Brendan Ogle is one of the great inspirers of the movement Right2Water, a movement that started in 2014 as a reaction on the austerity agenda of the Irish government, enforced by the EU. The Irish government decided to privatise the water supply by installing the company Irish Water. Motivated by the unions, inspired by the European Citizens Movement and starting from the principle of water as a human right, Right2Water developed a new organisational three-pillar model with unionists, community organisations and progressive political parties to successfully resist and change policy decisions. An inspiring and critical conversation on the historical context, current conditions and future of the movements Right2Water and Right2Change.
“Technically, Right2Water started in 2014. But if we were to talk about Right2Water or the water campaign in Ireland while leaving out the context of 2008, you wouldn’t get the full picture. In 2008, our little country, which has less than 1% of the European population, was hit by the financial crash. We had a particularly bad banking crisis. It didn’t help the trade unions didn’t fight back against unfolding austerity or disastrous political decisions from the trade unions. The Irish Trade Union had been in a period of social partnership and had been doing trades with governments for small increases and industrial peace since the mid 1980s. But when the crash happened, the trade unions were kicked out of government buildings, and the partnerships were ended. And there was no reaction, no mobilisation. There was no clear political mobilisation or reaction from the progressive political parties – I define ‘progressives’ as those who are interested in a more fairer distribution of wealth, either in the member state or within the European Union as a whole – either because they had entered into a coalition with the established political parties who became a cheerleader for the austerity agenda, because they were relatively new to electoral politics or because they didn’t have critical mass to make a change. People reacted against this. Against the background of the European elections, where parties were competing against each other for a European Parliament seat, community activists themselves had started to do something. It almost went unnoticed by me, by the unions, and by the political parties.
“When the troika arrived to bail Ireland out, it became clear that a country with less than 1% of the European population was responsible for 41% of European banking depth.”
Historically, our water and infrastructure has been controlled and funded through 33 local authorities, so no central body. There was also a lack of investment, but what investment there was had been gathered through general taxation. There had never been a period of ‘water charges’ (they tried it a couple of times in the 70s and again in the 90s) as in other parts of Europe. When the troika arrived to bail Ireland out, it became clear that a country with less than 1% of the European population was responsible for 41% of European banking depth. That was the scale of the austerity. So you can imagine the reason for the cost of public services and the suicide epidemic… This was happening from 2008 to 2014. And then in 2014, the troika also wanted our water company, as they wanted in Greece, in Portugal, etcetera. The problem with that was that we had no water company, no billing system, no metering system, no central utility that they could just take and hand to the private sector. So they ordered us to create one. That became Irish Water. So the Irish government started putting the legal processes in place to create that company. From around March 2014, the company Irish Water started installing water meters outside people’s homes. And it was around that time that the first signs of meaningful revolt took place.
In Belvelly, Cork, a young girl of 19 woke up one morning from the noise, got out of bed, walked out and told the guy who was installing a water meter to move. Her neighbours gathered and, by the end of the day, the street had organically decided: there are no water meters coming in this street. That idea spread to surrounding streets, then the word spread to Dublin, through social media. Not through any controlling organ somewhere, no, just people talking on social media. And within a couple of weeks around the country, half a dozen protests started happening, all of them at a community level.
On the back of the European elections this union and another union were invited by the political left in all of its brilliant unity to a meeting in our parliament, to discuss whether a campaign could be built around the impending water charges. The charges were to begin in October 2014, they hadn’t come in yet (everybody would be getting a bill, whether you had a meter or not, they were going to assume your usage based on averages until the time you got your meter). It was one of the most depressing meetings, because it was basically a fight between two particular elements of the left. We realised they were not going to build a campaign together. They could barely talk to each other. So my colleague Dave Gibney said: “We will come up with a plan for a campaign, give us a couple of months and we come back to you.”
“The only protest we’ve seen isn’t trade union or political, it is street led. So, we have to create a model that doesn’t threaten or disenfranchise those organic protests, but encourages them.”
That plan turned out to be Right2Water. We borrowed the name from the Right2Water campaign under way in Europe in the effort to have water declared a human right by the European Union. There was no major brainwork needed for that. So we reflected that if we ever needed this to work, a new model of organising would have to be developed. Trade union campaigns tend to exclude those who aren’t trade unionists or don’t see themselves as trade unionists. Political campaigns may become politically sectarian and they may exclude people who, for example, are involved in street activism and local protests. And then we knew, the only protest we’ve seen isn’t trade union or political, it is street led. So, we had to create a model that doesn’t threaten or disenfranchise those organic protests, but encourages them. We decided to try to structure a campaign that was human rights based. We thought that this would appeal to people’s sensitivities. The slogan ‘Water is a human right’ was an obvious slogan and we linked that to the successful United Nations European Water Campaign.
