Ireland is in the midst of a massive popular awakening as hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to protest the introduction of water charges. After too many years of austerity it would appear the people have decided enough is enough and almost spontaneous rebellion has appeared in every town and city. Confrontations between Gardai and campaigners that are reminiscent of the suppression of protest in Rossport have erupted in Dublin suburbs.
The establishment in the country are now in panic mode, as the sort of anti-establishment revolts that we have seen in many European countries breaks out of the confines of electoralism and onto the streets. In the language of Occupy, the 1% the awakening of the 99%. Victoria White’s opinion piece ‘Anti-water campaigners protest too much. Their real goal is power’ needs to be understood in that context. As a member of the Green party and wife of Eamonn Ryan, ex-Minister for the Environment, she can hardly claim to be revolted by political organisations whose goal is power. Rather the piece is part of a general establishment fear that the wrong people will come to power or, worse still, the people in general will take power. Victoria must also be very familiar with the way support for the community in Erris was undermined by the concerted effort from media and politicians to suggest that their resistance was really the work of republicans, anarchists or other sinister forces. As too was the earlier campaign against the bin tax. Her method in the article is neither new or unique but a reliable staple of establishment voices combatting popular movements in Ireland and elsewhere.
Resistance to the Water Charges has been rumbling on for months, in particular estates around the country residents have mobilised for weeks on end to try to prevent the installation of meters. But it is only in the last couple of days that establishment voices have switched strategy to one familiar to anyone who follows popular movements in Ireland, suggesting that whatever real grievances exist sinister forces are behind them. Thursday morning saw Minister Leo Varadkar stating that a ’very sinister fringe’ were behind some protests, his words reported without question by the media. Victoria’s article appeared the same day and today, Friday, the Denis O’Brien owned Independent chimed in with ‘Water protests infiltrated by dissidents as meters on hold’. The Independent article follows a very well established pattern with a crime correspondent as lead journalist and no requirement for actual evidence beyond quotes from anonymous Garda sources. This has already shifted the boundaries of acceptable coverage in the media to the extent that there were not one but two aggressive interviews with water tax campaigners on RTE radio one this morning which focused almost exclusively on this sinister elements trope.
For the establishment, politics is really only meant to be something that a narrow, privileged section of society engage in. Every few years at election time we are told we have to vote but any attempt by ordinary people to organise ourselves outside of this is met with considerable alarm and, if we persist, repression. For most of the history of the Irish state popular movements, like that against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have been contained by such methods. A big street protest lets the 99% blow off steam, some conciliatory noises are made from on high, the minority who want more are shut up and then business continues as normal in the Dail and the IFSC.
Victoria’s piece came to my attention because towards the end she includes the Workers Solidarity Movement, a small anarchist organisation I’m involved in. She uses a very truncated quotation from a speech I gave during a debate with the Green Party - way back in 2003 - to sneer at our environmental credentials. In context, that quote is a very standard environmental justice observation that the poor tend to be stuck where environmental problems exist and the rich tend to locate themselves elsewhere. Read it in context and judge our understanding of environmental justice for yourself at http://struggle.ws/wsm/talks/classbin03.html
She goes on to argue that groups which she imagines to be behind the water charge resistance, like the WSM, are unrepresentative according to election figures. This is a very odd stick with which to beat an anarchist organisation, as we reject even the idea of running in elections.
A much more interesting, and indeed frightening, comparison for the establishment is the level of interest shown on Facebook for the various political parties that have been in government. All those parties have Facebook pages that anyone can identify with by 'liking' and so, as it happens, does the WSM. As of midday Thursday these followings broke down as below:
Workers Solidarity Movement - 39,516
Green Party - 2,536
Fianna Fail - 6,594
Fine Gael - 8,915
Labour Party - 10,477
By that measure it is Victoria’s Green Party that is unrepresentative. Indeed it turns out that the WSM which wouldn’t normally deserve mention in establishment media has more people publicly identifying with it than every party that has been in government during the crisis combined.
Something has changed in the world. Perhaps it was once true that the organisational capacity and resources of ‘sinister fringes’ were essential to the coming together of large movements against the establishment. Back then simply exposing those required elements was enough to scare many away from such movements. But that was before the explosion of the internet and the mass use of social media. Victoria has joined one time establishment voices like Mubarak in Egypt who insisted that mass movements emerging from social media must really be the product of smoke filled cellars and midnight plotting.
Anyone who has tracked the emergence of the water charge resistance has been struck by the way that, far from being developed only by radicals organising meetings in the local community centre, it has been very much produced by ordinary people sharing their experiences on Facebook. It’s no coincidence that weeks earlier Minister Burton whined about campaigners with mobile phones. Incidentally in very similar tones to Erdogan whining about Twitter when faced with the Gezi park revolt in Turkey. The political class cannot imagine ordinary people self organising on a previously unprecedented scale and so imagines that the real forces must either be the technological tools that enable this and/or ’sinister fringes’.
The water charge resistance is not driven by any fringe. It’s driven by hundreds of local pages, like Edenmore Says No, some with followings in the thousands and some in the tens of thousands. This isn’t a movement that has a single centre the establishment can decapitate. It’s a multi-headed organic expression of the power people have when they create collective solutions through co-operation, empowerment and real solidarity.
Note on this text: This is my reply as submitted to the Examiner. They published an edited version as the article 'OPINION: Water protests are an organic expression of the power of people' on Nov 7 2014 It's an interesting exercise to compare the version as submitted above with what the editor removed as two of the removals, including my mention of Denis O'Brien ownership of the Independent group camouflage the reasons why the media is biased.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )