Water Charges Struggle: The Lessons for Today
by Kevin McLoughlin in Socialist View, Spring 2001
WATER CHARGES were
strongly resisted throughout the country since 1983. In the end it was the
intense battle waged in Dublin for three years which resulted in their
abolition in 1996. There were many facets of this campaign but this article
will try to outline the key lessons that can be learned and on that basis pose
the tasks facing the new movement against refuse charges.
Water charges of
between £70 (€90) - £90 (€114) were passed in February 1994 by the three newly
formed councils that covered Dublin's suburban districts, Fingal, South Dublin
and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. The extent of the opposition can only be understood
if you take into account the big political and economic developments that were
happening at the time.
Tax evasion by big business was rampant. The tax official's union estimated
they owed £2,500 million (€3175 million) in unpaid tax. On many fronts they were
getting away with murder. As an example, the Beef Tribunal found that Larry
Goodman's companies were involved in fraudulent practices. Instead of being
penalised, the government used taxpayers' money to bail his company out of debt
and to pay the £100 million (€126 million) fine that Europe had imposed because
of his actions. To add insult to injury, Fianna Fail and Labour had just
brought in the second tax amnesty in six years, which wrote off a massive f.500
million in unpaid taxes from the rich.
Political corruption had
created a very angry, left leaning mood against the Fianna Fail/Labour
government. The Labour Party had tapped into the anti-establishment mood in the
1992 election, winning a massive 33 seats. However, within months they were in
government with Fianna Fail in one of the most unpopular administrations in the
history of the state. The mood of disgust was palpable.
For workers the taxation system had long been the sharpest expression of the
growing inequality in society, a blatant case of one law for the rich and
another for the rest of us. At the time, PAYE workers paid 86% of all income
tax. Farmers paid 1.7% and the self-employed paid 11.6%. Corporation tax
accounted for only 11 % of total tax income. In reality the PAYE worker was
paying for everything. The fact that local taxes in the form of rates had been
abolished in 1978 was of little comfort.
The government at that time had given a commitment to compensate local
authorities through a rate support grant, which would increase as the financial
requirements of the councils expanded. In 1978 they gave £79.3 million (€100
million) to the local authorities, by 1983 this had increased to 163 million
(€207 million). After 1984 the government in general withheld additional cash.
By the early 90s the councils were cash starved getting in total £185.9 million
(€236 million) when the grant should have been £285.8 million (€363 million).
When - rather than fight a battle with the government for resources - the
councils decided to increase their funds by imposing another double tax on
already overburdened workers, the mood of opposition was intense.
While they started at less than £100 (€127), people knew the charges would
increase to anything up to £400 or £500 - equivalent to two weeks income for
many. But there was another side to people's opposition. For most it was a
political decision that they'd had enough of being ripped off by the
politicians and in principle they were not going to pay. The, by now,
traditional opposition to double tax was inflamed further when they began to
charge for water, something that most people considered to be a basic human
Militant Labour, as we were
called then, was alive to this issue right from the very start. Having Joe
Higgins as a councillor meant we were on the inside crack and this gave us real
authority in taking up the issue. The party was also open to seeing the
potential in the issue because our consciousness had been raised by the role
our comrades had played in defeating the Poll Tax in Britain. We organised
three public meetings in our own name when the bills dropped just to test the
mood in Swords, Mulhuddart and Tallaght. The response was strong, over 200
angry residents attended. Certain things became quite clear.
There was instinctive support for a non-payment boycott from those who
attended. But it was vital that this argument was won not just amongst the
activists but with the mass of people right throughout the affected areas. The
basis of any campaign had to be substantial non-payment in order to have a
chance of victory. It was also obvious that, with a few exceptions, existing
residents' or tenants' groups were not coordinated enough, energetic enough nor
representative enough to build the type of campaign that was necessary. We
concluded that a new campaign on this issue alone needed to be established,
rooted in the communities where workers lived and open to everyone. The first
march we organised in Swords was on a very sunny Saturday 28 May illustrated the
potential when 300 locals marched up and down the main street.
There were over 160,000
houses in the council areas. We established the Dublin Anti-Water Charges
Campaign and began to systematically call public meetings and formally
establish the campaign in area after area. 20,000 information bulletins were
distributed as we went. 1,000 large posters advocating non-payment and with a
contact phone number were put up in areas where the campaign wasn't yet
organised to register that it existed and would be in their locality soon. On
24 September 1994, the Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaign convened a conference
to pull together all the local groups and establish clearly the principles of
the movement and a campaign structure and leadership. 130 attended the event. A
further 500 marched in our first city centre demo on Saturday 26 November. It
was a working class march from start to finish.
