Insider has been thinking lately about what are the limits to democratic expression, are there certain lines that just should not be crossed, and if so what are they?
These questions arise off the back of the recent arrests of a number of anti-water charge activists, including Dep Paul Murphy (AAA/Socialist Party ), for their role in a protest against Joan Burton in Jobstown, as well as the jailing of four others for breaching a court injunction instructing them to stay 20m away from the installation of water meters.
It has been said many times in recent years that Irish people just do not do protest when compared to our French, Spanish, or British counterparts. However the sheer scale of the numbers of people who have come out against the water charges over the past few months give lie to this old adage.
Despite attempts by the Government, and some mainstream media outlets, to brand these protest as excessive, sinister, or even violent, the reality is that the vast majority of them have been well mannered, orderly, and peaceful, yet determined and vocal - contrast this to the scenes we see in many other European countries where full scale riots, clashes with police, and the destruction of property are common, yet how many column inches have been written about Joan Burton getting hit with a water balloon or having to spend a couple of hours in her car?
It’s all about Election 2016
There are those who believe protest should be limited to what is possible within the bounds of the law, but where would we be if this logic was applied systematically?
Things like collective bargaining, the eight hour day, weekends, universal health care, education, social security, even the right to vote, all of these things were won through struggle and protest, in many cases the law had to be challenged and overturned to gain these rights. This is why Insider is a little perturbed by the scale of condemnation that has gone out on behalf of the establishment. It is also highly selective. When protesting farmers assaulted gardai in County Cork in 2009 there was no outcry, and even more significantly, no arrests.
The question arises, is this a sign of things to come, and how will the State come down on those who intend to refuse to pay the water charge bills? If recent opinion polls are to be taken as accurate, this will amount to a very large number of people, between 34 and 40 per cent as things stand.
Of course the Government has indicated that no penalties or fines will be imposed for up to a year and three months after the initial bills have been issued which, according to the local We Won’t Pay campaign, gives people a massive incentive to hold on to their money and thus push the Government and Irish water into yet another crisis.
Clearly the Government has an eye on the upcoming General Election and is therefore reluctant to go down the road of threats and intimidation, or at least not against the broader population at this point. Instead it is attempting to drive a wedge between what it views as one of the political driving forces behind the protest and non-payment movement, namely the Anti Austerity Alliance and the We Won’t Pay campaign, by trying to paint these groups in a negative light, hoping it will steer people away from them and the tactic of non-payment.
The elections will be a decisive factor in determining how the issue of water charges finally plays out, and, if a high level of non-payment is achieved, water charges are sure to be a major issue in the build up to and throughout the course of the election.
Contention on method of payment not conservation
Mass opposition to water charges coupled with a high level of non-payment will give all the parties plenty of food for thought in drafting their election manifestos - the abolition of the charges would certainly be a popular policy. It is worth mentioning that among the anti-water charge groups there is broad acceptance of the need to upgrade the water infrastructure and to put in place conservation methods that will safeguard water resources into the future. The main issue of contention centres around how this is paid for.
Insider understands that currently water is paid for via central taxation such as income tax, car tax, VAT, and so on - €1.2 billion per year is the current spend. The Government argue that this is not enough and therefore a new direct charge is necessary. What We Won’t Pay and the other anti water charge groups say is that with progressive taxation people pay according their means and ability, unlike with a direct charge or a pay for what you use charge, that treats everyone as if they were equal and therefore hits low and middle income people harder.
Basically a higher percentage of the income from a low paid household is taken through these sort of charges. In the context of an ever widening gap between rich and poor in society generally, surely it makes little sense to pursue such non-egalitarian policies.
What infuriates people most of all is unfairness. They have seen how HSBC Bank in Switzerland helped drug dealers, blood diamond traders, and rich tax cheats hide their money, and how, so far, the only person likely to go to gaol is the bank employee who exposed the dirty deal. They will also have noted how Iceland recently gaoled some of its banker criminals. In Ireland a couple of them got community service. However, just to show that the law has not gone soft on financial offences, a single mother from Donegal was gaoled last week for not paying her TV licence.
Labour and Fine Gael would do well to be cognisant of reasons why people have chosen to take to the streets to express their political opinion. The sort of political policing that has taken place recently will likely only serve to harden attitudes against them in the run up to the election.