Article from the May 2005 edition, the Socialist
paper of the Socialist Party, the CWI in Ireland.
Non-payment can win - A reply to Gerry Adams
During the elections all the main parties were forced to refer to the issue of water charges. Despite the fact that they all agreed to introduce water charges when they were in the Assembly, in their election literature they all claimed to oppose them.
However they all told the truth about one thing - they are not going to put up any serious resistance to the introduction of the charges. All of them have now come out clearly against the building of a campaign of mass non-payment to defeat these charges.
The Socialist Party has consistently argued that only a campaign of mass non-payment can defeat water charges and, along with others, has launched the We Won't Pay Campaign.
Non-payment would also make it impossible for the government to proceed with their objective of privatising the water service. Unless there is a separate charging mechanism outside the rates, privatisation cannot succeed.
The last of the four main parties to make clear its opposition to non-payment has been Sinn Fein. In a letter to The Irish News (Mon 2 May), Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein argued that he was 'not for a campaign of non-payment for very good reasons.' He claimed that the legislation introduced by the SDLP in 1974 to defeat the rent & rates strike was still on the statute book.
This piece of draconian legislation, the Payment of Debt (Emergency Powers) Act, was introduced to defeat the rent and rates strike by deducting the equivalent amount of money owed by tenants directly from their wages, pensions and/or benefits.
This legislation allowed the state to deduct money from tenants who owed money to the state, in this case rent and rates. It did not cover debts owed to private sector companies or individuals. Water charges are to be introduced through a GoCo (government-owned company) that will exist as a private company under private sector legislation outside the civil service. The legislation Adams refers to would not have applied to water charges. In any case, the legislation was abolished in 1990.
Under present legislation, companies can take individuals to court for non-payment of debts. The 1981 Attachment of Earnings Orders for civil debts (Northern Ireland) allows for companies to apply to the Enforcement of Judgements Office to deduct money owed from debtors directly from wages and/or sale of assets excluding essential domestic goods. Unlike the Payment for Debts Act, which covered all households together, this legislation can only be used against individuals, case by case.
Similar legislation existed in Britain in the 1980s and was used to try and defeat the anti-poll tax campaign. However, this method failed to stop mass non-payment, as the courts system became entirely clogged-up with individual cases and appeals. By maintaining mass non-payment the courts were unable to deal with the thousands of cases awaiting hearing. The poll tax was eventually abolished after a campaign of mass non-payment was successfully organised throughout Britain.
Sinn Fein also refused to support non-payment when water charges were defeated in Southern Ireland in the 1990s. The Socialist Party played a leading role in building that campaign, which was successful because a mass non-payment campaign had been built.
Gerry Adams, together with the SDLP and even some trade union representatives, mistakenly argue that non-payment cannot work because the same tactic was defeated during the rent and rates strike in the early 1970s. However, there is a qualitative difference between non-payment of water charges and the rent and rates strike.
Firstly, the rent and rates strike was isolated to one section of the community, the core being those Catholics in public sector housing. In contrast, water charges faces massive opposition in both Catholic and Protestant areas. The experience of the We Won't Pay Campaign confirms that mass non-payment is equally supported in Catholic areas as in Protestant areas.
Secondly, the rent and rates strike was a spontaneous movement that grew after a call for non-payment from several organisations such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and nationalist and SDLP MPs. There had been no mass membership organised into a campaign that built non-payment.
For non-payment of water charges to succeed, it needs to be built and organised in all areas with a democratic structure.
The government may postpone the introduction of water charges from April 2006 to October 2006, leaving another 17 months to build the campaign in all areas. An organised campaign with a mass membership would allow for strategies to strengthen non-payment to be discussed and implemented to counter governments threats and tactics.
The sectarian parties fear that a non-payment campaign would unite the working class communities and threaten their support. Given the massive opposition to water charges we have an opportunity to challenge them and to put the common interests of working class people before sectarian vested interests.
Earlier news from the anti-water charges campaign can be got here.