British government and local parties retreat on water charges

Northern Ireland:

British government and local parties retreat on water charges

IN A major climb down by both the British government and local parties the proposed introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland has been postponed for 12 months. Bills that were due to go out at the start of April will not be sent out. Instead the whole issue will be referred to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, now due to meet on 8 May.

Peter Hadden, Belfast

This is an important victory for the non-payment campaign. Support for non-payment had been mushrooming, especially as the final deadline for the introduction of the charges came closer. This support is in no small measure down to the successful work carried out by the We Won’t Pay Campaign over a number of years.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign (WWPC) was initially set up by the Socialist Party and has spent the last few years campaigning in working class communities holding meetings, organising stalls and canvassing around the doors.

The campaign convincingly answered the government’s lies about water charges and built mass support for non-payment as the way to defeat them. Almost 100,000 people have signed the campaign’s non-payment pledge. Socialist Party members in key unions have managed to get motions passed committing the unions to back non-payment.

It is no accident that the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland initiated the campaign against this unjust charge. It drew upon the experiences of other sections of the Committee for a Workers’ International to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.

In southern Ireland the leadership of the Socialist Party was responsible for leading the movement which defeated water charges there in 1996. Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party in Britain, successfully led a movement of 18 million people who refused to pay the poll tax leading to its abolition in 1991.


During the recent Assembly election the local politicians were left in no doubt about the depth of anger in working class communities – Catholic and Protestant – on this issue. From day one of the campaign right through to polling day on 7 March, water charges dominated every debate and came up constantly on the doorsteps.

As the deadline for the bills to go out approached, an unstoppable head of steam was building up behind the call for mass non-payment. A demonstration in Belfast supporting non-payment, called for 31 March, promised to be massive.

WWPC took the initiative last Autumn to organise this march. At that time other smaller forces and the trade unions, nominally backing non-payment, seriously underestimated the support that was there and were not prepared to commit themselves to a demonstration.

But in recent weeks no-one – not even the tops of the trade unions – could have failed to detect the surging groundswell of support for non-payment. Following approaches from the unions, WWPC agreed that the 31 March demonstration should be called under the banner of the “Coalition against Water Charges”, a loose umbrella grouping that includes the unions as well as WWPC. A very big demonstration was on the cards.

All this pressure made it impossible for the government or the local parties to go ahead with water charges at this point.

Delayed bills

While WWPC was spearheading the preparation for mass non-payment, the British and Irish governments were busily pressing Ian Paisley to lead his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) into a power sharing deal with Sinn Fein. The initial deadline set by the government for such a deal was 26 March.

A government with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy would be shaky at the best of times. A fragile arrangement like this would have enough difficulties holding together without having to lay its first foundations on the swelling volcano of a mass non-payment campaign.

Imagine if they had stuck to the government’s deadline, “done the deal” by 26 March and maintained water charges. The anger of the thousands who would have turned out on the 31 March demonstration would have been turned on them. The new “historic” arrangement between Sinn Fein and the DUP would have had a honeymoon period of five days!

This is why both these parties emerged from the Assembly election saying that there could be no deal on power sharing unless water charges were deferred. In previous negotiations they had scarcely bothered to mention water charges. Now, as far as both Sinn Fein and the DUP were concerned, the implementation of the charges would be a “deal breaker”.

As it turns out the DUP made a point of missing the “absolute” deadline of 26 March, mainly as a face-saving exercise and to help reassure their supporters that they were not meekly dancing to the British government’s tune. Instead they have agreed that the Assembly and power-sharing Executive will be set up and function from 8 May.

The one main condition that emerged as the key subtext of their agreement with Sinn Fein was that the water bills, due to go out before May, would not be issued, a condition that Secretary of State, Peter Hain, promptly agreed to.

Sinn Fein and the DUP may claim credit for delaying water charges but few people will be fooled. These parties, along with the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, took the initial decision to bring in water charges when they held power in the previous Assembly. Their somersault on the issue is not due to any real change of heart but is a belated recognition that the charges, as they stand, cannot be implemented and that no amount of coercion on their part will force people to pay.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have come out clearly for the complete abolition of water charges. The DUP’s position during the election was for metering and that the maximum charge should be capped at the average level of charges now paid by people in England and Wales.

As for Sinn Fein, they have produced leaflets and posters proclaiming their opposition to water charges. Beneath the headlines what they are actually saying falls a long way short of a commitment to abolish the charges completely.

Both these parties probably hope that a one-year delay will see the momentum for non-payment subside so that they will be able to bring in the charges in some form in a year’s time. This could mean giving every household the option of a meter and/or full or partial exemptions for pensioners, those on benefits and perhaps the very low paid.

They will probably attempt to open up a dialogue with the unions and some of the NGO style “community” organisations to try and win them away from support for non-payment.

Whatever they do WWPC intends to maintain the pressure until there is a clear decision to scrap the charges completely. If they do go ahead and try to introduce the charges next year the response of the campaign will be the same as it is now – We won’t pay!

Unresolved issues

A Paisley-McGuinness led coalition is not the historic breakthrough proclaimed by the media. It is a significant step by both Sinn Fein and the DUP, one that they could not have contemplated even a few years ago. But it does not represent any real meeting of minds on the national question or on the other contentious issues that these parties, and others, use to keep working-class people divided.

Sinn Fein and the DUP only exist and only retain their support because working-class communities are split along sectarian lines. For reasons of self-preservation, if nothing else, they will continue to do all in their power to make sure that this sectarian divide remains in place.

However, from one point of view, their decision to go into government together, even if it is only to divide up the sectarian spoils between them, is a positive development. It means that they will be the people – not direct rule ministers – who will be taking the decisions on water charges, school closures, health privatisation, miserly public-sector pay offers and so on.

It means that they will no longer be able to wring their hands and direct working-class anger on these issues at Westminster.

The anger against water charges and the support for mass non-payment has shown how class issues can cross the sectarian divide and unite working-class communities.

The part victory in forcing the postponement of these charges has already demonstrated in a very practical way that united action by Protestant and Catholic working-class communities is more likely to get results. This, and not the uneasy coalition in the making between Sinn Fein and the DUP, is the real way forward in Northern Ireland.

We Won’t Pay Campaign