A week can be a very long time in politics. On Saturday 15 November, following an anti-water charges protest in Jobstown, Tallaght, where Tánaiste Joan Burton was delayed in a car for two and a half hours, the entire media, government and establishment went into overdrive. They cast the community, the AAA and the Socialist Party, and Paul Murphy in particular, as being a violent, anti-democratic mob. But a week on, this government and their hated water charges seem to be on the ropes.
Since the so-called ‘middle layers’ joined the working class revolt which burst onto the streets of Dublin on 11 October (the same day Paul Murphy and the AAA won the Dublin South West By-Election by fighting for non-payment of water charges), the establishment’s approach has been to try to strike blows against the movement, but also to announce some temporary reductions in the water charges.
For months they had been attacking people protesting against water meter installations, sending in the police with heavy hands and court injunctions. Undoubtedly they hoped for incidents that they could misrepresent as being violent and then try to use that to slander and weaken the mass anti-water charges movement.
A violent mob or a community that’s had enough?
On Friday 14 November a local anti-water charges group in Jobstown make a call on Facebook for a protest to take place against the visit of Tánaiste Joan Burton and the water charges, as she was attending a graduation ceremony in the area on Saturday morning. We will outline in a bit of detail what actually happened as this situation has been the subject of an avalanche of lies and distortions.
By 12 noon, the Tánaiste was inside at the ceremony and fifty locals had gathered outside. When the graduates left the building to go to the nearby church via the public path, they were applauded and cheered by the locals. When Joan Burton appeared at the end of the procession, the cheers turned to boos and chants. When she came out onto the public path, the protesters surrounded her.
The Tánaiste, some police and organisers of the education project tried to proceed down the path and as protesters wanted to delay them so they could confront her for her attacks and insults against those on social welfare and in particular for the water charges, which she had promised would not be implemented, inevitably there was some pushing and shoving. In the three to four minutes it took to get to the church, a water balloon also hit and burst on the side of the Tánaiste’s neck.
Nearly an hour later, the Tánaiste came out of the church and got into an unmarked Garda car. Protesters then surrounded the car in the carpark. The actions of the police to try to prevent this were in vain. For a number of minutes people chanted and confronted the Tánaiste through windows. People made noise by sometimes banging on placards and on the car. People didn’t attempt to gain access to the Tánaiste.
Confronting and delaying Ministers – completely legitimate
This aspect of the protest ended and instead, protesters including local AAA TD Paul Murphy, held a sit down protest behind the car. Then, the police with little regard for people, tried to violently drag protesters away, targeting Paul Murphy in particular. They had pulled all the clothes off the top of his body and only stopped the extremely rough treatment because more of the public joined the sit down in order to safeguard and help those on the ground.
A few minutes later, as both the numbers from the community and of the police increased, the police made a formation and forced protesters out of the way as they transferred Joan Burton from the car to a police jeep in the gateway linking the carpark to the public road. At this point there were more than twenty police vehicles at the scene. By the time the car was out onto the road, the word had spread in Jobstown that there was a protest with Joan Burton. Soon enough and the protest had swelled, with up to 700 people present.
The distance between the gateway and the spot where the police finally drove Joan Burton away around two hours later is less than a kilometer.
A slow march out of the area
Initially the jeep moved forward slowly on the basis that the police scrummaged protesters out of the way of the jeep, who would then doubled back and begin delaying the jeep again. Essentially the community was slow marching the jeep and the Tánaiste out of the area. It was a slow protest march of the community with the “We Won’t Pay” and “Tallaght Says No” banners at the front, and then the jeep surrounded by police at the back.
At one point when the police made the situation tense by bringing in even more re-enforcements in the form of the Public Order Unit (POU), protesters once again sat down in front of the car. At this point Paul Murphy, as a public representative, while being a protester, was also communicating the position of the police to the broader protest.
