Right2Water/Right2Change – a year in review and can 2016 be the year of change?

The three massive Right2Water demonstrations in 2014 led to much optimism and hope. It seemed 2015 might be the year of change and when the first Right2Water demonstration on March 21st attracted approximately 90,000 protesters, expectations grew.

The event was another huge success with speakers from community groups, politicians, trade unionists, poets and singers, all performing and creating the family friendly, fun atmosphere that has now become synonymous with Right2Water demonstrations – although if you were to believe the media and government TD’s you’d think it was 90,000 ‘sinister’ ‘dissidents’ who were the Irish equivalent of ISIS in attendance.

The date of the demonstration coincided with International Anti-Racism day and Right2Water shared the platform with the Irish Anti-Racism Network where Memet Uludag gave a speech about solidarity and unity between migrants and anti-water charges protesters.

Also speaking at the event were the four water charges activists who had been jailed for having the temerity to protest against the installation of water meters in their community and protecting their families from the future water poverty that will inevitably come with water charges. The Jobstown protesters are still facing the courts and justice system for protesting in their local community.

* NOTE: No banker or corrupt politician has spent a day in prison for the financial crisis they caused which has had devastating impacts on the communities of those water protesters.

It was after this event that it seemed the Irish media decided to cut water charges out of the news agenda. Maybe it was getting too close to the general election, but word came to some of the coordinators from freelance journalists that the editors of the major newspapers had told them to “stop submitting stories on Irish Water”, that the issue had “gone away”. You’ll notice this still in the mainstream media, when any politician or campaigner refers to water charges on the radio or television, they are interrupted and prevented from speaking on the issue. The Claire Byrne show on RTE even had a debate about water charges and the two panelists were Alan Farrell TD from Fine Gael who supports water charges and Eddie Hobbs from Renua, who also supports water charges.

In April, following the March 21st Demonstration, Maynooth University published some independent research from 2,556 anti-water charges protesters. Some interesting findings came out of that research:

  • 54 percent had not protested before.
  • 60 percent said the reason they were protesting was because austerity had gone too far.
  • 59 percent said they were protesting to stop the future privatisation of water.
  • 42 percent said they were also protesting against the bank bailouts.
  • 40 percent said Right2Water should extend to other issues like housing.
  • 80 percent said they would vote for candidates who endorse Right2Water.

It is clear that the water charges movement isn’t only about water charges. It is a focal point for anti-austerity across the island. The five trade unions who had facilitated and funded the Right2Water demonstrations - the CPSU, CWU, Mandate OPATSI and Unite Trade Union - held internal discussions in Dundalk about whether the campaign should go further than water charges alone. It was unanimously decided by all of the senior officials present that we should explore whether a campaign on housing, education, decent work, healthcare, among other areas, would be welcomed by the water charges movement.

Soon after, a conference was called to coincide with International Workers’ Day (May 1st 2015). The conference was held in the CWU Headquarters on North Circular Road and was attended by 180 delegates with equal representation from each of the three pillars that made up Right2Water.

60 from the trade union movement, 60 from the political pillar and 60 from non-aligned community activists. Immediately the unions were criticised by some in the political pillar for “excluding” people from the conference. It was explained that the unions have limited resources and at that point in time, it wasn’t possible to hire a venue (the CWU conference centre had no cost but had a limit of 200 participants). Those critical of the event said the unions should charge a small fee in at a hired venue but it was felt that, understanding that many protesters are struggling financially, it wouldn’t be fair to ask the unemployed or those who had travelled to put their hands in their pockets.

The conference was a success with speakers from the international anti-austerity movement present including Podemos from Spain, Syriza from Greece, the Belfast Trades Council in Northern Ireland and the Berlin Water Movement.

At the conference, the unions distributed the first policy principles document which included one policy (Right2Water) and 6 policy principles (Jobs & Decent Work, Housing, Health, Debt Justice, Education and Democratic Reform). The policy document was uploaded and promoted online and feedback was sought from the public, political representatives and trade unions. More than 140 detailed submissions were received within the six week consultation period. In the interests of transparency, all were published online unless instructed by the authors otherwise.

