Government loses battle on water charges but wages war on Left

On the surface, one legacy of the last two years of Socialist Party (CWI) action in Ireland will be the suspension, once again, of water charges. The mass movement against water charges cannot be overstated in a country that has seen the complete lack of a fighting trade union leadership and the complete capitulation of the Labour Party. Ireland has been in the depths of a crisis of leadership for a generation and more. Despite this, the Irish working class have struck a significant blow, with water charges being suspended.

This is a massive climb-down by the government, a real marker for working class people achieved through mass demonstrations, confrontation, and through organised non-payment. The boycott of bills by over 50% of the population was the fulcrum on which the movement swung. Despite the unwillingness of Sinn Fein and the trade union led Right2Water campaign to endorse and promote this tactic, the Socialist Party and the Anti-Austerity Alliance were able to intervene to popularise and politicise this message and raise aspirations toward victory and a broader political fightback.

As well as the many mass demonstrations in Dublin and across the whole country, small often spontaneous actions by communities were an important feature of the movement. This came through disruption of water meter installations, occupations and protests against government figures. One such protest is now synonymous with the water charges campaign – “Jobstown”.

Three Socialist Party members- Paul Murphy TD [Irish MP], Cllr Mick Murphy and Cllr Kieran Mahon  - are among nineteen adults and one youth charged with false imprisonment and related charges of the Deputy Prime Minister, Joan Burton, and her assistant. These charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. A six month sentence would remove Paul Murphy as a TD. This would represent a major scalp for the capitalist establishment.

Despite media portrayals of violence, the protest in Jobstown would not raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances. The betrayal of election promises by the Labour Party, which went into a coalition government with the right wing Fine Gael party after the 2011 General Election, was a key catalyst. Local disgust at the invitation of Labour Party leader Joan Burton to an education awards ceremony in Jobstown, on 15 November 2014, was clear, with students making it clear they did not want her present.

Organised by word of mouth and social media saw the protest grow to approximately 700 people from the nearby community. The presence of female protestors of all ages was particularly noticeable. As Minister for Social Protection, Burton had been directly responsible for cuts to children’s allowance and family support payments that had a deep impact on local people.

The initial sit down protest has become a real point of contention. During this sit down, Paul Murphy, who had been elected to the Dail to represent the area, in a sensational bye-election just over a month previously on October 14th, was assaulted and stripped by police. He was kept in place by local women who intervened and physically prevented his removal by police. At a later stage, a sit down protest was used effectively when the riot squad moved in on the protest as Joan Burton’s vehicle was being slow driven out of Jobstown. The action lasted about three hours, with the Labour leader leaving with the chants of “We Won’t Pay!” ringing in her ears and the unfurled banners of protest in her rear view mirror, with most people glad to see the back of her.

The return of the police riot squad into the area after Burton left, in a show of strength challenging younger members of the community, has been used by the establishment to blur the lines of the day’s events; to demonise the role of the alleged organisers and to distract from the political nature of the day.

Media reaction

The instant carnival of reaction by the media verged on hysteria, with radio stations and tabloid papers backed up by the state broadcaster. All official news stories were introduced by RTE’s (state broadcaster) chief crime correspondent. The word “guilty” was used liberally and unconditionally, with Paul Murphy and the AAA identified as the chief organisers. Independent News and Media owned by Fine Gael-backing tax exile, Denis O Brien, screamed outrage. His company, now under investigation, had “won” the lucrative contract to install the water meters.

Despite the barrage of media pressure, Paul Murphy, in particular, steadfastly refused to condemn the events and instead turned the discussion on its head by repeatedly highlighting the betrayal of working class people by the Labour Party and what Joan Burton, as its leader, represented to the local communities. The State’s response was to increase its attacks on the AAA and the movement. Members of the Irish Parliament publicly compared the AAA to ISIS. Reams of newspaper print and weeks of air time were dedicated to ridiculing protesters and the Left.

As the movement forced concession after concession on water charges, speculation mounted that the government would pursue Jobstown protesters. Leaks and media exclusives ran alongside Irish Water’s billing cycle and as the boycott of water charges increased, so did the Establishment attacks. It became known that police had set up an incident room with a fully dedicated team of officers scouring internet footage and social media accounts for evidence to be used against protestors.

In February 2015, dawn raids were carried out by police, with three Socialist Party members arrested at their family homes, by teams of six officers. A sixteen year old, facing trial this September was arrested by nine police officers. The political tone of the operation was immediately apparent. Dawn raids continued with approximately 28 adults and young people, predominantly male, seized in the early hours and questioned, under caution, for up to eight hours.

Each day the raids were met with protests at Garda [Irish police] stations, with local and city centre demonstrations, media interventions and solidarity action from communities across the countrym who were also fighting similar battles. Simultaneously to the arrests, four people were jailed for their ongoing protests against the water metering programme.

In August 2015 after a serious of high profile leaks to the state broadcaster summonses were issued outlining the charges of false imprisonment and, for 11 of the 20, additional charges of violent behaviour. Those involved were informed by the media of pending charges. The Minister for Defence would later confirm the existence of ‘Operation Mizen’ - a secret surveillance operation tracking the activities of high profile water protestors, including the potential use of electronic bugging. In response, those charged have organised under the #JobstownNotGuilty banner to organise protests and material in defence of themselves and the broader movement.

In October 2015, with an election looking very possible, the AAA were refused permission to fundraise on the basis that funds would be used to encourage illegal activity. When the election finally came in February 2016, Paul Murphy (AAA) retained his seat to the Dail (Irish parliament) and made significant gains with massive support from the Jobstown community and similar working class areas.

Establishment attacks Left

Seven court appearances later, the dye had been cast for the largest political trial in Ireland in decades. The Jobstown protest is being used by the state to attack the developing left. Just months before Jobstown, the AAA had 14 Councillors elected nationally in local elections. Last October, Paul Murphy struck a sensational victory over Sinn Fein in a Dail by-election, including the area of Jobstown, giving a clear political voice to the anti-austerity sentiment.

In a recent trials in the Children's Court, the courts have taken the opportunity to issue a clear statement of intent with one judge stating that " this attack on the elected Tánaiste of Ireland (Burton) is an attack on the Irish State" The Judge highlighted this while imposing a six month sentence on one youth, also charged with other unrelated offences. Any inclination that the Irish State is not serious in its pursuit of the Jobstown protestors should be immediately corrected.

The trials will begin in April 2017, under the watch of a deeply unpopular government, and will put the programme of the Socialist Party and Anti-Austerity Alliance centre stage. The campaign to defend the accused is vital in order to defend the right to protest. These events can impact radically on the re-emerging working class consciousness, clearly highlighting the repressive role of the capitalist state. #JobstownNotGuilty is currently developing a plan for national and international actions of solidarity over the coming year, to highlight the threatened injustice and defend the right to protest.

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