The protesters discussed the situation and while they didn’t want to end the protest, they did want to reduce any tension. They said that if the POU was withdrawn they would allow the car to leave when they had slow marched it to the main road. At a certain point on the main road Joan Burton got out of the jeep and, surrounded by the police, was brought to another car and driven out of the area at approximately 3.30pm.
Distortions and lies
A video has been posted that shows a brick being thrown and bouncing off the back of a police car. This incident happened over an hour and a half after the protest finished and crucially, after the Public Order Unit went into Jobstown in a heavy handed manner, including using pepper spray on young people. The media and commentators said or gave the impression that this had happened during the protest. That is incorrect and was either a lazy, dangerous assumption or a blatant lie.
They also pointed out that Joan Burton had been insulted with sexist and misogynist comments. Of course Paul Murphy and the AAA and Socialist Party oppose any such comments. But this is being raised to try to tarnish the whole protest, whereas any such comments were made by a very small minority and were not representative. The main thing that Joan Burton was called during the protest, again and again and again, was “traitor”, including by the many women present.
Some eggs were thrown at different points during the protest, but this was generally by some young people who had come around the protest. However, and this is shown on video, when this happened protesters themselves demand that no eggs or any other missiles should be thrown.
There was some pushing and shoving as people wanted to confront and challenge Joan Burton and there was strong anger and hostility to her too, but there wasn’t at any point any serious danger to her physically.
In reality this wasn’t a protest that was organised well in advance. This was a spontaneous mobilisation of hundreds of people in the community when the word spread that Joan Burton was in the area and inevitably the raw anger and disgust people feel, particularly at Labour’s sell-out, was going to be expressed. In such circumstances there may be this or that incident or action by an individual, but the conduct and approach of the community as a whole in Jobstown deserves to be praised.
The events are being consciously exaggerated. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny tried to bang the law and order drum by ridiculously saying in effect that Joan Burton had been kidnapped. They are trying to demonise a working class community because they dared say enough is enough and to challenge the right of the Tánaiste, who has showered devastating austerity on the area, to waltz in on a PR stunt.
The media and government have sought to damage the credibility of the anti-water charges movement and in particular the more militant section, that is advocating and organising for mass non-payment of the charge. Paul Murphy has been accused of multiple crimes including, disgracefully, incitement to hatred and leading a mob. On cue just as Labour and the capitalist Establishment needed support, David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has intervened and attacked the protesters saying a women he knows was “very badly kicked and beaten” at the Jobstown protest. In this, David Begg is joining in the campaign to vilify protest and the community. That this alleged incident is only being mentioned now, a week after the event given the unprecedented coverage and scrutiny that this protest has received, raises its own questions.
Not surprisingly, but it is disgraceful nonetheless, Begg goes on to say that he supports the government’s water charges. Once again he has brought the trade union movement into disrepute. He should go.
Joan Burton was not kidnapped but her path was impeded and she was delayed and prevented from going about the business of trying to sell this government and their rotten agenda. Some commentators have tried to say that people should not be confronted in such a way, implying that Joan Burton is simply the same as any ordinary person. In fact the opposite is the case.
A spontaneous mobilisation against a “traitor”
Joan Burton led the attack on social welfare payments and cut rent allowances which has significantly increased homelessness, particularly among women and children; she’s made offensive comments regarding people from working class communities like Jobstown, questioning the hardship they are facing and their basis to be protesting against water charges; and lastly she is now the leader of Labour which has sold-out generally, but in particular broke its promise that there would be no water charges. It is completely understandable that Joan Burton going into Jobstown would create an angry reaction. While the community was very forceful, its response was contained within a democratic and peaceful approach.
Paul and the local AAA supported the call for a protest, participated in it and acted to ensure that the protest was as effective as possible, while remaining fundamentally peaceful. Paul’s involvement may be condemned by the establishment, but it was warmly appreciated by the working class of the area, and also further afield.
The reality is that Paul was one of the victims of a very heavy-handed approach by the police on the day and there is video evidence that shows their actions caused him to be choked and he ended up bare chested, half naked because his clothes were dragged off him.