During the consultation period, the trade unions published a fiscal framework document which laid out how a progressive government could create a fairer, more equal society. That document provided for more than €10bn in spending over four years that could tackle the crisis in healthcare, housing, education, among other areas.

A second conference was called on the 13th June to discuss the amended document which had now grown to 10 policy areas following the submissions received, with the addition of Sustainable Environment, Equality and National Resources. The participants were broken into 10 groups to discuss the policy areas and amendments were proposed for the plenary session to adopt by a vote. Again, in the interests of transparency, the whole plenary session was recorded and uploaded online. The result of the consultation and submission process is the current policy document which is available online at www.right2change.ie.

In July the Irish Congress of Trade Unions held their Biennial Delegate Conference, at which the policy for the entire trade union movement on the island of Ireland is developed. After a robust debate, the Right2Water Trade Unions, with the support of the unions in Northern Ireland, managed to have the official policy of the ICTU changed to one which rejects water charges and calls for a constitutional referendum to enshrine ownership in the hands of the people of Ireland.

The next Right2Water National Demonstration was called for the 29th August 2015. Again, in the run up to the event, the media and the government said the issue had gone away. Despite this, another 100,000 people turned up on the streets of Dublin for the fifth major Right2Water event. At this event, however, the broader campaign for a Right2Change, based on the policy principles developed through the extensive consultation process, was launched. The trade unions affiliated to Right2Water and Right2Change announced a national tour where the policy principles would be brought to 20 towns and cities in Ireland.

The local roadshows have now been completed with political economy presentations given to 1,500 people in 20 locations across the country.

Cork Right2Change Presentation

What is Right2Change?

Firstly, Right2Change is not a political party. It’s not running candidates in the general election and it does not support any political party or politician. It operates in reverse. Candidates in the general election will be supporting the Right2Change platform and policies.

Right2Change does not have leaders and is not a formal organisation with structures – though that could develop in time. It is a campaign that promotes the policies that were developed through the democratic consultation process facilitated by the Right2Water Trade Unions. It’s important to note that the only people present at the Right2Water conferences who were not allowed to have an input or vote on the policies were the coordinators of Right2Water.

Right2Change is about finding the policies that people actually want and then delivering them to the political representatives and candidates. It is then about educating the public about where candidates stand on those policies and whether they’d be willing to work together to have them implemented in a future government.

It is also about closing the democratic deficit and promoting a different vision for Ireland – one that’s not based on cronyism, corruption, greed or incompetence, and is instead based on the principles of equality, democracy and social justice. While the mainstream media will focus on personalities and hyperbole about political parties – in many cases dumbing down politics and holding economics aloft saying, “you cannot participate in this, it’s too complicated for you”, Right2Change will focus on policies and principles and the promotion of engagement and education in communities across Ireland.

There is a very real democratic deficit that exists within Ireland, intensified by a media that says there is no alternative to the austerity agenda and the established political parties that have dominated government since independence. But there is always an alternative.

Despite rumours to the contrary, the coordinators are not aligned to any political party and they are not running for election. They are long-term community and trade union activists whose ambition is to awaken Irish people to the policies being implemented by successive governments. Policies that have and will continue to destroy our society, our economy, our environment and our future.

Where to next?

It’s hard to say because it’s for the supporters of Right2Water and Right2Change to decide. However, what was always the case, but has now become even more evident, is there are political choices available that could create a fairer, more equal country and could return a more progressive, egalitarian republic.

Irish people are a caring, compassionate and considerate people who show social solidarity in every aspect of life, but they’ve been hoodwinked and tricked into believing our country can only be run in one way – governed by Tweedledum or Tweedledee. One of the main reasons the pro-austerity and neo-liberal parties are consistently returned to government is because the opposition is so fragmented, largely due to the competitive nature of politics.

