €8 billion being paid out each year.

It is also often reported internationally that Irish people have been happy to take the ‘tough medicine’ of austerity. Again this is untrue. There has been massive opposition to austerity and there have been people actively opposing it on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, largely due to the role of the trade union leaders in failing to give a militant lead, a sustained mass movement never developed.

The election of the Syriza government in Greece and the growth of the left in Spain in the polls have given a real boost to the movement against water charges and austerity in Ireland. The idea that ‘there is no alternative’ has been delivered a major blow.

It has opened up a real discussion now among those active in the water charges movement about what alternative is possible. It is crucial that we ensure that this movement, as it is in Spain and Greece, is reflected politically. The Anti-Austerity Alliance is bringing together working-class activists and campaigners to make such a political challenge. We have also called for the various anti-water charges campaigning groups that have sprung up around the country to also consider standing in the elections. If this can be done, there is a real opportunity for a major electoral breakthrough and would be a major step forward in building a strong political voice for the working class in the years ahead.

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