Right2Water address Rosa Luxemburg European conference in Madrid

The following is a speech by Right2Water and Right2Change coordinator David Gibney to the Rosa Luxemburg "Organising For A Left Hegemony" conference in Madrid on October 5th 2017

Thanks again to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for inviting us over from the Right2Water campaign to talk to you about what’s going on in Ireland.

Firstly, though, I must say that we are experiencing slightly different challenges to what earlier speakers have stated.

We haven’t seen the same rise in popularity for the far right in Ireland, for several reasons.

Firstly, our nationalist movement has always been left leaning, which is mostly due to our colonial history. Secondly, since the foundation of the State, we have only ever had right-wing governments, so there’s very little space for the far-right to occupy. And finally, Ireland has among the highest emigration rates in the world, with one in six people born in Ireland now living overseas. So every family has a member, or knows somebody, who has gone overseas seeking a better life.

Last night our comrades from the United States introduced themselves with an apology for the election of Donald Trump. Well let me double down on that apology and say that many of us in Ireland apologise for giving Trump and others like him the aspirational ideas for his own country based on policies that Ireland already has.

Let me give you four examples:

  1. Collective bargaining: Ireland still has no collective bargaining rights. Even in companies where 100% of workers are in a trade union, that company can ignore the workers union. Worker’s who are being disciplined, with the threat of losing their job, have no legal right to be represented by the union official they wish to engage. Most States in the USA have far stronger labour rights than this. In Ireland we call this system a ‘voluntarist system’, knowing only too well that the voluntary element is on one side only, the employers.
  2. Refugees and asylum seekers: In Ireland, we put asylum seekers into what we call Direct Provision Centres. In these camps the asylum seeker and their families live in a state of enforced idleness; they cannot work, they cannot cook for themselves but are forced to eat in a canteen which only operates at certain times of the day and they are given just €19.10 per week to survive on. Remember, Ireland is one of the most expensive countries in the EU in which to live in. Yet many people have been known to stay in these camps for up to 10 years in these circumstances.
  3. Women’s bodily autonomy: Ahead of the US elections, Donald Trump said women who seek abortions should be subject to ‘some form of punishment’. Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President later retracted his statement saying, ‘Donald Trump and I would never support legislation against women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.’ In Ireland, if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, the rapist may very well walk away with a suspended sentence, but the woman can face 14 years in prison for having an abortion.
  4. Corporation tax: Donald Trump aspired to having a corporation tax rate of 15%. He has since revised his position and is now seeking to reduce corporation tax in the United States to 20%. In Ireland, our corporation tax rate is a mere 12.5%, and that’s if the company decides they want to pay that even that. Up to 70% of all companies pay no tax whatsoever in Ireland. So Trump cannot even aspire to having as low a corporation tax rate as Ireland, and of course, in order to make up for that low rate, others – workers and consumers - have to pay the tax that those corporations are not paying or else face deteriorated public services.

So, to everyone here, I apologise for Ireland giving Trump the vision for how he believes society should organise itself.

Of course, with these right wing policies, come social implications. Right now Ireland has a lot of problems including:

  • The highest prevalence of low pay in the EU and the second highest prevalence of underemployment in the EU15 behind Spain.
  • The highest level of fuel poverty in the EU, despite having a relatively mild climate.
  • The highest excess winter mortality rate in the EU, with an extra 2,900 preventable deaths taking place every winter – mostly due to bad planning that delivers poorly insulated homes, and people not having enough income to heat those homes.
  • More than 8,100 homeless people, including 3,048 children who are currently growing up in B&B’s and hotels because their parents were evicted by banks and lenders we as citizens ‘bailed out’.
  • The life expectancy of a homeless woman in Ireland is 38 and of a homeless man just 42.

With the dramatic increase in poverty and deprivation, there has also been a radical increase in millionaires too. Interestingly though, yesterday, the EU instigated court proceedings against the Irish State for refusing to accept €13 billion in unpaid taxes from Apple Corporation – the richest Corporation on the planet.

One of the main reasons or causes of what I have outlined is the fragmented Left in Ireland. While there are two right wing parties who have ruled the state since it’s foundation, there are many, many more left parties.

If you include the “Broad Left”, in the Parliament, the following is the current construct of the Left in the Parliament (ie elected):

  • Sinn Fein – 14%
  • Independents4Change – 5%
  • People Before Profit (Socialist Workers Party) – 2%
  • Solidarity (Socialist Party) – 2%
  • Social Democrats – 1.2%
  • Workers and Unemployed Action Group – 1%

Furthermore, the Labour Party are considered by some to be Left, despite being in government for five years implementing the harshest of austerity measures. They have 5% of Parliamentary seats. The Irish Green Party are also considered to be Left by some, despite cutting the minimum wage by €1 per hour or 12% when they were in government up to 2011. They represent 1.2% of seats in the parliament. Combined, these 7 parties/groups represent 30% of the parliament.

Outside of the Parliament, we have smaller Left parties who do excellent work in local communities. We have the Communist Party of Ireland, Eirigi and the Workers’ Party, among others.

The challenge for those of us who are unaligned to any party (and the Trade Union co-ordinators of the Right2Water campaign are not aligned to any party) and interested in a more egalitarian Republic is how to get these parties and activists working together. Due to electoralism, and the absence of Left structures, there is a obviously a competitive element within the Left itself which leads to attacks instead of working in co-operation in the best interests of our class.

So when the Irish government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which had the most overwhelming majority in the history of the country with 113 seats (70%) from 2011-2016, attempted to introduce domestic water charges and water poverty in 2014, they did so with enormous arrogance.