“It didn’t threaten any of [the politicians or the media], since it was focused on something incredibly general as human rights.”
We did all of the behind-the-scenes work from June to September: we bought websites, we built social media platforms… And then we’d go back to the political people and we showed them our plan. They liked it. It didn’t threaten any of them, since it was focused on something incredibly general as human rights. Then we started meeting local groups, only one or two because time was limited. Water charges were coming in in October, so we announced the eleventh of October 2014 as the day Right2Water would organise its first demonstration.
We decided we would have six weeks between each demonstration. We would use the name, the social media platforms, the website and local organising and street meetings to build for the campaign. So we produced 500.000 leaflets. And this for a population of four and a half million people. Through social media we asked people to call in and to take boxes, buckets, by the handful, whatever, and to distribute them in the local communities, put them up in shops, and if necessary to hold street meetings. These street meetings were kind of happening everywhere, but having the focal point of the leaflets and the demonstration gave focus and direction. So a consistent part of our plan for all the nine demonstrations were the 500.000 leaflets, the six weeks’ notice, and then we would all call a press conference about ten days before the event.
At that point there was no difficulty getting the attention of the media because it was new and the media – even the neo-liberal media – didn’t see our project as a threat. It was exciting, it was something to talk about. “Put them on the radio! It’s about time the Irish are fighting back”. That was the initial reaction, even of the establishment.
So, I remember the day before the eleventh of October, getting called to the Dublin police. The police said they knew we had a big event coming up the day after and asked us how many we were expecting. We had no idea, but they told us they we estimated there were coming around 20.000 people. Then the day happened itself and everybody, including we, was just blown away. Over a 100.000 people came to Dublin to protest. We didn’t have nearly enough stewards, it was chaos. Despite the massive size it was hugely successful.
“In the model we’ve come up with we call it the three pillars: trade unions, politicians and communities. Three pillars working together, intertwining with each other, on the basis of consensus.”
So then we broke our six-week rule immediately and called another day, first of November 2014, as a day for local demonstrations. We tried to find out whether this thing had a national footprint? We didn’t have the resources or the manpower to do all of them. We produced the 500.000 leaflets again, we did the press conferences again, we set up Facebook event pages and then we asked people to contact us with the details of their event. We’d publicise it on our central website en encourage people to go, and if we could help with some sound systems of some this or some that, we would, but basically with very little resources, they had to organise most of it on their own. When the day came, there were 106 demonstrations with over 200.000 attendees. 60.000 people in Dublin, 30.000 people in Cork, 20.000 in Limerick and then all the little ones: 3.000 here, 2.000 there, 400 there… And at that stage we knew this thing was big. Our expectations had changed. What was happening was something really organic. In the model we’ve come up with we call it the three pillars: trade unions, politicians and communities. Three pillars working together, intertwining with each other, on the basis of consensus. No Righ2Water decision, event or statement could be taken without consensus among those three pillars. That sounds utopian and democratic, but it was also a real nightmare. Because we had no elected positions. Anybody could come to any Right2Water meeting and say anything. So meetings that normally took half an hour to decide the location of the next demonstration for example, could suddenly go on for four to six hours. It was torture, but it worked in the end.
And then we’d got into a situation when we called the next one, the tenth of December 2014. This time we were going to try to internationalise our demonstration, since the fight for water clearly isn’t just about Ireland. We had linked the campaign to water as a human right, and we have seen it as a key asset all over the world. We didn’t start off with this view, but we developed it along the way. There was also something about water that strikes people emotionally in a way that other issues don’t. It’s about life itself. We also weren’t going to have it on a Saturday anymore, but in the middle of the day in the middle of the week outside the Parliament while the Parliament was sitting.
And at that time a group called ‘the Detroit Water Brigade’ had been going around the US raising money and water in trucks to bring it to Detroit. So we flew them to Dublin and brought them around the country to speak about their experiences in Detroit, as a single mother, as a community actor, as a Jewish businessman and as a gay black man. So from different perspectives they spoke at meetings all over Ireland. They called themselves – it was December – all ghosts of Christmas’ future: if you don’t stop this now, we are what is going to happen to you. It wasn’t all serious ‘we-are-going-to-die-stuff’, everywhere they went they were welcomed, kids prepared dances and songs for them, gifts were handed over, etcetera. There was huge fun aspect to it, all of this was building towards the demonstration.
