Government’s attacks boosting Socialists’ reputation
Dublin West Socialist Party TD (MP), Joe Higgins and Dublin North Socialist Party councillor, Clare Daly have been sentenced to a month in prison and are currently serving their sentence in Dublin's Mountjoy prison.
Peter Hadden, Dublin
Their arrest and sentence for their part in the protest campaign against the imposition of bin charges has been front-page news. It has been the major talking point in the country, with Socialist Party representatives regularly debating the issue with government ministers and other establishment figures on national TV and radio.
Alongside the stiff sentences meted out to Joe and Clare there have been concerted attacks in the media on the Socialist Party. A section of the ruling class clearly want to clamp down on the bin charges protests as a way of dealing a blow at the Socialist Party which has been a constant thorn in their side. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern, who has had to bear much of the brunt of Joe Higgins' razor sharp attacks in the Dail (Parliament), has defended the jailing. Asked why he previously objected when a TD was jailed for protesting in defence of Dublin Traders, he drew a distinction with Joe, saying that the other TD is a "nice man".
Bin charges were introduced by the four local councils in the Greater Dublin area over the last two to five years. This provoked immediate anger from residents, especially in the working class areas. The Socialist Party, who led the successful non-payment campaign which defeated the Irish Government over water charges in the mid-1990s, proposed a similar non-payment campaign on this issue and began, along with others, to build support for it on the ground.
There was good support in working class areas across the city, but it was in the Fingal council area, which includes the Dublin West and Dublin North constituencies where Joe Higgins and Clare Daly hold their seats, that the campaign was best organised and most solid.
Workers are angry at the bin charge because they see it as double taxation. A previous Fianna Fail government, the party now in power, abolished local rates (property taxes) in 1977, but workers paid for local services out of central taxes, which rose astronomically. Currently 80% of the total tax intake comes from workers through the PAYE (Pay As You Earn) taxes levied on wages.
During the 1990s the Irish economy experienced an unprecedented boom. But the years of the "Celtic Tiger" are now over. Growth has slowed dramatically and is now close to 0%. Among the working class there is a sense that they largely missed out on the boom. Income tax cuts that were introduced benefited mainly the rich. When minimal tax cuts were made for the majority of PAYE workers this was generally in return for much lower wage rises. For tens of thousands of workers the Celtic Tiger meant soaring prices, especially house prices, but low wage rises.
Inequality increased dramatically during the Tiger years. The gap between rich and poor in Southern Ireland is now the second highest in the OECD, trailing only the USA. The real legacy of the boom for working class people is summarised by the fact that 40% of Irish children live on or below the poverty line.
Now the current Fianna Fail led government are attempting, through the local councils, to impose bin charges. If they succeed this will be stepping-stone to the privatisation of the bin service, as has already happened in some areas outside Dublin where the resistance to bin charges has been defeated. Beyond this the government are under pressure from the EU to implement water charges and this issue could come back onto the agenda.
There is anger also at the corruption which has been endemic in Irish political life and at the ways in which the super rich have managed to avoid paying taxes. Clare Daly and Joe Higgins have been able to help expose the corrupt practices of local councillors in the Fingal area who accepted "brown envelopes" stuffed with money in return for their support for lucrative land rezoning proposals.
A tax scandal, whereby rich individuals illegally stashed their money in special offshore accounts, has recently been exposed. While Joe Higgins and Clare Daly have been sent to jail for supporting working class people in opposing unjust taxation, not a single one of these "Ansbacher" account holders has seen the inside of a courtroom over the issue!
The campaign has now come to a confrontational head because of the steps taken by the Government and the local councils to break it. Some time ago they decided that they would no longer collect the bins of households that had not paid the charge. They were delayed in bringing this into effect when Joe Higgins, acting on behalf of the Socialist Party and the anti charges campaign, brought a legal challenge to the Supreme Court.
The case was won with a ruling that, under existing law, the councils were obliged to collect all rubbish, whether people had paid or not. The Government responded by rushing through legislation to close this legal loophole. They managed to get the legislation through before the summer recess this year and the bill was signed into law over the summer.
This gave a green light to the councils to change their policy to one of non-collection from households who had not paid the charge. First to act was Fingal council. They were in a position to act quickly because they had adopted a different system of organising payment than the other councils. Fingal introduced a weekly charge and gave those who paid a tag to put on their bin, making it easy to identify them. The other councils operate an annual charge.
Early in September Fingal Council officials announced that, from the 10th of the month, they would no longer collect the rubbish of non-payers. The campaign replied by leafleting houses throughout the area calling on people to respond by blockading the bin lorries if non-collection went ahead. Either everyone's rubbish would be collected or no-one's rubbish would be collected.
That morning residents successfully stopped collections in a number of areas. Three bin lorries were blockaded through the day. Clare Daly played a vital role in Dublin North in preventing repressive action from the police and bolstering the confidence of the residents. Several hundred people came together for an impromptu meeting held beside one truck, with Joe Higgins and local Socialist Party councillor, Ruth Coppinger, addressing the crowd.
Over the next few days more trucks were stopped and the rubbish collection was completely disrupted. Any hope that the council may have had that the campaign would quickly fizzle out was dashed.
Some of the trucks were allowed to go back to the depots at night but three of the trucks were held for 9-10 days in Dublin North. The twenty-four hour guard put on them brought people from the surrounding areas out to give support. Some people even pitched tents so that they could stay with the protest. As a result of the work done by Clare Daly in Dublin North additional affidavits were provided by the council’s legal team when both her and Joe were brought back to court accused of breaking the injunction.