While there were areas that the campaign still had to penetrate, as a result of
six months of hard work the campaign was firmly established with an elected
leadership, democratic structures and groups locally which had hundreds of
active participants. By the end of the year, average non-payment stood at 65%,
the figure was much higher in the key working class estates.
Over the next two years the campaign extended and consolidated. The campaign
went through different phases of lull and intense activity. Local public
meetings were held regularly. A leafleting network was established which
covered over 60,000 houses. More than 15,000 households paid £2 to join the
campaign. This money was used as a legal defence fund. All-Dublin activists'
meetings were convened when necessary. Two well attended conferences and
another march were held, as well as countless protests designed to exert
maximum pressure on the politicians.
Showing the strength of the movement which had been built, an incredible event
was held on 8 March 1997 in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The charges
had been abolished three months earlier. 500-600 people who still had legal
action pending against them packed the main auditorium to demand the dropping
of all court cases. Each person willingly paid the £10 registration fee. There
was an emboldened mood of confidence and pride that our movement had defeated
As was often the case the media ignored this extremely significant event but it
was clear to anyone in attendance that we had come through the most significant
community-based political movement that Dublin had seen in decades.
Tactics & Strategy
Why was the Dublin water
charges campaign able to achieve a victory unlike other campaigns on similar
issues? The leadership provided by Militant Labour served to maximise the power
of the working class communities. Our analysis gave us a clearer view of how
the battle was likely to unfold. We were able to outline at the outset a
strategy and at the decisive times adopted the best tactics to counter the
attacks of the councils.
The imposition of the charges was not a decision taken by small time local
politicians on a whim. Undoubtedly they underestimated the potential for the
opposition to double taxation to get organised. However this was a serious
attack by the ruling class as part of their wider offensive against ordinary
people. There was a lot at stake. The ground had been prepared by forcing
through charges in the rest of the country. They kept the most difficult area
till last. They wanted to impose the charges from what they considered to be a
position of strength.
We explained that regular protests, marches or lobbying of the politicians
alone would not be enough to defeat the charges. We were taking on three
councils and the government who had serious resources including the legal
system and the state on their side. Of course we created intense political
pressure particularly in the run up to the yearly estimates meetings but the
charges were very unlikely to be voted out in such a way. They would try to
ride out such stormy periods. The movement needed to be much more extensive than
that if it was going to win. The battle was likely to go on for a number of
Non-payment had to be the
basis of the campaign. It was a way for every person to participate in the
campaign and it linked thousands of people in united action. It was the nub of
the issue; they want your money so you have to refuse to give it to them. We
argued strongly that without non-payment there was no campaign. Mass
non-payment had to be established and then maintained, regardless of the
consequences. However, it is one thing to state that and it is another thing to
be able to withstand the attacks and intimidation that the councils would then
unleash on residents. Crucially it was the capability of the campaign to stop
disconnections and to defend people in the courts that gave enormous confidence
to thousands of people to continue not to pay. A mood developed that whatever
the councils threw at us could be dealt with. If the council's attacks had
succeeded, non-payment would have been undermined and the campaign could have
crumbled to defeat.
Council Tries to Hit Back
The first real challenge
came in early December 1994 when South Dublin County Council had arranged to
send out fourteen water inspectors to carry out disconnections of non-payers.
We obtained vital information from sources sympathetic to the campaign about
who exactly would carry out the disconnections and on what day it would start.
The council boasted that 1,000 homes would be disconnected before Christmas. If
that happened the mood for non-payment would have been badly affected.
Our Response to Disconnections
The campaign needed to
respond but stopping 14 different disconnection teams in a very large
geographical area like south Dublin could only have been achieved if we got an
active response from campaign members and residents generally. At less than a
day's notice an emergency activists' meeting was convened in Tallaght on a
Sunday. 100 responded to the call. People volunteered for an intense period of
activity. One team was established with the job of reconnection. Cars, vans,
mobile phones and CB radios were pooled. Leaflets were distributed advertising
a 24-hour disconnections hotline. Through loud speaking equipment and through
the work of activists in the estates, people were encouraged to be vigilant, to
come out and by their physical presence stop anyone tampering with stopcocks on
We got more information that the inspectors wouldn't report to work but would
go directly from their homes at 4.00am to disconnect non-payers!
However, the moment they went to do the dirty deed, they were followed by 14
campaign patrol cars which were centrally linked to a headquarters and
therefore could be re-directed to any location within minutes. This battle
lasted for a number of days. It really stretched the human resources of the
campaign. However they were only able to carry out 20 disconnections. Even then
the water was turned back on within hours. Their strategy of disconnecting
1,000 homes hit a brick wall and they were forced to pull back. There was a
very angry mood and if they had continued there was a real chance their actions
would have provoked a major controversy.
