Water charges a key issue in Assembly election campaign

‘We Won’t Pay’ leads campaign for mass non-payment 7 March 2007 The battle against water charges in Northern Ireland is heating up, with only a few weeks left until the first bills arrive in April.

The Socialist Party has been to the fore in building opposition to the charges and, in particular, building support for mass non-payment. For several years, Socialist Party members and others have been energetically building the We Won’t Pay Campaign.
This has been extremely successful, to the point that this Campaign is now widely seen as leading the opposition to the charges.

Support for non-payment has grown massively, in large part down to the persistent work of the We Won’t Pay Campaign in promoting this idea. The slogan “We Won’t Pay” has become almost a catchphrase for the entire movement. The Campaign has organised scores of meetings in working class communities across Belfast and in other towns and villages. Activists have been recruited who are taking the message door to door in their own areas. A website has been set up and a Campaign hotline is now being advertised and is already receiving a stream of calls.
So far, almost 100,000 people have signed the Campaign’s non-payment pledge.

Socialist Party and We Won’t Pay Campaign members have also taken the issue into the workplaces. Shop stewards and workers in some of the key workplaces such as the Shorts (Bombardier) factory, the largest manufacturing plant left in Northern Ireland, and the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) are distributing We Won’t Pay material and actively supporting the campaign. Workers from the RVH have decided to leaflet every polling station in West Belfast on the day of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections with We Won’t Pay Campaign material.

Unions back non-payment

Apart from the left-led Fire Brigades Union, the only union to consistently back non-payment and to support the We Won’t Pay Campaign, the union leaderships initially resisted the non-payment call. But the growing mood against charges in working class areas and the pressure the union leaders came under from within their own ranks forced a change of position.

A number of key trade union conferences have now backed non-payment motions moved by Socialist Party members. The first union conference to back non-payment, in spite of opposition from the union leadership, was that of the public service union, NIPSA, the largest union in Northern Ireland. Since then the Northern Ireland Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has adopted this position, again in spite of platform opposition.
The Transport and General Workers Union has also, at least formally, come out for non-payment. In the latter part of last year, the Communications Workers Union also adopted a non-payment position. In what could be a very significant development, the postal section of this union is about to debate a motion that postal workers should refuse to deliver the water bills.
It is against this background the Northern Ireland Assembly election, called for 7 March, took place. This was an unusually subdued election by Northern Ireland standards. The outgoing Assembly never managed to set up an Executive and was on ice since the last election.

There is still no firm agreement between the main parties – Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein – that a new power sharing Executive will be in place in time for the 26 March deadline set by the British and Irish governments.
It is little wonder that, in working class areas, especially, there is profound disillusionment with all the main parties and little interest in, or attention paid to, the election.
For once, the usual sectarian issues have been, to some extent, pushed to the background during the election. The one issue that has consistently come up in election debates, on television, radio, in the newspapers as well as around the doors has been the issue of water charges. From day one of the election campaign, politicians from every party were consistently and continuously put on the spot on this question.

Politicians twist and squirm

This does not mean the election will be any less of a sectarian headcount than previous elections in N Ireland. The main sectarian parties have the advantage that they have not been in office and can blame the British government for cuts, privatisation and, of course, water charges. If they had been in power for the last few years, and were directly responsible for bringing in water charges, as well as other neo-liberal attacks, they might have faced a real electoral challenge on these issues.

Nonetheless, all the leading politicians had to twist and squirm, as they have felt the anger of tens of thousands of working class people, particularly over water charges. Even during the course of the campaign, they were forced to shift ground to try to convince people they are opposed to the charges and will get rid of them, if they get into power.
The truth is that not one of these parties has a firm position of opposition to water charges. In the brief period when the Assembly and Executive did exist, in 2002, they agreed, in principle, to introduce the charges. Fortunately for them, the Assembly collapsed before their proposals ever saw the light of day.