“We had reached this stage with a country which, despite its history of not protesting, was protesting at a record level.”
We knew by then it was going to be huge. We all knew we were talking about tens of thousands of people, we were getting a lot of international attention by then. From the very start we involved artists, musicians, poets, dancers, singers… Glen Hansard, a famous singer and Oscar winning filmmaker, appeared on the stage the day of the demonstration and sang songs. We had bands and musicians writing special songs for the event itself. We had reached this stage with a country which, despite its history of not protesting, was protesting at a record level.
By then the political establishment and their media and police lost their fun and innocent views about our events. This thing had massive popular support and started to become threatening to their agenda. The police suddenly took a cynical approach to the demonstration and treated it as a threat to national safety. The media helped them by contextualising the water movement as subversive and anti-democratic. We were ‘far right’, we were ‘far left’, we were linked to the IRA, the UVF… anything you can think of that is bad. Two neo-liberal oligarchs own our media: Robert Murdoch and the Irish Denis O’Brien. The liberal media does not own RTÉ, our national broadcast, but it has completely absorbed the ideology. So the establishment – unfortunately I consider the media as being part of the establishment – went from initially seeing this as a novelty to now seeing it as a threat to their plans and their two-party hegemony. They didn’t really know what was going on and neither did we to be honest.
“The rest of the world, including our comrades in Europe, can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. The one thing we’ve got right is the paying for water through progressive taxation.”
We are the only country in the OECD who pays for our water through progressive general taxation. And as a result of that, we are the only country in the OECD with zero water poverty. In other words: in Ireland, if you need water to wash, to eat, to feed your children, whatever, you get it when you need it. Based on the need, not based on whether you payed your bill this month. Thus, that makes us unique. We’ve got an awful lot that is going wrong in Ireland since Independence. And the rest of the world, including our comrades in Europe, can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. The one thing we’ve got right is the paying for water through progressive taxation. It is the fairest and most humane way of dealing with such a crucial resource. But we are very much aware that we are just a very small part of a global attack on people’s right to water. And it is happening all over the world.
We did a lot of research. We’ve got people with various skills involved in the campaign to help us out with that. One of the arguments for meters that the opposition gave is that you have to have a meter because it will teach you to consume less water and therefore be more environmental friendly. Now there is a big presumption in that. The first presumption is that we use too much water. The second presumption is that the meter would teach us to use less. Those were taken almost as articles of faith by the establishment. We are all wasters, we are all filling our swimming pools, we leave taps on all the time… This was said in mainstream media repeatedly. So, of course, we had an easy comparator here. Because there is Britain. And Britain privatised water in 1998. So we were interested to find out how much less water than us they consumed. We have the same climate, we have the same diet, we share the same culture, watch the same telly and support the same football teams. So we discovered that they used 20% more water than us. When we did more research on the how and why, we discovered they waste water and the reason why they waste water is because they invest less. In fact they invest practically nothing at all in the water system. Because they have fifteen water companies which are all privately owned (apart from Wales). And those companies see water as an asset and just use it for a vehicle to monetise. Worldwide water now is more profitable as an asset class than oil or gas. In fact, apart from financial aspects, water is the most profitable asset class on the planet.
“[In 2008-2009] we were a country suffering from a national collective trauma, from the effect of the IMF bailout, the loss of economic sovereignty, the weight of the banking depth. […] We were not ready to fight back yet.”
There are different elements that explain our success. A first element is ‘timing’. Would this have happened in 2008-2009? In my opinion, no. In my opinion we were a country suffering from a national collective trauma, from the effect of the IMF bailout, the loss of economic sovereignty, the weight of the banking depth. We were very shocked, more than we were angry. So we were not ready for a fight back yet. The water charges came at the end of the bailout, just as the troika were leaving. So timing was on our side. People thought we had had enough and were not letting them take the water as well.
