R2W report: May 26. Long – but significant things happened

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Irish water urgent

I went to the R2W steering committee yesterday, May 26. This was the first steering committee meeting since before the March 21 demonstration. It was convened on foot of requests for a meeting by a range of campaign groups – including the Celbridge-Leixlip group.

There was agreement that R2W would endorse the demonstration called by Dublin Says No on June 20; and also endorse a demonstration at the Dail, initiated by the Non-Payment Network, the AAA and PBPA, if legislation to take water charge money from wages or benefits is published in July. The date for this demonstration depends on when the bill is published – possibly mid July – if at all. It should be noted that these demonstrations would be endorsed – not built as R2W national demonstrations.

On other matters there was no agreement. Indeed it appears to me that the unions which have been central to R2W are stepping back from the current stage of the fight against the water charge. There was no take-up from the unions to a proposal for a R2W national demonstration before the summer break in August. The inference was that it’s not possible because there is no money available; and that the union officials who have done most of the organising are unable to devote the time to it. This last point is reasonable. But there was no take-up by the central R2W organisers to the proposal that an organising committee, drawn from those present, could take on to organise a R2W national demo before the summer.

There was a wide-ranging discussion on the forthcoming R2W-unions conference on June 13. The key issue was whether invitations to the conference could be opened out to much larger numbers of local community activists from the campaign. The union officials explained that the restriction on numbers was due to the size of the room available for free.

Myself and others argued that an attendance fee (€5?) could cover the costs of a bigger venue – and that 600 or more could be accommodated. The union officials said that the numbers from community groups would be increased from the 60 invited to the first conference, to an unspecified larger number – but the cap of 200 invitees would remain. The first conference had 60 community activists, 60 from political organisations, 60 from trade unions and 20 academics and others. So it is unclear how many community activists will be invited; or who will invite / select them. I asked what the organisers’ project is with regard to drawing up a political platform from the June 13 conference. I was told that it was to be the beginning of a discussion; and that the union officials don’t really know where it’s going to lead.

I regard the restriction of attendance as unsatisfactory. There are hundreds of groups around the country, with thousands of activists, who should be allowed partake in this event. I proposed postponing the conference to look at getting a bigger venue, but this was not accepted by the organizers.

As regards the campaign against the water charge itself, a number of comments by Brendan Ogle – a central organiser in R2W – gave me cause for concern. One was that he thinks R2W, as a three-pillar formation campaigning against water charges, is no longer fit for purpose. The reason he gave is the electoral competition developing between the political organisations involved in R2W, citing the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election. The second worrying comment was that from now on (with regard to water charges) UNITE (and presumably it’s official dealing with this – Brendan Ogle himself) is going to focus on political education for community activists from the water campaign; and on the development of a political platform – presumably for the coming general election.

This is worrying for two reasons. While there is undoubtedly electoral competition happening, there is very broad agreement amongst activists around the country on the need for a boycott of the water bills – as shown by chants and placards on demonstrations. This agreement also exists across the political organisations of the radical left. But calling for non-payment is not the position of SF or of the R2W unions. So it seems to me inappropriate to say R2W is no longer fit for purpose because of electoral competition amongst the political organisations. It seems to me that there is paralysis because the bills are now the issue, but neither the R2W unions nor SF are able to say publicly whether people should pay or not.

The move by UNITE to focus on political education for a relatively small number of community activists, rather than mobilising, flows from this. But a shift to political education (a good thing in itself) by UNITE, apparently stepping back from initiatives to mobilise the hundreds of thousands who have come on R2W demonstrations, is to effectively walk off the field at a crucial point in this struggle by a central organisation in the movement. This would be a serious setback. There was no comment from other union officials present (Mandate, CWU, OPATSI) regarding future R2W demonstrations – suggesting they would be following the UNITE lead as articulated by Brendan Ogle.

In my opinion there is a need for a big national mobilisation in July, as the second bills arrive, to rally the resistance before the summer break and to prevent erosion of non-payment. R2W is the only organisation with the social reach to do this. There is no need for the R2W unions or any other organisation to change their positions regarding payment: it is only necessary to mobilise and to let the movement speak for itself.

If there is a will to organise a demonstration, there are plenty of experienced activists from the left and the community organisations willing to work on it – including myself. While some areas are strong in their local activity, this is very uneven and a national focus is necessary to restore momentum. To do nothing at a national level other than wait for the election is to de-mobilise, in the hope that a future government will abolish the charge – when there is absolutely no guarantee that this will happen.

Finally, there was no agreement for a further meeting of the R2W steering committee to discuss these issues. So I will raise the matter of a national R2W demo at the June 13 conference. If I have misinterpreted what was said, I assume that will be put right on June 13 in the form of agreement to call a national R2W demonstration.

In this context the non-payment Forum being convened by the Non-payment Network, the AAA and PBPA on June 7 is an important event. This is complementary to R2W, and I would urge groups that are calling for non-payment to send reps.