Since then, the parties half-heartedly postured against the charges. In this election, for example, most parties carried headlines in their manifestos opposing the charges. Only people who bothered to read the small print would have discovered what this “opposition” actually meant for most of the parties: accepting the charges but with some modifications.
Not surprisingly, all the main parties came out firmly against non-payment. Sinn Fein was particularly vociferous, arguing that because a rent and rate strike (non-payment campaign) against the introduction of internment without trial, in the early 1970s during the height of the Troubles, ended with people having to pay off huge debts, the non-payment tactic cannot be used again. They deliberately ignore the more recent examples of mass non-payment that succeeded – the poll tax battle, in Britain, and the campaign that defeated water charges in Dublin, in the mid-1990s.

All the parties found it very difficult to justify their position on the charges, including on non-payment, during the election. On the one hand, they promise to get rid of the charges but, on the other hand, they insist people should pay. When asked why people should pay the first instalment of a tax that is going to be abolished – or whether they will refund those who follow their advice and do pay – the parties are unable to come up with a coherent reply.
As a result, they were all forced, to one degree or another, to shift their position during the election. The DUP, for example, started out calling for metering and a cap on charges. By the end of the campaign water charges had become a “deal breaker” for Paisley’s DUP– the party stated it would only form a power-sharing government if Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor, came up with extra money to allow the Assembly government to get rid of the water charges.

Non payment only credible strategy

The groundswell of support for non-payment not only affected the politicians. From the outset, the Socialist Party and We Won’t Pay Campaign were the only people in the broader Coalition Against Water Charges, which was originally set up by the unions, who both argued for and worked on the ground to build non-payment.

Now the argument is won. No one can come up with a credible alternative strategy to defeat the charges. Most of those who initially opposed non-payment have had to come round, in words, at least, to support this idea. Previous proposals from the We Won’t Pay Campaign representatives, arguing the Coalition Against Water Charges should support non-payment, were shot down by the trade union leaders on the grounds it would “split” the campaign. But, at the most recent Coalition meeting, the same union leaders led the call for the Coalition to become a non-payment Coalition, and this was agreed.

There is no doubt that, for some, the reason for the sudden turnaround is to try to block the We Won’t Pay Campaign from having a clear field on the issue. A campaign called ‘Communities Against the Water Tax’, which was totally inactive for years, and, at best, had a soft position on non-payment, was suddenly resurrected by an unholy alliance of the SWP (Socialist Workers’ Party), one or two ex members of the Socialist Party, and by some trade union leaders.

The SWP tried to use the ‘Communites Against the Water Tax’ banner to go into one or two working class areas where the We Won’t Pay Campaign is well-established, calling meetings to set up a rival campaign. When We Won’t Pay and Socialist Party members attended these ‘Communities Against the Water Tax’ meetings and put the case for a single united campaign, the response of the SWP organisers was to argue “The more campaigns in an area the better”! Needless to say, this sectarian approach meant the ‘Communities Against the Water Tax’ organisers fell flat on their faces in their attempt to build anything in these communities.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign met with Communities Against the Water Tax leaders and made a proposal for one united campaign that would be membership based, organised geographically, and democratically structured. To date, this offer has not been taken up.
At the end of last summer, the We Won’t Pay Campaign took the decision to go for a major demonstration in Belfast on 31 March, this year, the day before the charges are due to come in. The Socialist Party and We Won’t Pay Campaign activists were the only people who had confidence, last summer, there was a mood for non-payment amongst the working class and this mood would intensify in the run-up to the introduction of the charges.
With We Won’t Pay posters already up, and leaflets already circulating, a momentum for the 31 March demonstration is starting to build. This caused the other forces in the broad Coalition to shift their ground.

Others shift ground on non-payment issue

When the trade union anti-water charges group, a body set up in response to the NIC ICTU (Northern Ireland Committee/Irish Congress of Trade Unions) motion on non-payment, received a request from the We Won’t Pay Campaign to support the 31 March demo, and to provide a speaker, they responded with a proposal for the demonstration on 31 March to be a Coalition demonstration, not a We Won’t Pay Campaign event.
The initial We Won’t Pay Campaign response was that it would be possible to work out an agreement for a joint demonstration with the unions, but, as it was a non-payment demonstration, it could not be organised by the Coalition which, at that point, was not in favour of non-payment.