The second thing that was a big issue was the stupidity of the government and their arrogance. The Minister at the time, who is now our European commissioner, Phil Hogan, appeared on our TV stations and was asked: “What is going to happen if people don’t pay the bills?” He actually sneered on live TV: “We just turn their water down to a trickle. They won’t like that.” He said this with such a complacent arrogance. I couldn’t tell you how many times we used that clip. Every time Phil Hogan appeared on TV, there were demonstrations. And then they chose Alan Kelly to replace him. I didn’t think it was possible to have a more arrogant politician than Phil Hogan, but they found him. And we had Alan Kelly right up until the water charges were gone.
So, timing, complacency which became arrogance of the government, and the fact that water was the issue. We have a huge homeless crises in Ireland, the health system is broken, but water, for whatever reason, connected with people in a way that other issues that are as important just don’t.
“In this campaign we decided to discuss only what we can agree on and stick to that.”
A fourth element was the organising model. You guys aren’t Irish, If you were, we would be having an argument by now. Put any five Irish people in a room and there will be an argument. My own idea is that it goes back to imperialism. We are hardwired not to talk about what we agree on, but what we disagree on. We constantly discuss and debate in Ireland about the things we don’t agree on and then we wonder why we get nowhere. In this campaign we decided to discuss only what we can agree on and stick to that. People instinctively tried to bring other things into the discussion. Can we have a non-payment campaign when the bills start coming? I didn’t pay any bills and I made it clear that I wouldn’t pay any bills, I would go to jail before I’d pay any bill. But my mom is 84, she has paid every bill she has ever got in her life. That is just the way she is. So should she be excluded from the campaign? There are people who are tenants, usually single mothers – there is an issue in this country with single mothers because single mothers were targeted during the austerity agenda and a lot of single mothers had income support cuts, in some cases just eliminations which left them exposed to landlords – should they be excluded from our campaign? So, we had a big debate for about one and a half years. I was completely opposed to the campaign becoming ‘non-payment’, and we constantly said “No, we have one objective: abolition of domestic water charges, for those who pay and for those who don’t pay! So let’s not create division upon ourselves, a lot of people out there are doing that for us.”
“[W]hile the unions and the communities look for a common ground, the political parties look for difference, and to exaggerate such difference for their own political benefit.”
When it comes to a meeting and what tends to emerge, is that only one of the three pillars comes with a prepared, considered position to the debates, and that tends to be the trade union pillar. They are also the pillar that is hardwired to find an agreement. We’re trade unions, so we believe in structure, in constitutions, in votes, we believe in planning. So the trade unions, and there are five of them involved in Right2Water, we always meet, we do it naturally, informal and formal. What do all the different community groups do? They talk within their communities, in isolation to each other. They have networks and they share information across Facebook, but they don’t generally sit down in a structured way and discuss what’s happening at the next meeting. And what would the political parties do? They are effectively in competition with each other. That is the nature of politics. So while the unions and the communities look for common ground, the political parties look for difference , and to exaggerate such difference for their own political benefit. In those meetings, they look at us to effectively say to the political people to stop squabbling like cats. We have to come up with a common position.
Another thing that helps the acceptance of the community people, particularly on the trade union role, is we’re the ones who could bring the resources. 95% of all of the cost of all of Right2Water has been made by the trade unions, so by the trade union members. The trade unions are paying, the politicians should listen a bit to them, there is a bit of that to it also. This thing hasn’t worked because there aren’t frictions. There are millions of frictions.
Of course, there are other human rights. We don’t think that the three pillar model, for us, would work on a different issue. For example, the issue that is also close to my heart is homelessness, the issue of the housing crises. How do we get a campaign that addresses that?
“[T]he private sector is not a person, it is not an autonomous thinking being, it is an economic model and it only knows one thing to do: to run for profits.”
Personally, I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a house that was built by the local authority. And most of my peers, my friends, my family grew up in the same conditions. So, local authorities built houses, and the private sector built houses. So there was a competition between the local authorities and the private sector that regulated each other. The excesses of the private sector were regulated by the fact that the authorities built houses and provided supply. And what happened – we can thank Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for this – local authorities from the 1970s stopped building houses entirely. In other words, all the house building is now done by the private sector. And the private sector is not a person, it is not an autonomous thinking being, it is an economic model and it only knows one thing to do: to run for profits.