Where there is a constituency that could return one or two seats, there will eventually end up being 6 or 7 candidates competing for the traditional progressive and Left vote – splitting the vote and ensuring no seats are won. The victims of this, of course, are the Irish people who pay the price through tax cuts for the wealthy with corresponding reduced funding for public healthcare, housing, education, etc. In many cases, there are very few if any policy differences between competing parties and candidates. In some cases, a party will even run two candidates against each other, such is the dysfunction of the opposition.

Far be it from Right2Water or Right2Change to dictate to political parties or individuals who should or shouldn’t run in an election, but there is a responsibility to examine whether some intervention would help the long suffering Irish electorate. For this, we need to be innovative.

Imagine, for example, Right2Change became a large scale voting pact where tens of thousands of supporters and activists – through local and national structures – would determine policies and principles and commit to strategically voting in a particular way in local, general and European elections.

Local Right2Change groups would meet regularly to discuss policies as an independent body promoting perpetual political engagement that’s not sectarian or based on party political or individual advancement. Then through analysis and structure people could take over the electoral system by coordinating their voting preferences.

The strength of the votes and coordinated transfers could swing elections in every constituency, returning candidates that believe in and are committed to implementing policies that benefit the people of Ireland. It would be an innovative idea that hasn’t been tried anywhere else in the world but could dramatically change the Irish political landscape as political parties vie for the support of the local and national Right2Change activists rather than other powerful lobby groups or their own personal gain. It could also ensure politicians would be held accountable for their actions and their party’s actions.

This is only one possibility for the future of Right2Change and the long-term prospects for the campaign are yet to be determined. For now, though, Right2Change continues as a campaign about policies. It’s not perfect and when it comes to the policies within the campaign, nobody will be 100 percent happy. The democratic process which delivered those policies – engaging a broad spectrum of activists from community groups, trade unions, political representatives and civil society groups is a compromise. It’s about finding consensus and common ground but all based on a change in direction towards more economic and social equality.

The thing many don’t understand about building a broad political policy based alliance is that to be broad requires compromise, and to compromise acknowledges difference. When anyone comes to coordinating such a project those who reject compromise quickly become hostile to it. If we are to progress we need to move on from that phase quickly.

There are, however, enormous challenges ahead. If the most recent polls are to be believed, the pro-austerity and pro-water charges parties have more than 70 percent in support – meaning water charges will remain on the statute books after this election. Therefore it’s vital that we all take a number of actions in the final two months of this electoral cycle.

  1. Mobilise in massive numbers for the Right2Water local demonstrations taking place on Saturday, 23rd January. Don’t just attend and think your job is done, tell everyone you know to attend through social media, text message, email and face-to-face communications.
  2. Encourage every single person you know to get out and vote. The composition of the next government will be determined by voter turnout with a large turnout meaning a higher return of progressive candidates.
  3. Take the Right2Change pledge to vote only for candidates that support the Right2Change policies and principles.
  4. Stay engaged and don’t be disheartened should the election not go our way. More than 70 years of political domination by pro-austerity and neo-liberal political parties will not be undone in one election, so we have to continue to educate ourselves, mobilise and grow our movement.

The future can be bright for all of us – if we want it to be. It can see more and more people coming together focused on policies and principles and a vision for a new republic – one that genuinely cherishes all of the children of the nation equally. Or we can continue down the same old path that has led us to the failed state that currently exists where:

  • More than ten percent of people suffer from food poverty;
  • 1,500 children are living in emergency accommodation;
  • 36 percent of children experience multiple deprivation;
  • 70 families are becoming homeless every month;
  • 300,000 have emigrated since the current government took power;
  • More than 200,000 are still in search of a job;
  • We have record numbers of people (600) waiting on trolleys in our underfunded public hospitals.

The Taoiseach’s ambition is to make Ireland the greatest small country in which to do business. The Right2Change ambition is to make Ireland the greatest small country in which to work and live in. The choice is yours.

Right2Change has produced a very short survey. It has only seven questions and should take no longer than one or two minutes, but it will help us develop the campaign into the future. Please take a few moments to fill it in now by clicking here.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/6ZMS36Z 

By Right2Water and Right2Change coordinators David Gibney and Brendan Ogle