Water charges struggle: The lessons for today

Water charges were strongly resisted throughout the country since 1983. In the end it was the intense battle waged in Dublin for three years which resulted in their abolition in 1996. There were many facets of this campaign but this article will try to outline the key lessons that can be learned and on that basis pose the tasks facing the new movement against refuse charges.

Water charges were strongly resisted throughout the country since 1983. In the end it was the intense battle waged in Dublin for three years which resulted in their abolition in 1996. There were many facets of this campaign but this article will try to outline the key lessons that can be learned and on that basis pose the tasks facing the new movement against refuse charges.

Water charges of between £70 (€90) – £90 (€114) were passed in February 1994 by the three newly formed councils that covered Dublin’s suburban districts, Fingal, South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. The extent of the opposition can only be understood if you take into account the big political and economic developments that were happening at the time.

Tax evasion by big business was rampant. The tax official’s union estimated they owed £2,500 million (€3175 million) in unpaid tax. On many fronts they were getting away with murder. As an example, the Beef Tribunal found that Larry Goodman’s companies were involved in fraudulent practices. Instead of being penalised, the government used taxpayers’ money to bail his company out of debt and to pay the £100 million (€126 million) fine that Europe had imposed because of his actions. To add insult to injury, Fianna Fail and Labour had just brought in the second tax amnesty in six years, which wrote off a massive f.500 million in unpaid taxes from the rich.

Tax Inequality

Political corruption had created a very angry, left leaning mood against the Fianna Fail/Labour government. The Labour Party had tapped into the anti-establishment mood in the 1992 election, winning a massive 33 seats. However, within months they were in government with Fianna Fail in one of the most unpopular administrations in the history of the state. The mood of disgust was palpable.

For workers the taxation system had long been the sharpest expression of the growing inequality in society, a blatant case of one law for the rich and another for the rest of us. At the time, PAYE workers paid 86% of all income tax. Farmers paid 1.7% and the self-employed paid 11.6%. Corporation tax accounted for only 11 % of total tax income. In reality the PAYE worker was paying for everything. The fact that local taxes in the form of rates had been abolished in 1978 was of little comfort.

The government at that time had given a commitment to compensate local authorities through a rate support grant, which would increase as the financial requirements of the councils expanded. In 1978 they gave £79.3 million (€100 million) to the local authorities, by 1983 this had increased to 163 million (€207 million). After 1984 the government in general withheld additional cash. By the early 90s the councils were cash starved getting in total £185.9 million (€236 million) when the grant should have been £285.8 million (€363 million). When – rather than fight a battle with the government for resources – the councils decided to increase their funds by imposing another double tax on already overburdened workers, the mood of opposition was intense.

While they started at less than £100 (€127), people knew the charges would increase to anything up to £400 or £500 – equivalent to two weeks income for many. But there was another side to people’s opposition. For most it was a political decision that they’d had enough of being ripped off by the politicians and in principle they were not going to pay. The, by now, traditional opposition to double tax was inflamed further when they began to charge for water, something that most people considered to be a basic human right.

Angry Mood

Militant Labour, as we were called then, was alive to this issue right from the very start. Having Joe Higgins as a councillor meant we were on the inside crack and this gave us real authority in taking up the issue. The party was also open to seeing the potential in the issue because our consciousness had been raised by the role our comrades had played in defeating the Poll Tax in Britain. We organised three public meetings in our own name when the bills dropped just to test the mood in Swords, Mulhuddart and Tallaght. The response was strong, over 200 angry residents attended. Certain things became quite clear.

There was instinctive support for a non-payment boycott from those who attended. But it was vital that this argument was won not just amongst the activists but with the mass of people right throughout the affected areas. The basis of any campaign had to be substantial non-payment in order to have a chance of victory. It was also obvious that, with a few exceptions, existing residents’ or tenants’ groups were not coordinated enough, energetic enough nor representative enough to build the type of campaign that was necessary. We concluded that a new campaign on this issue alone needed to be established, rooted in the communities where workers lived and open to everyone. The first march we organised in Swords was on a very sunny Saturday 28 May illustrated the potential when 300 locals marched up and down the main street.

Mass Campaign

There were over 160,000 houses in the council areas. We established the Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaign and began to systematically call public meetings and formally establish the campaign in area after area. 20,000 information bulletins were distributed as we went. 1,000 large posters advocating non-payment and with a contact phone number were put up in areas where the campaign wasn’t yet organised to register that it existed and would be in their locality soon. On 24 September 1994, the Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaign convened a conference to pull together all the local groups and establish clearly the principles of the movement and a campaign structure and leadership. 130 attended the event. A further 500 marched in our first city centre demo on Saturday 26 November. It was a working class march from start to finish.

While there were areas that the campaign still had to penetrate, as a result of six months of hard work the campaign was firmly established with an elected leadership, democratic structures and groups locally which had hundreds of active participants. By the end of the year, average non-payment stood at 65%, the figure was much higher in the key working class estates.

Over the next two years the campaign extended and consolidated. The campaign went through different phases of lull and intense activity. Local public meetings were held regularly. A leafleting network was established which covered over 60,000 houses. More than 15,000 households paid £2 to join the campaign. This money was used as a legal defence fund. All-Dublin activists’ meetings were convened when necessary. Two well attended conferences and another march were held, as well as countless protests designed to exert maximum pressure on the politicians.

Showing the strength of the movement which had been built, an incredible event was held on 8 March 1997 in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The charges had been abolished three months earlier. 500-600 people who still had legal action pending against them packed the main auditorium to demand the dropping of all court cases. Each person willingly paid the £10 registration fee. There was an emboldened mood of confidence and pride that our movement had defeated the charges.

As was often the case the media ignored this extremely significant event but it was clear to anyone in attendance that we had come through the most significant community-based political movement that Dublin had seen in decades.

Tactics & Strategy

Why was the Dublin water charges campaign able to achieve a victory unlike other campaigns on similar issues? The leadership provided by Militant Labour served to maximise the power of the working class communities. Our analysis gave us a clearer view of how the battle was likely to unfold. We were able to outline at the outset a strategy and at the decisive times adopted the best tactics to counter the attacks of the councils.

The imposition of the charges was not a decision taken by small time local politicians on a whim. Undoubtedly they underestimated the potential for the opposition to double taxation to get organised. However this was a serious attack by the ruling class as part of their wider offensive against ordinary people. There was a lot at stake. The ground had been prepared by forcing through charges in the rest of the country. They kept the most difficult area till last. They wanted to impose the charges from what they considered to be a position of strength.

We explained that regular protests, marches or lobbying of the politicians alone would not be enough to defeat the charges. We were taking on three councils and the government who had serious resources including the legal system and the state on their side. Of course we created intense political pressure particularly in the run up to the yearly estimates meetings but the charges were very unlikely to be voted out in such a way. They would try to ride out such stormy periods. The movement needed to be much more extensive than that if it was going to win. The battle was likely to go on for a number of years.


Non-payment had to be the basis of the campaign. It was a way for every person to participate in the campaign and it linked thousands of people in united action. It was the nub of the issue; they want your money so you have to refuse to give it to them. We argued strongly that without non-payment there was no campaign. Mass non-payment had to be established and then maintained, regardless of the consequences. However, it is one thing to state that and it is another thing to be able to withstand the attacks and intimidation that the councils would then unleash on residents. Crucially it was the capability of the campaign to stop disconnections and to defend people in the courts that gave enormous confidence to thousands of people to continue not to pay. A mood developed that whatever the councils threw at us could be dealt with. If the council’s attacks had succeeded, non-payment would have been undermined and the campaign could have crumbled to defeat.

Council Tries to Hit Back

The first real challenge came in early December 1994 when South Dublin County Council had arranged to send out fourteen water inspectors to carry out disconnections of non-payers. We obtained vital information from sources sympathetic to the campaign about who exactly would carry out the disconnections and on what day it would start. The council boasted that 1,000 homes would be disconnected before Christmas. If that happened the mood for non-payment would have been badly affected.

Our Response to Disconnections

The campaign needed to respond but stopping 14 different disconnection teams in a very large geographical area like south Dublin could only have been achieved if we got an active response from campaign members and residents generally. At less than a day’s notice an emergency activists’ meeting was convened in Tallaght on a Sunday. 100 responded to the call. People volunteered for an intense period of activity. One team was established with the job of reconnection. Cars, vans, mobile phones and CB radios were pooled. Leaflets were distributed advertising a 24-hour disconnections hotline. Through loud speaking equipment and through the work of activists in the estates, people were encouraged to be vigilant, to come out and by their physical presence stop anyone tampering with stopcocks on the pavement.

We got more information that the inspectors wouldn’t report to work but would go directly from their homes at 4.00am to disconnect non-payers!

