Debate abounds about the possibilities for a progressive government, or a left government, or whatever you want to call it, taking shape in Ireland after the next elections in light of recent opinion polls. I have serious doubts that such a thing is likely. Nonetheless, I believe that the collective act of not paying the water charges would be indispensable for this to happen, and indeed, in light of present circumstances, indispensable to any kind of broad progressive-left-socialist-real democratic movement in Ireland.
People refusing to pay water charges have been subjected to all manner of threats from ruling politicians, channelled by the mainstream media. They have been pilloried as freeloaders and law breakers. Such threats serve their purpose if they are not faced down by a countervailing force, when no-one asks: who are these people to issue such threats, and why?
What is at stake with Irish Water and the payment of water charges can be explained in terms of legality and legitimacy. The institutions of the State, and the parties of the political establishment, view legality and legitimacy as one and the same. If it is legal, then it is legitimate.
The introduction of Irish Water; the multi-billion bailout of wealthy bondholders; cuts to the top rate of income tax alongside cuts to payments to lone parents; debt write-downs for billionaires whilst 101-year-olds lie sick for days on hospital trolleys: all these things, not only from the government point of view but also from the point of view, lamentably, of Ireland’s trade union leadership, are legitimate because they are legal.
Moreover, since the constitution says Ireland is a democratic State, then the actions of that State, regardless of how destructive they prove, are democratic. And so it goes. But it is important to point out that the State itself flagrantly disregards its legal obligations whenever it sees fit.
To give a pertinent example, given today’s proceedings in Geneva: Ireland is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And yet the policies that have been implemented by the State, particularly in recent years under the austerity agenda, have amounted to an attack on these rights. What is more, even though the Irish government had the opportunity to give greater protection to such rights arising from the Constitutional Convention it established, it refused to do so. Neither the Irish government nor the regime media, which from the outset supported bank bailouts and austerity, and the consequent attacks on economic, social and cultural rights as self-evident obligations, are in any position to lecture anyone in Ireland, least of all those most acutely affected by these attacks, on what is legitimate and democratic.
The prevailing definition of what is legitimate and what is democratic, and the prevailing identification of legality with legitimacy, amount, to paraphrase the Catholic Church, to the Preferential Option For The Rich. Hence if people seek political change in the absence of any will to contest the legitimacy of the actions of those in power, and if they do so based on the conviction, or at least the assumption, that what the State does is legitimate because it is the State and because the rules have ordained it so, then popular mobilisation for democratic change is bound to flounder.
Few things are more restrictive and debilitating for progressive forces than the idea that you can just elect a government and reverse whatever has been implemented, using the same instruments and in the same way of operating.
Unless there is a mobilised populace that imposes its own norms, concerning what is legitimate and what is not, then we will just have more of the same. Ireland’s ruling cliques would like nothing more than for the oligarchical definition of democracy to continue to hold sway, for people in Ireland to be isolated from the broader understanding of democracy that is unfolding elsewhere. For it is not just in Ireland that people are refusing to pay water charges as a means of establishing democratic rule. Barcelona en Comú, for example, declared in its election manifesto that Barcelona’s City Council ‘must guarantee universal access to water, and its management ought to be conducted on the basis of social and environmental criteria, not subject to private business’. To this end, Barcelona en Comú has said it is prepared to promote a campaign of non-payment in order to bring the water supply back under municipal control.
Either we will have democracy, or we will have the Preferential Option for Denis O’Brien.