Reflecting the pressure, the new government, which had to be cobbled together
between Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left without a general election,
intervened with new legislation which altered the right of the councils to
disconnect domestic water supply, making it in reality an unworkable option.
The campaign had passed a severe test but had emerged strengthened. 1995 was
the first year for a long time there were no water disconnections anywhere in
Campaign in the Courts
The councils were then
forced to pursue non-payers through the courts. However it took them a while to
readjust and the first court cases took place nearly a year later in November
1995. For a whole period the councils operated off the new legislation and
brought people to court with a view to getting a court order allowing for water
disconnection. However, in reality, the best the councils could hope for in
that situation was a return to a disconnections war like December '94. Later
they dropped this approach and pursued non-payers in court for payment of
The court challenge posed important tactical questions. On the one hand it was
important that non-payers understood that the campaign did not expect any
justice in the courts. On the other hand, for many people, being summoned to
court was a very serious issue. Having weighed up the mood we concluded it
would have been completely incorrect to boycott the courts or just disrupt the
sessions as some people advocated. It was important that we went into court and
defended non-payers and the stand they had taken and clog up the system as much
as possible. Not to do so would have handed victories to the councils and would
have undermined the campaign.
Over the three years well over £50,000 (€63,500) was raised for just this
eventuality. The best solicitors and barristers were employed by the campaign.
Campaign leaders had to pay meticulous attention to details and preparing
non-payers for their court appearances. On the first court date 50 cases were
scheduled to be dealt with. On a working day 400 activists turned to protest
and show their solidarity with the summoned. Noisy protests were organised for
every court date. The problem for the councils was that initially the
legislation they were using was untried and our legal team exposed its many
flaws. The first 50 cases were struck out.
By May 1996 the campaign had been in court on 25 occasions. The results for the
councils were again dismal. They got 22 disconnection orders but were not able
to implement any of them. Undoubtedly some non-payers were frightened with the
prospect of being brought to court and paid some of the charge. However the
opposite also happened. Some who paid in 1994 subsequently didn't because of
our successes. Even when they changed tack and pursued people for their
arrears, fear of the courts had diminished and non-payers understood if they
held firm and boycotted the court order, there was very little that could be done against them. By 1997, thousands were either under summons or had orders issued against them but non-payment levels remained high. The campaign had been able to counter the council's arguments, their attempts at disconnections and their legal challenge.
The campaign then went on
to the political plane to directly challenge the right-wing parties themselves.
Well over a year and a half before the 1997 general election, the question of
candidates from the campaign standing in, Dublin and linking up with similar
candidates in the rest of the country was raised. There was an enthusiastic
response in the campaign. People understood that the campaign was political and
it made common sense to try to punish the politicians who had implemented the
charges. Again our party played a vital role in this process. We explained that
the campaign wasn't party political and was open to all who wanted to tight on
the issue. But we were honest and up front that we were members of Militant
Labour. When the proposal was put forward in January 1996 that the campaign
should endorse Joe Higgins, the Militant Labour candidate in the April '96
Dublin West by-election, there was no opposition from the ranks of the
campaign. The feeling was that Joe, as chair of the campaign, deserved the full
support of the campaign because of the role he and the party had played. There
was no mood that the campaign was being politically abused.
Victory in Sight
Against all the
expectations of the establishment parties, we turned that by-election into a
referendum against the water charges with Joe only failing to take the seat by
a whisker. The historic significance of that result bath for us and the
movement generally has been dealt with in other material we have produced. Our
party became the political arm of the water charges movement. The result was
only possible because of the authority of the campaign and again the
willingness of people to be active in the by-election itself.
Scared now of the influence that the campaign could potentially wield in a
general election in Dublin, the government were resolved to get rid of the
charges and they were duly abolished throughout the country in December 1996.
We had held back the council's offensive but the result in the Dublin West by-election saw the campaign take the initiative in such a decisive way that it represented the final nail in the coffin of the water charges. They had been battered into submission.
The campaign had gone through many stages of development. It built its membership and influence using the traditional methods of the labour movement. It used
direct action to stop disconnections. It switched between legal and illegal
tactics by sometimes using the courts, only to defy the courts' rulings in the
best tradition of civil disobedience.
The lessons are clear. The first task was to build mass non-payment because if
mass non-payment was maintained the tax was dead. That was done through
hundreds of public meetings, probably over a million leaflets and using the
media to challenge the propaganda of the councils. The second task was to
defend non-payment through resisting disconnections and the courts.