However, the moment they went to do the dirty deed, they were followed by 14 campaign patrol cars which were centrally linked to a headquarters and therefore could be re-directed to any location within minutes. This battle lasted for a number of days. It really stretched the human resources of the campaign. However they were only able to carry out 20 disconnections. Even then the water was turned back on within hours. Their strategy of disconnecting 1,000 homes hit a brick wall and they were forced to pull back. There was a very angry mood and if they had continued there was a real chance their actions would have provoked a major controversy.

Reflecting the pressure, the new government, which had to be cobbled together between Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left without a general election, intervened with new legislation which altered the right of the councils to disconnect domestic water supply, making it in reality an unworkable option. The campaign had passed a severe test but had emerged strengthened. 1995 was the first year for a long time there were no water disconnections anywhere in the country.

Campaign in the Courts

The councils were then forced to pursue non-payers through the courts. However it took them a while to readjust and the first court cases took place nearly a year later in November 1995. For a whole period the councils operated off the new legislation and brought people to court with a view to getting a court order allowing for water disconnection. However, in reality, the best the councils could hope for in that situation was a return to a disconnections war like December ’94. Later they dropped this approach and pursued non-payers in court for payment of arrears.

The court challenge posed important tactical questions. On the one hand it was important that non-payers understood that the campaign did not expect any justice in the courts. On the other hand, for many people, being summoned to court was a very serious issue. Having weighed up the mood we concluded it would have been completely incorrect to boycott the courts or just disrupt the sessions as some people advocated. It was important that we went into court and defended non-payers and the stand they had taken and clog up the system as much as possible. Not to do so would have handed victories to the councils and would have undermined the campaign.

Over the three years well over £50,000 (€63,500) was raised for just this eventuality. The best solicitors and barristers were employed by the campaign. Campaign leaders had to pay meticulous attention to details and preparing non-payers for their court appearances. On the first court date 50 cases were scheduled to be dealt with. On a working day 400 activists turned to protest and show their solidarity with the summoned. Noisy protests were organised for every court date. The problem for the councils was that initially the legislation they were using was untried and our legal team exposed its many flaws. The first 50 cases were struck out.

By May 1996 the campaign had been in court on 25 occasions. The results for the councils were again dismal. They got 22 disconnection orders but were not able to implement any of them. Undoubtedly some non-payers were frightened with the prospect of being brought to court and paid some of the charge. However the opposite also happened. Some who paid in 1994 subsequently didn’t because of our successes. Even when they changed tack and pursued people for their arrears, fear of the courts had diminished and non-payers understood if they held firm and boycotted the court order, there was very little that could be done against them. By 1997, thousands were either under summons or had orders issued against them but non-payment levels remained high. The campaign had been able to counter the council’s arguments, their attempts at disconnections and their legal challenge.

Political Challenge

The campaign then went on to the political plane to directly challenge the right-wing parties themselves. Well over a year and a half before the 1997 general election, the question of candidates from the campaign standing in, Dublin and linking up with similar candidates in the rest of the country was raised. There was an enthusiastic response in the campaign. People understood that the campaign was political and it made common sense to try to punish the politicians who had implemented the charges. Again our party played a vital role in this process. We explained that the campaign wasn’t party political and was open to all who wanted to tight on the issue. But we were honest and up front that we were members of Militant Labour. When the proposal was put forward in January 1996 that the campaign should endorse Joe Higgins, the Militant Labour candidate in the April ’96 Dublin West by-election, there was no opposition from the ranks of the campaign. The feeling was that Joe, as chair of the campaign, deserved the full support of the campaign because of the role he and the party had played. There was no mood that the campaign was being politically abused.

Victory in Sight

Against all the expectations of the establishment parties, we turned that by-election into a referendum against the water charges with Joe only failing to take the seat by a whisker. The historic significance of that result bath for us and the movement generally has been dealt with in other material we have produced. Our party became the political arm of the water charges movement. The result was only possible because of the authority of the campaign and again the willingness of people to be active in the by-election itself.

Scared now of the influence that the campaign could potentially wield in a general election in Dublin, the government were resolved to get rid of the charges and they were duly abolished throughout the country in December 1996. We had held back the council’s offensive but the result in the Dublin West by-election saw the campaign take the initiative in such a decisive way that it represented the final nail in the coffin of the water charges. They had been battered into submission.

The campaign had gone through many stages of development. It built its membership and influence using the traditional methods of the labour movement. It used direct action to stop disconnections. It switched between legal and illegal tactics by sometimes using the courts, only to defy the courts’ rulings in the best tradition of civil disobedience.