What we have now is suppressed supply and astronomical housing costs which have been developing over decades to such an extent now that the gap between those who are even in medium paying jobs and the cost in Dublin to buy a house (average three bedroom house in Dublin about 360.000 a year – that is just an average) has become completely disjointed. We always had some level of homelessness, usually because of personal issues and addiction issues. We now have economical messes added to that, even with people in medium low and medium jobs – in work poverty is now a phrase we routinely use – because even people in work can’t afford a home. Young people under 30 will not own a house in Ireland, ever. The market is perverting the provision of services away from those who live in the place to those who visit the place. At the moment there are 8.900 beds advertised on Airbnb in Dublin and 4.500 Dublin citizens living in emergency accommodation. And I’m talking about families, children doing their homework on the bed, that are told that they can’t leave the hotel through the front door because the hotel doesn’t want other guests to know that there are homeless people staying there. Imagine the dietary issues and mental health issues.
If we believe that we need progressive change and the redistribution of wealth, then what are the issues that need to be tackled? Well, we identified them: water, housing, health, education, sustainable environment, jobs and decent work, the dealing with national resources, and democratic reform on how a parliament works, how elections are run… The media is another one.
“But in terms of building a permanent movement for change, which is what we are trying to do in the end, we need something structured, properly resourced, properly staffed.”
What sort of structure can deliver on those issues to the extent that we have delivered on water? We don’t believe that the informal three-pillar structure will do that or can do that. We think it can work in the right circumstances and on a single issue campaign. But in terms of building a permanent movement for change, which is what we are trying to do in the end, we need something structured, properly resourced, properly staffed. It was clear to us that a lot of people were angry about the water and about the privatisation. They understood ‘they want to privatise the water’. But that was it. They didn’t understand where the privatisation agenda came from, they didn’t understand where that could be pinned in ideology, and they didn’t understand how that linked up to other issues. Is there a link between what we are trying to do with the water and the homelessness crisis? There is, if you understand neo-liberalism.
We started providing political economy education with a group called ‘Trademark Belfast’. They take people from different community groups and they usually start analysing Chili 1973, a democratic government being overthrown, Milton Friedman, the fall of apartheid, fall of the Soviet Union… And then you can see people seeing the bigger picture. So in terms of building a movement that can deliver change, what you need is education, education, education. The trade unions in the 1980s stopped doing all that. When education was taken over by the right, nothing replaced it. So what we are trying to do, as part of building a permanent movement for change, is providing a different model for education and intellectual analyses.
“Education and coalition building is our core business now.”
Education and coalition building is our core business now. We are trying to build the structures. We are calling a conference on the fourth of November 2017 in Dublin, where we want to try to get a mandate for a democratic structure which will probably have an elected executive of trade union and community people, not political people. But it will open up a bilateral arrangement with the political groups. So if you can build a mass citizens movement, resourced and educated true the trade unions, that movement will compel political progressives to change. We had never had a situation were any of the other protesters before had changed the position of a government on a key issue. What Right2Water did isn’t just forced unity under the three pillars around the water issue. They did that, but it then forced the establishment into changing position about the water issue. Not because they wanted to, but by sheer forced of numbers for their all electoral selfishness they had to. It was not sustainable for them not to. So, Right2Change needs to be about using those lessons to force that change on housing, on health, on all of the issues. We’ve decided that is the wrong road to form a political party from Right2Change. But what we can learn from Right2Water, is that, by creating unity around simple principles and providing class based intellectual and economic analysis in mass movement of citizens, we can force not only those who agree with us already, but even the opposition, into doing what we want them to do.
The Right2Change book has ten policy principles. These are democratic principles. If all of these people are so interested and mobilised for water, we thought of what the other issues might be that they are similarly interested in? We had a massive public consultation process, all done through the social media, platforms and the website. This started in January 2014. Then we called a conference at the first of May 2015 and we invited people to bring their international experience of movement building. We invited Eduardo Maura from Podemos, we had people from the Berlin water table… So basically there was all us, the representatives of this movement: 60 trade unionists, 60 of the political parties and the rest, about 80, from the community groups, sitting down to listen to what is going on internationally. During the last couple of hours we did a presentation on what we had received in terms of submissions, and the issues started to emerge. The next conferences took place six weeks later. We actually brought those issues to ten workshops, and the workshops were similarly done according to the idea of the three pillars. Each of these workshops came up then with a version of those ten principles. So the draft went into the ten workshops, some of them were changed to some degree or a lot, and then each of the second drafts, went into a plenary session in the afternoon and the chair of each group had to go up and explain what had emerged from their particular workshop and then read the proposal and then each of the proposals was voted on.
“With Right2Water we didn’t run anybody for election, but it changed the electoral landscape.”