All this was achieved because of the outstanding role that members of our party
played in terms of strategy tactics, thoroughly professional organisation and
because the campaign had hundreds of organisers and leafletters based in all
the key housing estates. Unlike other campaigns it was the conscious approach
of the campaign leaders to develop activists in each area. The success of the
campaign depended on people stepping forward. Time and again the issues and
what needed to be done were discussed clearly and patiently with residents. On
that basis you could see the confidence of people grow, which was essential for
turning residents into campaign activists. Through the activists and our
successes the campaign developed a mass influence with tens and even hundreds
of thousands following its lead.
Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Council and now Dublin Corporation have imposed a charge
for refuse collection. Local charges have not been a factor in the city part of
Dublin since 1985. The water charges did not apply in this area. As a sign of
fear of our party and of a water charges mark II, councillors in South Dublin
and Fingal rejectedrefuse charges unanimously.
Lessons for the Fight
Against Refuse Tax
It is very important that
the real lessons of the anti-water charges movement are applied to the specific
conditions that relate to refuse charges. The recent experiences of the
campaigns in Drogheda and Limerick must also be taken into account.
While the rates of income tax have been reduced, it is still the case that the
vast bulk of tax is paid by the PAYE sector. There is still a strong mood of
opposition to any form of double taxation. However there are certain
differences between water charges and refuse charges. People are concerned
about the environment and the councils will try to pose this as a green charge.
However this can be quite easily dealt with. One of the sanctions that the
local authorities can implement is the non-collection of the rubbish from
non-payers, which happened in both Drogheda and Limerick.
People are more fearful of this than they were of water disconnection. It is
easier not to collect rubbish than it is to disconnect water. Re-connection was
relatively straightforward and quick and was being practiced for many years
around the country. People are less sure what to do in the event that rubbish
is not collected from a substantial number of homes.
The Question of Tactics
The refuse charges have
been implemented in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown for over a year now. The council has
at this stage not withdrawn the service to non-payers nor has it brought people
to court. It has confined itself to propaganda and threats. It is one thing
with drawing the service in Drogheda or Limerick but it is an altogether more
serious thing to do it in a city the size of Dublin. We cannot be sure exactly
what they will do and the key thing at the moment in both areas is to
consolidate mass non-payment and develop the active base of the campaign.
It is vital however that any new campaign is as sharp on tactics as the water
charges movement. Bringing people to court holds legs fear now than before and
can be countered. The most serious weapon the councils have is to withdraw the
service and the campaign must come up with appropriate tactics, otherwise
confidence in the campaign and mass non-payment can be undermined.
In Drogheda, within seven months of implementing the charge, the council withdrew
the service. In Limerick, within four months of privatising the service, Mr
Binman stopped collecting the rubbish of non-payers. We need some more
discussion about what people should do practically with non-collected rubbish
with a view to putting huge pressure and the responsibility for such a
situation back on the councillors.
In Limerick the campaign identified local sites owned by the local authority
which were relatively close to most housing estates and advocated that in an
organised way residents should dump their rubbish there on a weekly basis. The
council would then be forced to clean it up. At the same time the campaign
wanted to put the councillors under intense political pressure. Unfortunately
while serious attempts were made to implement such tactics it didn't
To implement such an approach you would need a vibrant campaign with numbers of
activists in each estate. To achieve this you need to convince people to be
active and that takes a certain period of time. Within three and a half months
of people becoming aware of the charge their bins were not being collected. It
was very difficult in that time to prepare activists and residents generally
for what needed to be done.
For the movement in Dublin
certain tasks are already clearly posed. The campaign must have activists in
each estate and area who can intervene and affect the mood of the community. We
know what sanctions the councils can impose and we need to work out a response
that can capture the imagination of residents and be seen to be achievable. One
aspect of the campaign which assumes even more importance than during the water
charges battle is the needed to build strong links with council workers
generally and the bin workers in particular. If the campaign was able to get
these workers to agree not to withdraw the service to non-payers, the council
would be in difficult. As of now many of the bin workers in Dun
Laoghaire/Rathdown have stated that they support the campaign and will refuse
to implement any such instruction from the council. It is very important that a
key part of what the campaign stands for is no privatisation and for increased
investment to expand council services. The additional cash necessary must come
from central government.
Just as the water charges developed from being a very serious community
campaign to being a successful challenge to the establishment parties, there is
also huge potential to do the same in Dublin City. We will have to see how
things develop but because leadership, strategy and tactics are essential, our
party will have a crucial role to play.
For more information on the campaigns against refuse
charges in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown and Dublin Corporation, contact the Socialist
Party at (01) 6772592.
For other articles by the SP/CWI on the campaigns against water and bin charges in the South and against the proposed water charges in the North.
To get a broader image of what the Socialist Party stands for, visit our main site