Outside the Fingal area there were solidarity blockades in other parts of Dublin where the non-payment campaign is strong. Dublin City Council began to operate its own policy of non-collection, but only in predominately middle class areas where they knew there would be little organised resistance.
Faced with a determined campaign that was paralysing their refuse collection and showed no signs of crumbling, Fingal council officials decided to up the anti by going to the courts. On Wednesday 17th, one week after the blockades had started, they successfully sought an injunction against 15 people, ten of them Socialist Party members, prohibiting them from blockading the trucks. Their hope was that the threat of fines and imprisonment would intimidate residents. They also wanted to single out the Socialist Party, which they - correctly - saw as the backbone of the campaign.
Two days later - on the 19th - they singled out Joe and Clare, summoning them to court for committal proceedings. The result was the draconian month long sentence. The council also got the court to grant an attachment order giving the police powers to arrest anyone who blocked the trucks.
Obviously satisfied with his day's work, the Council's director of services said that they had no choice but to seek the jailings and announced that normal bin collections would "hopefully" begin the following Monday. He underestimated the anger of residents and the support for the campaign among the working class of Dublin. Had he paid attention to the support being given to campaign protestors outside he might not have been so hopefu1!
Even the Irish Times had to comment on the support: “Throughout the morning's hearing, a group of about 60 activists staged a noisy protest on the steps of the Four Courts and passing motorists sounded horns in support, at times almost drowning out the proceedings inside." (Our emphasis)
Protest meetings were organised in a number of areas across the city the next day. The biggest were in Dublin West and Dublin North where around a thousand people in total attended. These demonstrations were solidly working class, a characteristic of all the protests held by the campaign.
Far from a resumption of "normal" bin collections, Monday saw the protests continue. This "day of defiance" began with a blockade of the bin depot in Dublin North which prevented the bin lorries getting out for a time. Protests continued throughout the day. That evening a crowd of around 5,000 marched from Dublin City centre to Mountjoy prison. This was a loud and lively demonstration, organised at very short notice, and the chants of the crowd were clearly heard by Joe and Clare inside the prison.
Socialist Party speakers raised the need to extend the protest. The call for trade unions to organise walkouts demanding the release of Joe and Clare was especially warmly received.
Monday was also an international day of action with sections of the CWI around the world organising solidarity protests.
The next day the police began to exercise the sweeping powers of arrest the court had granted them. Twelve people were arrested at two blockades in working class estates in Dublin West. Four were Socialist Party members.
Nine of those arrested were summoned to appear in court the following day. All of them made it clear that they were not going to be intimated and would be prepared to go to prison. One of them spoke to the Irish Times answering the Council's depiction of the protestors as "pawns" of the Socialist Party. "They (The Socialist Party) are helping to guide us. But I am not a member of the party. Nor are most of the people out on the streets."
The defiance of the nine defendants was vindicated when the judge, ruling on a technicality, found in their favour and dismissed the case. Time, and the future actions of the court, will tell whether this decision had anything to do with legal niceties or whether it reflected a section of the establishment having second thoughts about the consequences of imprisoning working class residents for exercising their right to protest.
The leaders of the campaign are now discussing the next steps. There are difficulties to be dealt with - maintaining and extending the blockades, dealing with the problem of possible arrests, imprisonment, not to mention exorbitant court costs and possible fines and organising public demonstrations to tap into the support that is there among the working class.
There is a need to extend the campaign to other parts of Dublin. Public meetings that have been held in other parts of the city - in Finglas, Cabra, Ballyfermot, Liberties, Tallagh and others - have been very well attended, with crowds of between 300 - 700, and very angry. The difficulty of turning this into action is that Dublin City council are deliberately holding back from a policy of non-collection in the working class areas. There is also a need to extend the level of organisation of the campaign in the three council areas outside Fingal.
It is also vital that the campaign, and especially the issue of the jailings, is taken into the workplaces. There has been some union support. Shop stewards of the TEEU, which represents maintenance workers in local authorities, met on the 23rd and backed the campaign. They issued a call to Dublin Trades Council to convene a special meeting to discuss action.
Other union leaders have given support but it will take systematic pressure from below to put the idea of solidarity strike action on the agenda. This has not been helped by a statement from the right wing general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, David Begg, attacking the campaign and accusing Clare Daly and Joe Higgins and of leading people into a "cul de sac of imprisonment in pursuit of a political objective". Joe Higgins roundly condemned this "stab in the back" in the first public statement he was allowed to make from his prison cell.
This campaign has now developed into a direct confrontation between working class residents led by the Socialist Party and the establishment. Whatever the outcome there will be huge political repercussions. Even, on the worst scenario that the government do eventually get away with imposing this tax, they could well pay a huge political price.
Whatever happens, the Socialist Party is set to benefit. The party has shown in action that it will honour its commitment, and that of its representatives, to struggle on behalf of working people. Our standing across the country has already been raised enormously.
The idea, perpetrated consistently by the press, that this is a one man party, a "Joe Higgins party", has been laid to rest as numerous other spokespersons have dealt with the media and as the degree of party organisation on the ground has been demonstrated.
An opinion poll carried out by a Dublin radio station - admittedly on a small sample of people - put the Socialist Party at 12% across the city. A text poll carried out by TV 3 found that 60% of those responding supported the tactics of the campaign. Following the imprisonment of Joe and Clare the Ireland on Sunday newspaper commented: "Mr Higgins and Ms Daly could find themselves at the centre of an electoral backlash against this government".
La lotta continua.....
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