Dirty media campaign, but the truth is emerging
The coverage of this protest and in particular the demonisation and vilification of Paul Murphy and the Socialist Party and AAA, has dominated the news for a week. Right from the very start, we refused to back down. Instead, in the media we said that we and the community of Jobstown had nothing to apologise for; that it is not the working class fighting back that are the threat to real democracy, but politicians and parties that just break their promises when in power; that it is they who are completely disconnected from the hard reality facing the mass of people under austerity; that if they think it’s business as usual and that Government politicians will be welcomed regardless of the role they are playing or the policies they are implementing, they are making a bad mistake.
The equating of the protest in Jobstown and Paul Murphy’s role to that of ISIS by a Fine Gael TD in the Dáil is in a sense laughable, as well as deeply offensive and disgusting. The idea that the people of Jobstown, the Socialist Party and other activists are part of a dangerous “sinister fringe” has also been stated.
The public response
On the Monday after, in the teeth of a huge propaganda offensive by the entire media and Establishment, a radio poll on RTE’s Liveline, a programme not particularly known for being left leaning, asking if the protest in Jobstown was acceptable or not, found that 56% felt it wasn’t, but incredibly in the circumstances, 44% felt that it was. An online poll in thejournal.ie with 22,000 votes, found 49% disagreed with the protest, 45% agreed and the rest didn’t know. That sentiment seems to have developed further as the real experiences of working class communities who have been the victims of police action have also come to the surface and people have reflected more on the issues. In particular Paul Murphy’s strong defence of the community of Jobstown in the media, powerfully backed up by Ruth Coppinger and Joe Higgins, has also had an important impact in exposing the campaign of distortions from the government and the establishment.
It’s ironic that the Socialist Party and AAA are being referred to as the “sinister fringe”. In Jobstown and West Tallaght generally, it is Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail who are the sinister fringe. In the By-Election in October only 30% of the eligible voters actually voted in west Tallaght. The three parties of the establishment combined only got around 10% of the votes cast! That means that less than 4% of all who are on the electoral register in West Tallaght voted for Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail combined. That is fringe territory.
Later on Monday evening Paul had to go to three separate public meetings in the area on the water charges where he was an advertised speaker, including in Kilnamanagh, Aylesbury and Knocklyon. The meeting in Kilnamanagh was attended by 200, the biggest in the area in a long time. The other two both had attendances of 70. The response was very warm when Paul came into each meeting, including spontaneous applause when Paul entered the room in Knocklyon.
The local newspaper published a vox pop and four out of five people interviewed supported or defended the protest.
The attempts to distort what happened in Tallaght and use it to whip up hysteria against the anti-water charges movement and to split it has floundered and failed and is backfiring among a very significant section of the population, in particular the working class. That doesn’t mean the campaign of lies and distortions is over. There have now been a considerable number of general attacks on the Socialist Party and it is likely that this will continue, as well as the possibility of attacks from the state. Large groups of protesters continued to protest at many locations that Ministers turned up at throughout the week.
However, so far what they hoped would be a debilitating blow against the Socialist Party and the AAA, and an undermining of the campaign in the court of public opinion, has actually become more of a trial and judgement of the government and their vicious austerity, and reflects how divorced they are from the lives of ordinary people. They threw a boomerang, but it missed and came back and is clobbering them.
A disconnected government whose time is running out
They have misjudged the mood and the actual levels of support that they have at this point in society. The base for Labour and Fine Gael has been undermined, as has the position of the billionaire establishment over the last years. However, that has speeded up and deepened significantly this year as a new active movement from below has erupted against the water charges.
Their disconnection from reality has also been reflected in their make or break new proposals to try ensure the acceptance of the charge after the mass protests of recent months demonstrated they are unacceptable to the population at large.
The AAA and the Socialist Party have also been in the front line taking on and exposing the new proposals from the government. Their plan to discredit effective protests and protesters hasn’t worked as they wanted, and neither has their attempt to make the new discount or bargain basement water charges acceptable.
