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Ireland: The Battle of the Bins

Colm Breathnach is a member of the Irish Socialist Network and Finglas Anti Bin Tax Campaign. He spent two weeks in prison in October 2003, along with eight other activists from the Finglas campaign, for refusing to give a commitment that they would not engage in further blockades of bin trucks. In this article he looks at this struggle and examines where the Irish left goes from here.


The Abolition of Rates

In 1977 the largest party in the Republic, the right-populist Fianna Fail (which means the rather fascistic sounding “Soldiers of Destiny”) won a landslide victory in a general election. They had campaigned on a give-away manifesto which amongst other things promised the abolition of the local rates levied on houses. Once in power FF proceeded to carry out their election commitment, abolishing the house rates. To replace the income lost to local authorities the new government increased central subvention to local councils and to fund this major increase in spending workers income tax (PAYE) grew substantially.

Within a few years the Irish economy, in line with international trends, faltered badly. Unemployment soared, thousands emigrated and the national debt spiralled out of control. A succession of minority and coalition governments, dominated by Fianna Fail’s corrupt leader, Charles Haughey, tried to stabilise Irish capitalism in the face of the crisis and a growing radicalisation of the working class manifested in the rise of the Workers Party, a section of the Republican movement that had shifted to the left during the 1970s. This combined with the H Block crisis in the North demanded some extraordinary measures to ensure the continued ability of the Irish capitalist class to survive and continue the process of accumulation. A dual strategy emerged of ferocious cutbacks in public services (though not privatisation) and the corporatist social partnership process which co-opted the leadership of the trade union movement to control and divert working class militancy.

The reintroduction of Service Charges

It was in the midst of this crisis, as the central state continued to reduce the grants to local authorities and funding of the fairly minimal range of services provided dried up, that a sleight of hand was pulled by a Labour/Fine Gael coalition government (Fine Gael is Ireland’s version of continental Christian Democratic parties). In 1985, the Minister for the Environment, Labour Party leader Dick Spring, introduced water charges. These had no real relationship to the provision or consumption of water but were simply a local tax to replace the reduced central funding. There was an immediate backlash as working class taxpayers saw this for what it was: double taxation. Workers already paying for their local services through income tax were being hit a second time with the water charge bill. Although there was a waiver system which excluded the very poor, the vast majority of workers ended up being liable and this caused deep resentment.

A campaign of opposition and non-payment quickly took off, initially led by the Workers Party. The immediate effect was a disastrous local election result for the Labour Party, with the Workers Party making gains in urban areas at Labours expense. While the Workers Party led struggle took a militant turn in some areas such as Cork and Waterford, as skilled activists teams voluntarily reconnecting those disconnected for non-payment, there were problems with the campaign. Both the stalinist and social democratic wings of the Workers Party leadership were adverse to any involvement of other political forces and although ostensibly advising non-payment, in practice the campaign increasingly focused on electoral solutions.

The defeat of Water Charges

The implosion of the Workers Party in 1992, caused by a complex interaction of internal contradictions, the balance of class forces and the fall of the communist block, did not derail the campaign. It took on a new lease of life with fresh political elements, primarily the recently formed Socialist Party (formerly the Militant Tendency, Irish section of the Committee for a Workers International, which had been expelled from the Labour Party) playing a leading role especially in Dublin. This led to a revival of the earlier militant tactics despite or perhaps because of the increasing use of the courts by local councils to force defaulters to pay arrears. The mass non-payment campaign gained strength in urban working class areas. The final nail in the coffin was the inclusion of the social democratic wing of the Workers Party (now known as Democratic Left) in a coalition government with Labour and Fine Gael in 1994. The pressure on this parliamentary rump to take action on the issue on which they had built their careers was immense and after a decent interval the water charges were abolished. Ironically this did not save Democratic Left who faced the inevitable fate of parties that abandon working class independence and within a short period they were absorbed into the Irish Labour Party.

The water charges victory showed that, while an unusual political conjuncture had dealt the final blow, a mass campaign of civil disobedience could bring about real change in peoples lives. A battle had been won but the war was by no means over. The water charges were abolished but the local authorities were still entitled to level services charges. Gradually rural local authorities began to introduce charges for various services including sewerage etc. However the dominate right-wing political forces were reluctant to re-engage in battle with working class forces in Dublin, so there was a lull before the next flare up.

The introduction of the Bin Tax

Beginning in rural areas such as Sligo, where ironically they were the child of an opportunistic Sinn Fein-Fianna Fail alliance, refuse charges were gradually introduced throughout the country. Though cleverly linked to the growing waste crisis by the right, with the assistance of the Green Party, the charges popularly know as the bin tax were a means by which working people could be made to pay for a problem which was caused by the massive growth of waste, a by-product of the economic boom of the 1990s. In fact only 15% of waste in Ireland originates from domestic sources, the vast bulk arising from agriculture and industry. The failure of the retail sector to reduce packaging or produce more recyclable packaging also accounts for a large percentage of domestic waste. Yet in a barrage of propaganda characterising working class people as ignorant environmental reactionaries, amply backed by the liberal media and the more bourgeois sections of the environmental movement, the government tried to shift the responsibility for the waste crisis firmly onto the backs of ordinary people.