The fightback, which was organic, started in communities all across the country in early 2014. Women and men began blocking the installation of water meters. Many of them were arrested and some were sent to prison for refusing to allow contractors from Veolia and other companies to install meters outside their homes.

In communities like Cobh in County Cork, the locals set up watch and alert systems. Cobh is an island and there are only two ways onto it. One is a road and the other is a boat. If a Veolia or GMC Sierra van was spotted by a lookout, a message was sent by SMS and everyone was then brought out on the streets to prevent meter installation.

In the Spring and Summer of 2014 there were a number of big and sometimes sporadic protests in Dublin and other cities. It was at this point that a number of politicians approached the trade unions and asked if we could help coordinate a major campaign against water charges. So we developed Right2Water.

We wanted to make the campaign as broad as possible so to be part of it, all you needed to believe or agree with, was that water is a human right. If you agreed with that a single demand – the abolition of domestic water charges – was enough to make a person part of the campaign.

It was set up on the basis of three pillars:

  1. A political pillar
  2. A community pillar
  3. A trade union pillar

At the start, only two trade unions were involved. Three others joined in October 2014. Then we had the first national demonstration which was among the largest in the history of our country. More than 120,000 people marched the streets of Dublin in a 5.4km demonstration from front to back. We had no media support ahead of this demo and things got worse afterwards, but the numbers were strong. To give you an idea of that scale, on a per capita basis, it is the equivalent of:

  • 1,180,000 people marching in Madrid
  • 2,100,000 marching in Berlin
  • 1,673,000 marching in London
  • 8,236,000 marching in Washington

The second Right2Water demonstration was even bigger. On November 1st 2014, in more than 106 separate locations across the country, approximately 200,000 people came out onto the streets of their local towns and villages. In my own hometown of Swords, where there had never been a demonstration before, more than 5,000 people turned up, which was slightly more than 12% of the towns population.

In the end Right2Water had 9 national demonstrations. We flew in international experts like Maude Barlow and people who had experienced the implications of a commodified water system like the Detroit Water Brigade and organisers of the citizens referendum on water in Thessaloniki in Greece. In Detroit, more than 70,000 families have had their water shut off for being unable to pay their bills. In Ireland the Minister responsible for setting up the charges regime Phil Hogan, who is now our only European Commissioner, had said that he wouldn’t turn people’s water off for being unable to pay, instead he’d turn their supply ‘down to a trickle, and they won’t like that’.

The trade unions wondered whether the water movement could move to the Right. There was a very small element that was anti-tax, which was probably partly the fault of the Left itself too. So Unite Trade Union engaged TradeMark Belfast to give political economy courses to non-aligned community activists. These courses were extremely successful. It opened peoples eyes up the corruption and the inequality that has perpetually been reproduced in Ireland through the established political parties.

The Unions also wondered if this movement was only about water, or whether people were concerned with health, housing, education and other policy areas too. A piece of research produced by Rory Hearne from the Maynooth University indicated that it was actually about much more than water. So we held a conference on the 1st May 2015 which was comprised of 1/3rd community representatives, 1/3rd political parties and 1/3rd trade unions.

At the end of this conference we handed out a booklet containing a list of seven policy principles including the right to water, jobs & decent work, health, education, housing, debt justice and democratic reform.

We had already held an activist led consultation phase in relation to the policy principles which lasted six weeks and where more than 150 groups from across the country participated and sent in submissions. After those six weeks, we then developed a second document, this time with an extra three polices making a total of ten. The right to equality, national resources and a sustainable environment were added as a result of the submissions received. There followed a second Conference on 13 June 2015 where the delegations conference broke up into ten workshops to debate the policies and make amendments. This all culminated in the Right2Change policy principles which were finalised by vote a a plenary Conference session in the afternoon.

At a national demonstration on August 29th 2015, we formally launched the platform. We announced a roadshow with approximately 30 dates where we would visit cities and towns across the country to talk about the vision behind the Right2Change policy principles.

However, when we started the roadshows, we were asked what was the point in having a platform if the fractured and fragmented left wouldn’t work together. People  asked us to go back to the political parties and ask them three questions:

  1. Do you support the policy principles?
  2. Will you agree now to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow?
  3. How will you work together to deliver this objective?

Almost all political parties said yes to question one. They were split on question 2. And only a small number elaborated with an answer to question 3.

When the election was called, we mobilised as best we could. We hosted a ‘National Register to Vote Week’. We printed and distributed 100,000 newspapers and communicated with Union members about the candidates who supported the Right2Change platform.

We had some success, but not enough to form a government. However, the Fine Gael and Labour Party government of the day lost 50% of their seats, with the Labour Party, who had promised not to bring in water charges before the previous election but had championed them when in office losing a massive 80% of their seats. Significantly, the two right wing parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael only received 50% of the seats. They traditionally had received 80-90% of the vote – in fact, in 1982 they received 87.5% of seats within the parliament combined. The party furthest to the right, Renua, lost all seats and had nobody elected.

So now the question is, can we build on this?

The Unions want to ask the political parties, community groups and the trade union movement whether there’s a possibility to build a permanent movement of the left that could deliver an egalitarian republic.

It would be based on the three pillars – trade union, political and community – but would allow each component of the movement to maintain their own autonomy, while hopefully focusing on four or five important activities:

  • Education (in communities and workplaces across Ireland)
  • National events (protests, conferences)
  • Local events (meetings, protests, conferences)
  • Communications (an alternative media outlet which would be democratically owned)
  • Legislation (to enable unions and community groups to grow)

With that in mind, I’d like to invite everyone here to attend the Right2Change ‘Another Ireland is Possible’ conference which will take place in Dublin on Saturday, 4th November. You can get more details from the Right2Change website.

But if you’re coming, please don’t fly Ryanair. They’re extremely anti-union!