So one of the things we think that is a key component to progressive change is the ongoing structured provision of community based class consciousness through education. The second issue is the role that the media plays in a modern, neo-liberal society. We are going to produce a new online media outlet. Five or six articles a day, but also potentially with broadcast outlets once or twice a week at the beginning, streaming, podcasts all that kind of stuff. A lot of work goes into that, a lot of resources necessary. If the public pays, it will work. We can fundraise and we can support, and provide our own funding to some extent, but the public would have to buy into it. And then, of course, there is some of democracy any new permanent movement would need. With Right2Water we didn’t run anybody for election, but it changed the electoral landscape.
So our initial thoughts, and they are not complete, are that the unions should provide permanent ongoing funding and human resources to a permanent structure so it shouldn’t be just about one campaign. The communities need to support it. And the communities and the unions will then have to create some sort of democratic structure between them. Education and communication through media to create momentum and campaigns around these ten issues and try to compel political progressives and even the opposition into adopting some or all of these policies.
One of the really interesting things about Right2Water is the question whether we won or not. The opposition is quite happy to acknowledge that we won that campaign. Within the campaign itself there is an argument about that. What is an issue is that a lot of people who are new to the struggle think the day will come when we will be able to say that our fight is over and it’s never coming back. To them that’s a victory, when that day comes. Today clearly isn’t that day. That day hasn’t come. Other people, and I count myself in this group, believe that victory is not attainable, ever, the struggle is eternal. That is part of education as well. So looking at international experiences, I don’t know what we can learn really rather than the fact that neo-liberalism is winning and there are no successes. And even were it looks like success, it’s very fleeting. Greece looked like a success, but only for a couple of month. But there are things we can take and learn, and then we move on to the next phase. I have no doubt that there will be people somewhere else that will take some things from the water movement. So that’s something.
“If you read the principles of Right2Change, it’s about the removal between church and state and a secular based education and the same for the health system.”
When we won our independence, we didn’t know how to run a country. It took us a long way to learn that, about a 100 years, but we eventually mastered it. We didn’t know how to run a country, how to run a health system, an education system. So what we did is to hand them over to the church to run for us. The Irish Catholic Church had a lot of abusers and damaged a lot of people in a sexual but also physical way. We knew everything about it and we allowed it to go on for 60 or 70 years. But that time has gone by and the Church is by far not as powerful as it once was. Go into a church here in Ireland on a Sunday, there won’t be too many people there. There are very few people under 30, and even my age, that have any interest in the Catholic church for those reasons. If you read the principles of Right2Change, it’s about the removal between church and state and a secular based education and the same for the health system.
I would like to say that the displacement and removal of religion from the health care sector led to the replacement with something that is decent and human. But it has led to a two tier system, the second and biggest tier is the private sector and is profit driven. It has massive costs attached to it. In Ireland, people who go into elderly care, they have to sell houses, make wills, giving their houses to these private institutions… So we replaced one evil with another evil.
“We have policies which are to the right of what is happening in Donald Trump’s America. Women’s rights being one of them.”
Women’s rights in Ireland have always been a massive issue. There is still a huge gender pay gap in Ireland and an issue of women in politics and business. The feminist cause continues and is by no means won. One of the heads of the trade union campaigns to repeal the 8th amendment. We are currently doing a survey to what extent abortion is an economic issue. The results will be published in the next month. We are bad, but in the north, women are going to jail for abortion. And another problem in Ireland which causes some embarrassment is the refugee issue. We have a problem with racism. Until recent years we didn’t have any experience with immigration. The only experiences we had was with emigration. You would think that, given that so many Irish people emigrated, that would form our awareness of people coming here to work. I’m afraid it doesn’t. Racism is a big issue here. Some of the stuff you see on social media is really worrying. We have a situation in Ireland that we call ‘direct provision’, where if you come seeking refugee services, you’re put in a caravan park. There could be hundreds of you. And you’d be given 1,90 pounds a week to live on and you’ll be fed and all that, but you won’t be allowed to work, you won’t be allowed out. It’s a prison camp. Donald Trump could only dream of direct provision centres. But we are all clapping ourselves on the back. We have policies which are to the right of what is happening in Donald Trump’s America. Women’s rights being one of them. We’re to the right in terms of trade union rights, we have the worst trade union rights of any country in the European Union. And If you look at poverty and deprivation, we are right to the bottom in terms of support. So a lot of that is in Right2Change as well.