But there was another, more sinister, object to this new local tax: the planned privatisation of local services. Driven by the twin engines of the super-Thatcherite Progressive Democrats, the junior, though ideologically dominant, partner in a coalition government with Fianna Fail and the imposition of ‘liberalisation’ from above by the European Union, the privatisation of public services had really taken off. The pattern was established early in rural councils: first impose domestic refuse charges then transfer the newly profitable service to private concerns.


Prelude to conflict

Fearful of a severe backlash the mainstream politicians resisted the imposition of the tax in Dublin for a while, though eventually they approved the tax. Initially the fiercest battle occurred in Cork city where a strong campaign was eventually defeated with the imprisonment of a handful of activists. The campaign in Dublin was strongest in the Fingal County Council area, which covers the western suburbs and satellite towns north of the city. Here the campaign was almost exclusively led by the Socialist Party, both of whose public representatives, Joe Higgins T.D. (MP) and Cllr. Clare Daly, represented parts of the county. The Fingal campaign managed to maintain a very high level of non-payment and scored a significant victory in the courts when it was deemed that councils were obliged to collect all bins, even those of non-payers. The campaigns in Dublin’s other three local authorities were more political diverse and somewhat weaker in terms of organisation. Despite this non-payment of the tax was high in working class areas throughout the city. Another key difference was that the tax was imposed in the form of a yearly bill but the Fingal Council changed it to a weekly tag system which proved much more difficult to oppose.

The battle of the bins

The struggle entered a decisive stage in the autumn of 2003. To counter the court victory, the Minister for the Environment, a former Progressive Democrat who had defected to Fianna Fail but maintained his hard right stance, pushed legislation through the Dail (Irish Parliament) to allow councils to stop collecting the bins of non-payers. This precipitated a battle royal in Dublin. After securing a deal with SIPTU, the union representing bin workers in the area, by promising not to privatise the service, the management of Fingal County Council stopped collecting untagged bins. This ensured compliance in most middle class districts but provoked determined resistance in working class suburbs such as Blanchardstown. Groups of residents blockaded almost the entire refuse truck fleet in their estates and a stand-off ensued. The Council then got an injunction in the High Court allowing them to prosecute the blockaders defying the court order. This led to the imprisonment of Joe Higgins and Clare Daly. Facing all the power of the police and legal system the blockades gradually ended and the Fingal campaign levelled out into a phase of political propaganda.

Meanwhile the battle shifted ground to the Dublin City Council area (covering the city centre and inners suburbs). Expecting a short, sharp conflict the City Manager declared in September that he would emulate the Fingal management and begin a policy of non-collection. Predictably this precipitated an immediate response, with activists in working class areas carrying out temporary blockades of bin trucks. This led once again to the courts and an injunction was granted banning the temporary blockades. Once more people were dragged through the courts and jailed. In Finglas, a northern suburb of the city, where a very strong campaign was led by Socialist Party, Irish Socialist Network and grassroots Sinn Fein activists, twenty two people were brought to court and nine jailed. The same pattern was repeated in South Dublin County. It proved impossible to implement non-collection in much of the City area and the year ended in a stalemate. Because of the widespread popular resistance the collection of all bins continued in most working class areas outside of Fingal County. The result was a city divided between almost totally compliant middle class areas and great swathes of working class suburbs where the majority continued to refuse to pay.

Tactical differences

It is often said that the real nature of political groups are revealed in the heat of struggle. The bin tax campaign has highlighted the organisational and ideological strengths and weaknesses of the various far left groupings. Perhaps more importantly it has indicated more clearly their relationship with the working class. At the height of autumns struggle most far left organisations and individuals were engaged to some extent in the campaign and a clear difference of perspective emerged. On the one hand the Socialist Workers Party, backed by Sinn Fein, argued for a campaign based on mass meetings and demonstrations with blockading and other forms of direct action being seen as measures of last resort. The basis for this view was that the decisive battle would be the local elections of summer 2004 where anti-bin tax candidates could make a breakthrough based on the work done over the years in the different localities. This position was somewhat undermined by the fact that in certain areas where the Socialist Workers Party claimed to be organising the campaign, only shadow campaigns, lacking a popular base, existed. The perception was that they had adopted this position because they were unable to deliver the goods when it came to mass direct action. There was a degree of truth to this perception because the majority of Socialist Workers Party activists are of middle class origin, many of them students who had no real connection with working class communities, though individual members, such as the jailed activist Brid Smith, had played an important role in limited number of areas. Sinn Fein on the other hand had failed to play any significant role outside of Finglas and seemed to view the campaign as an adjunct to their target of making a major breakthrough in the local elections.