The lessons are clear. The first task was to build mass non-payment because if mass non-payment was maintained the tax was dead. That was done through hundreds of public meetings, probably over a million leaflets and using the media to challenge the propaganda of the councils. The second task was to defend non-payment through resisting disconnections and the courts.

All this was achieved because of the outstanding role that members of our party played in terms of strategy tactics, thoroughly professional organisation and because the campaign had hundreds of organisers and leafletters based in all the key housing estates. Unlike other campaigns it was the conscious approach of the campaign leaders to develop activists in each area. The success of the campaign depended on people stepping forward. Time and again the issues and what needed to be done were discussed clearly and patiently with residents. On that basis you could see the confidence of people grow, which was essential for turning residents into campaign activists. Through the activists and our successes the campaign developed a mass influence with tens and even hundreds of thousands following its lead.

Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Council and now Dublin Corporation have imposed a charge for refuse collection. Local charges have not been a factor in the city part of Dublin since 1985. The water charges did not apply in this area. As a sign of fear of our party and of a water charges mark II, councillors in South Dublin and Fingal rejectedrefuse charges unanimously.

Lessons for the Fight Against Refuse Tax

It is very important that the real lessons of the anti-water charges movement are applied to the specific conditions that relate to refuse charges. The recent experiences of the campaigns in Drogheda and Limerick must also be taken into account.

While the rates of income tax have been reduced, it is still the case that the vast bulk of tax is paid by the PAYE sector. There is still a strong mood of opposition to any form of double taxation. However there are certain differences between water charges and refuse charges. People are concerned about the environment and the councils will try to pose this as a green charge. However this can be quite easily dealt with. One of the sanctions that the local authorities can implement is the non-collection of the rubbish from non-payers, which happened in both Drogheda and Limerick.

People are more fearful of this than they were of water disconnection. It is easier not to collect rubbish than it is to disconnect water. Re-connection was relatively straightforward and quick and was being practiced for many years around the country. People are less sure what to do in the event that rubbish is not collected from a substantial number of homes.

The Question of Tactics

The refuse charges have been implemented in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown for over a year now. The council has at this stage not withdrawn the service to non-payers nor has it brought people to court. It has confined itself to propaganda and threats. It is one thing with drawing the service in Drogheda or Limerick but it is an altogether more serious thing to do it in a city the size of Dublin. We cannot be sure exactly what they will do and the key thing at the moment in both areas is to consolidate mass non-payment and develop the active base of the campaign.

It is vital however that any new campaign is as sharp on tactics as the water charges movement. Bringing people to court holds legs fear now than before and can be countered. The most serious weapon the councils have is to withdraw the service and the campaign must come up with appropriate tactics, otherwise confidence in the campaign and mass non-payment can be undermined.

In Drogheda, within seven months of implementing the charge, the council withdrew the service. In Limerick, within four months of privatising the service, Mr Binman stopped collecting the rubbish of non-payers. We need some more discussion about what people should do practically with non-collected rubbish with a view to putting huge pressure and the responsibility for such a situation back on the councillors.

In Limerick the campaign identified local sites owned by the local authority which were relatively close to most housing estates and advocated that in an organised way residents should dump their rubbish there on a weekly basis. The council would then be forced to clean it up. At the same time the campaign wanted to put the councillors under intense political pressure. Unfortunately while serious attempts were made to implement such tactics it didn’t materialise.

To implement such an approach you would need a vibrant campaign with numbers of activists in each estate. To achieve this you need to convince people to be active and that takes a certain period of time. Within three and a half months of people becoming aware of the charge their bins were not being collected. It was very difficult in that time to prepare activists and residents generally for what needed to be done.

Activists Crucial

For the movement in Dublin certain tasks are already clearly posed. The campaign must have activists in each estate and area who can intervene and affect the mood of the community. We know what sanctions the councils can impose and we need to work out a response that can capture the imagination of residents and be seen to be achievable. One aspect of the campaign which assumes even more importance than during the water charges battle is the needed to build strong links with council workers generally and the bin workers in particular. If the campaign was able to get these workers to agree not to withdraw the service to non-payers, the council would be in difficult. As of now many of the bin workers in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown have stated that they support the campaign and will refuse to implement any such instruction from the council. It is very important that a key part of what the campaign stands for is no privatisation and for increased investment to expand council services. The additional cash necessary must come from central government.

Just as the water charges developed from being a very serious community campaign to being a successful challenge to the establishment parties, there is also huge potential to do the same in Dublin City. We will have to see how things develop but because leadership, strategy and tactics are essential, our party will have a crucial role to play.

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