“I think the European Union is necessary to prevent the disintegration of Europe. So we need a strong European Union, but we haven’t got one.”
In terms of Europe, I’m not optimistic because I believed in the European Union as a social project that had as number one goal preventing war. And it has done that, at least within the confines of most of Europe, although it has contributed to wars elsewhere, but it’s no longer a social Europe.
I was invited to DiEM25 in Berlin and we had this conversation with Varoufakis who wanted us to get involved and give an Irish perspective. DiEM25, and good luck to them, there is a lot of fine people involved, is about reforming the European Union. But I think the European Union is beyond reform. And I was of that view before Brexit, an I’m even more of that view now. Because I think, if the European institutions were ever self-aware enough to look internally at reform, then the decision and importance of Britain to leave would have been the moment to do so. But I see absolutely no internal analysis from the European institutions. So I’m not optimistic, because I think the European Union is necessary to prevent the disintegration of Europe. So we need a strong European Union, and we haven’t got one. The effects of European directives seem to be so pervasive, that it is an equally relevant question to ask whether the governments, who used to be sovereign nations, are sovereign any more.
I’m always hopeful of people, and within Europe everywhere I go, I meet people who share the concerns about the nature of European democracy, and those concerns are always embedded in the same social issues: human rights, work, housing, healthcare, education, childcare, women’s rights… And you go away and you think how great it is that all those people are concerned about the same things.
“You can have all the good meaning people and all but unless they start meeting, networking and sharing and building, they are all going to end up equally frustrated and equally abused.”
Look, I got a particular stone issue with the media. None of this is existent if you read the media as we know it. You end up thinking you’re mad, you end up thinking you’re the only one. That only a very small amount of people cares about these issues or, even worse, believes that another alternative is possible. It’s only actually when you go out there and meet people that you discover that you’re not the only one, that you’re not mad. But the narrative is increasingly controlled so much by neo-liberalism that we’re completely disconnected and isolated. And unless we can find some way of building new networks and community, which is probably what your project The Art of Organising Hope is about, you can have all the good meaning people and all but unless they start meeting, networking and sharing and building, they are all going to end up equally frustrated and equally abused. And I haven’t got an answer to that. Social Europe is dead and buried. It might come out of the grave someday, but not today.
You know, even now, there are elements within the campaign who are seeking to divide. We are up against a right-wing government and the authoritarian nature of the European Commission. And what we’ve done so far is manage to pop back, possibly by years, their plans to privatise our water. But just as much as we look at them, they are looking at us. And they are trying to infiltrate the campaign, there is no doubt about that. The state has set up, through the police force, a unit called ‘Operation Mizen’, and its official role is – and this is public knowledge, they admit this – to gather intelligence on water protesters in order to use this to undermine the protests. That is done by the police and that is what they tell you they are doing. If that’s what they tell you they are doing, you then have to ask: what are the bits they are not telling you?
So, at the end of the day, the opposition comes from every direction. Neo-liberalism, through the European Commission, has decided to have Irish water privatised. And every time we book a success, they will come at us from a different way. And the only way we will be able to maintain our success is first of all by resilience, and second of all by learning from our mistakes, and third by building permanent structures and hoping someday that there will be a Euro-wide network, not just on water, but on other issues to such an extent that they can’t ignore it.
“We are using this phase to try to build something permanent to Right2Change, which includes Right2Water.”
The situation now is this: the charges have been abolished, an independent expert commission was established and found 90% of Right2Water’s research had been correct. It found that progressive taxation is the best way to pay for our water, it found that we do use less water than the UK, it found that the money on meters was a waste and should be stopped. The expert commission was an international commission and they produced a report. So we want ownership of our water assigned in our constitution. We are campaigning for that and we’ve received a lot of political support. It has gone now through the second stage of parliament. And we also want the European Union to accept our way of paying for water as an adequate way for the European directives.
We are using this phase to try to build something permanent to Right2Change, which includes Right2Water. Because this is not a phase were we need hundreds of thousands of people on the street. This is a phase were we want to build a permanent movement, so when the next attack comes, it won’t be this informal three pillars thing. The trade unions’ role should be to enable that citizens led movement to reach critical mass and drive the political parties in a particular direction.”
Interview by Furia, Hart Boven Hard & Victoria Deluxe
Photos by Maria Little
BBC analysis on how the Dublin government struggles with water charges (2014)
Press report on anti-water charges protests in Dublin in April 2017