The American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once observed that if you find out ‘just what any people will quietly submit to … you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them’ and that such injustices ‘will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both’. In Ireland, after six years of austerity and regressive tax reforms that have punished Irish working people for the benefit of Irish and European bond holders, it seems the Irish establishment may have finally discovered the measure of injustice that the people will not tolerate.
The Irish government is currently implementing a plan to install water meters, so that people’s domestic water usage can be monitored and they can be charged for the amount they use. In this way they are abandoning the traditional funding model for water provision in Ireland, which saw it paid for out of general taxation. This move by the Irish government is consistent with a global trend over the last twenty years towards the increased commodification of essential services, with water seen as a particularly lucrative market. Taking advantage of the economic crisis, as most governments in Europe have, the Irish government has accelerated a broad neoliberal policy drive (privatisation of services, cuts to public sector jobs, regressive taxes) under the well-worn mantra that “There Is No Alternative”.
However, this new tax – this commodification of an essential public good – is being met with trenchant resistance from working class communities throughout the island. From Crumlin to Togher, Edenmore to Caherdavin, communities have mobilised to prevent the installation of water meters in their areas. In these protests the community activists have remained resolute in the face of attempts at intimidation from both the company established to commodify the water service, Irish Water, and the police. As well as engaging in direct action to prevent the installation of meters, the bourgeoning movement is also encouraging a boycott of the attempts by Irish Water to enrol residents as “customers”, and calling for non-payment of any future bills.
At the heart of the mobilisations of this movement is the foundational claim that water is a human right. A coalition of community groups, civil society organisations, progressive trade unions and political parties has coalesced around the Right2Water campaign, and will hold a national demonstration in early October calling for the scrapping of the water charges.1See http://www.right2water.ie/events.htm Water is, of course, a human right; recognised both in international law, and in certain domestic systems. But what the protestors opposing the installation of water meters, and the movement calling for the scrapping of water charges, are asserting is far more than a mere legal claim. The right to water, as a legal right, can be rendered in a way which is “market friendly”, as the residents of the Phiri Township in South Africa discovered, when their Constitutional Court held that a system of water metering (which dramatically reduced the amount of water poor and working homes could access) was compatible with their constitutional right to water.2See Pierre De Vos, ‘Water is life (but life is cheap)’ 13 October 2009 http://constitutionallyspeaking.co.za/water-is-life-but-life-is-cheap/
Rather than appealing to a specific legal provision, the Irish protesters, while using the language of the right to water, are making much more than a formal claim. In effect the assertion that water is a right – a public good that should be funded through general taxation, available to all on the basis of need, and protected from the vicissitudes and inequities of the market – is a rejection of the idea that there is no alternative to the commodification of essential services and resources. In a political context in which the drive towards commodification of essential services and the attendant transfer of wealth from working people to the obscenely rich (bolstered at the international level by agreements such as the TTIP currently being negotiated between the EU and US) is the common sense of political elites, the movement against water charges in Ireland is heretically proposing another vision.
By demanding access to water as a right, this movement rejects the foundational premises of the economic, political and ideological system that has held sway in Europe and most of the rest of the world for the last twenty years. To say that water is a human right, is to say that some things are so important that they cannot be surrendered to the market. It is an implicit claim that the profit motive is an insufficient driving force to meet peoples most basic needs, but that these can only be met through collective action and institutions founded on solidarity. The demand for the right to water today can, in a country where ghost estates exist side by side with spiralling homelessness, become the demand for a right to housing tomorrow, or the right to health care. None of these demands are pegged to or limited by narrow textual reference points; instead they are the crystallised, preliminary demands of what another Ireland might look like.
The movement against water charges arises at a portentous moment, with the centenary of the 1916 Rising – one of the key moments in the formation of the Irish nation – just around the corner the scramble for ownership of the legacy of 1916 has begun. Over the next year much and more will be said about this legacy, but in this debate those concerned about the threat of commodification, those resisting it on the streets, should insure that the discussion is not only, or even primarily, about the historical aspects of the Rising. Instead, the centenary of 1916 should be an occasion to envisage what the people want Ireland to become. The real significance of the Rising for those now resisting the asserted inexorable logic of the water charges is that the Rising shows how seemingly closed historical periods can burst open. Notwithstanding the historical whatifery of establishment hacks like John Bruton,3John Bruton, ‘Why the 1916 Rising Was Unnecessary’ Irish Independent, 21 September 2014 http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/john-bruton-why-the-1916-rising-was-unnecessary-30594507.html it was the Rising that, in large part, transformed the crowds that cheered George V in 1911, into those who voted overwhelmingly for a separatist movement in 1918, and led to Irish independence.
What we should take from 1916 is that even in the bleakest of historical moments, there is always an alternative and the activists campaigning against water charges in Ireland have begun to articulate what that alternative might look like. By demanding water as a right this movement is setting its face against the logic of our time, and demanding an alternative future. Though still in its infancy, the rallying cry of the Right2Water implies that this future will be one founded on community, solidarity and equality. In this way the fight for the right to water in Ireland is a fight for an alternative future, and a victory for this movement can provide a catalyst for the building of this future, in Ireland and elsewhere.
Paul O’Connell is Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London.