It was in this context that the meeting of the Coalition that backed non-payment was called – the first meeting for months of a group that had lapsed into complete inactivity. There were only two items proposed for the agenda; firstly whether to adopt a non-payment position and secondly whether to organise the 31 March demonstration. After the non-payment decision was taken it was agreed in principle that the demonstration should be under the name of the Coalition but, at the insistence of the We Won’t Pay delegation, this would be subject to platform and other details being agreed.
Suggestions were made in the run up to this meeting that if the We Won’t Pay Campaign did not accept this proposal, the rest of the Coalition might organise a protest, one day earlier, on Friday 30 March (This idea was put forward by the SWP-backed Communities Against the Water Tax). It was even privately suggested the unions should call a demonstration for 12 noon, on the 31st, just one hour before the We Won’t Pay demonstration!

The position taken by the We Won’t Pay Campaign and by Socialist Party members in the Coalition and the unions was that it would be preferable to have one united demonstration. The Socialist Party supports the call for maximum unity to achieve the biggest demonstration possible – but not unity at any price.
A united demonstration would only be possible if there was agreement on the nature of the demonstration; that it is clearly and unambiguously a non-payment demo, and with agreement on the demo’s speakers. During the only previous demonstration called by the Coalition, the We Won’t Pay Campaign was refused a speaker. In fact, in the whole time the Coalition has been in existence, the We Won’t Pay Campaign has only once been given a speaker at a public event, and this had to be fought for.

Meeting debates 31 March demo

A meeting between We Won’t Pay Campaign representatives, the trade unions and Communities Against the Water Tax took place recently to discuss the details of the 31 March demonstration. An SWP member suggested there should only be Coalition speakers, not speakers from individual campaigns, on 31 March. This would have left the We Won’t Pay Campaign with no speaker at a demonstration it initiated and organised. The proposal was quickly dismissed.

A tentative compromise was arrived at between the We Won’t Pay Campaign and the trade unions (unfortunately, the two representatives of Communities Against the Water Tax left the meeting before it was concluded). This now has to be taken back to the respective organisations for their consideration.
This gist of this outline agreement is that the demonstration will be a Coalition demonstration but the outside speakers who were originally invited by the We Won’t Pay Campaign – Tommy Sheridan, from Scotland, and Joe Higgins, from Dublin – would be on the platform, and there also would be a speaker from the We Won’t Pay Campaign. There would also be speakers from the trade unions and from Communities Against the Water Tax. It is still unclear whether this will be agreed to by everyone in the Coalition but, in one form or another, the 31 March demonstration will go ahead.

Socialist Party election candidates

While all this went on, the Socialist Party ran an Assembly election campaign. Two Socialist Party candidates are running – Fire Brigades Union leader, Jim Barbour, is standing in South Belfast, and longstanding Socialist Party member and community activist, Tommy Black, in East Belfast. Because the main emphasis of the party’s work was on building for water charges non-payment, it was not possible to mount the type of campaign the party conducted in previous elections.

The decision to stand was taken partly for reasons of continuity – the party contested these seats in the last Assembly and local government elections – and also to raise the profile of the party and the We Won’t Pay Campaign.
Posters were put up, a manifesto issued to every house, street stalls held in key parts of both constituency, and limited canvassing carried out. The response on the doors and on the streets was very good, especially in working class areas.
In East Belfast, for example, the warmest response to a party stall was in the lower Newtownards Road, an area that throughout the Troubles was one of the most hard-line loyalist districts in Belfast, and a stronghold of both the UDA and UVF paramilitary organisations.

This support, despite the relatively low-key campaign, may translate into some extra votes – but these are not likely to be first preference votes. The vast majority of people, unfortunately, will vote along sectarian lines, giving their first preferences to one of the main sectarian parties and, only then, voting for a socialist candidate who they may agree with but do not see as having any chance of winning.
Whatever the result, the limited campaign increased the standing of the Socialist Party in the two constituencies, and beyond, and serves as a good springboard for the task of building for the 31 March demo and for mass non-payment.

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