They felt, because of the strength of feeling on the issue and people’s impatience demonstrated over the last months, that they had one more chance to try to make a significant material change to the charges and to make them acceptable. This pushed them into making major cuts to the bills; delay the start date; suspending metered bills and instead going for flat charges; and they are also giving €100 back to people if they register with Irish Water.
Sentiment shifts further against water charges
Such is the extent of this temporary climb-down that a broad mood has developed after their announcement that now neither the charge nor the government has much credibility left. The idea, primarily pushed by the AAA and Socialist Party representatives, that this lower charge is in reality a manoeuvre of political trickery like a Trojan Horse, that once in or accepted would be massively increased, seems to be widely understood.
Initial indications are that there has been an important shift towards non-payment over the last week since the debate about Jobstown and the government altered the charge. An online poll conducted by thejournal.ie in which around 20,000 people participated, indicated 60% will not pay, 28% will pay and the rest hadn’t decided yet. A poll on the Liveline radio programme indicated 71% of those who responded wouldn’t pay and an online poll in the Irish Independent indicated that 18% would pay and 82% would not.
Government teeters on the brink – Labour faces annihilation
The government don’t understand what is going on. There has been some improvement in aspects of the economy, yet their political support is collapsing. They make concessions on water and instead of people being more open to it, they seem decisively less open. A large part of what is happening is that people, because of the prospect of a recovery and because of the explosion in activity, are now developing the confidence to fully reflect the anger and discontent that they have felt for some time and those are the circumstances in which consciousness can leap forward and attitudes can change quickly.
This means not only that there is a significant prospect that the water charges will be an intractable crisis for this government, but also that the government could collapse on this issue.
It has been so weakened by the water crisis that if another serious issue came along over the next weeks and months, despite their unprecedented majority, this government could fold under the pressure because of its collapsing social basis.
If they get to the Christmas break, what happens in the first months of next year, particularly next April when the first bills will fall due, will be crucial.
A General Election?
The water charges have become the decisive issue. If it becomes obvious that people have rejected the new revamped, changed water charge, that will be a body blow to their status and would likely be the beginning of the end. It would be very difficult to see how they could continue for any length of time.
If that scenario beckons, Labour would face a new turmoil and crisis, including the possibility of more TDs jumping overboard. Joan Burton’s position as leader could even be challenged, or the party could be forced out of government in a vain attempt to save it from complete annihilation. The next days, weeks and months promise to be very eventful.
Mass action can bring down this government
A mass mobilisation at the next anti-water charges demonstration on 10 December, a week day, particularly if it matched the size of the demo on 11 October, could be enough to break the back of the government.
If the movement and the momentum against the charges and for non-payment continue to develop into the new year, people could strike a decisive blow that brings down the government a year before the election is due. The first water charges bills are due to be paid in April. If there is mass non-payment of this bill, certainly if the figure was anywhere close to 50%, the pressure for a general election would become irresistible. People’s actions now have the power to not only bury the water charges but to break the government too.
The activists who have emerged over the last months in this new sweeping movement should consider what they can do to ensure when this government goes, that people are given a real choice in the election – a fighting working class and genuinely left alternative. If a broad election challenge does not emerge from the movement, then Independents without any real record of fighting or Sinn Fein, who have not and will not fight austerity or capitalism, can be the ones to benefit.
If the left and the new activists and groups that are emerging came together to contest the general election as part of a slate or umbrella on the programme below, they could achieve a huge breakthrough.
If such an election challenge was based on:
• Mass non-payment of water charges
• Scrap the water charges and all the new taxes and charges
• No support for coalition government with the parties of the capitalist establishment
• For a government that breaks with austerity and capitalism – put the key economic resources under democratic public ownership to ensure people come before profit
A strong and principled working class left could emerge out of the next general election, not just as a force in the Dáil but as a real force in the communities and the workplaces. The political situation in the country could be completely changed.
Such a force would be the real opposition to the next capitalist government, whether that government includes Sinn Féin or not. It could put a real fight for genuine democratic socialist change on the agenda.