On the other hand the Socialist Party and three smaller left groups active in the campaign on the north side of the city (Working Class Action, the Workers Solidarity Movement and the Irish Socialist Network) advocated mass direct action, especially after the jailing of the activists. In areas dominated by these forces frequent blockades of trucks and depots occurred. The areas where these groups were dominant tended to be the best organised and the most deeply rooted in the community. Public meetings attracted hundreds while dozens of people engaged in blockading action. There was little patience from this wing of the campaign for the more cautious, election orientated strategy. There was, however, a certain degree of suspicion amongst the smaller groupings that the Socialist Party saw the campaign as their property, to be led from above and switched on and off as it suited.

The union response

Union bosses were posed with a huge dilemma by this battle. There was a strong pressure from the rank and file to back the bin tax campaign, especially after the jailing of Joe, Clare and the other activists. It was hard to oppose this pressure given that it was the official policy of most unions to oppose all service charges. This was compounded by a strong desire by the bin men themselves to show solidarity with their friends and neighbours. On the other hand the bureaucrats were wedded to social partnership and wanted to avoid conflict with the authorities at all costs. They also saw the danger to the Labour Party of popular mobilisation led by the far left.

The only leading trade unionist backing the bin tax campaign was Mick O Reilly of the ATGWU who, although a member of the Labour Party, is a widely respected leftist. The other source of support was the traditionally radical Dublin Council of Trade Unions which organised a mass demonstration to oppose the imprisonment of the activists.

While mouthing platitudes favourable to the campaign, the leaders of the main unions organising bin workers, SIPTU and IMPACT, worked hard behind the scenes with management to ensure the success of the non-collection against the wishes of the workers themselves. At some stages these tensions bubbled to the surface, with truck drivers refusing to drive out of depots blockaded by activists despite shop stewards and union officials pressurising them to do so. By far the worst intervention was that of David Begg, the leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. While the Socialist Party politicians languished in jail, he publicly attacked the campaign and its leaders. Of course this received maximum publicity in the media with every attempt made to portray the anti-bin tax campaign as crafty loony left ploy to dupe the gullible working class.

What next?

Both sides are now holding their fire, preparing for the next round. The establishment politicians want to avoid a rerun of the bitter conflict of last autumn at least until after the summer elections. They know that another round of blockades and arrests would galvanise working class communities and boost support for Sinn Fein and far left candidates. Undoubtedly they are leaning on local authority managers to hold back until the elections are over. This may not be enough to rein in the bureaucrats. The Dublin City Manager secured a 23% increase in the bin tax in December with the support of the right wing parties and the Greens on the City Council. There are plans in the offing to introduce the tag system to replace the yearly bill in the City Council and South Dublin Council areas as a prelude to enforcing non-collection. The possibility exists that the campaign may enter a decisive phase before the elections.

With most political forces involved in the campaign concentrating to a greater or lesser degree on electoral work there is a danger that the campaign may degenerate. Activists may put all their energy into canvassing and leafleting, neglecting to continue the grassroots organising needed to sustain the struggle against the bin tax. The more cautious elements in the alliance may use the run up to the elections to argue against direct action on the basis that any sort of illegal action will damage the electoral prospects of candidates. The predominant tendency at the moment seems to have swung towards an over-concentration on the importance of the local elections.

A decisive issue for the working class

Some commentators normally sympathetic to the Irish left (and others allied to the Labour Party) have questioned the involvement of the radicals in the anti-bin tax campaign. This writer has been frequently asked by bemused questioners “Why did you go to jail over bins?” Shouldn’t socialists address more important issues such as the drastic state of the public health service? Behind the question of course lies a deep ignorance of the reality of life in working class communities. What they fail to see is that behind the popularity of the anti-bin tax campaign lies a deep well of alienation and anger amongst communities that have gained little from the Celtic Tiger years. This is not a question of environmental responsibility but a question of who should pay for waste management and disposal. It is a question of class and while it might not be the ideal battleground it is a very real one. Whether the council’s bin truck collects the rubbish from outside the door of a working class family who refuse to pay their bill is the frontline of the class struggle. This was the most intense bout of class struggle experienced in the Republic in years. It would have been incredibly stupid, not to mention unprincipled, of the left to fail to engage in this struggle.


The reformist parties

The Irish Labour Party often seems like a pale imitation of its British counterpart. During the 1980s it came complete with its own Militant Tendency, soft left and right wing leadership. Having expelled the Militants and bought off the soft left, the right wing leader Dick Spring led the party to a historic victory in 1992 winning 33 seats in the Irish parliament. He promptly entered a coalition government with Fianna Fail, a party whose corruption he had denounced with passion. That government will mainly be remembered for the tax amnesties given to the super rich and the propensity of Labour Ministers to reward family and friends with jobs. In 1997 the voters dealt severely with the party, a drubbing it has yet to fully recover from. Even the absorption of Democratic Left failed to give it a boost. Ironically, the current leader and deputy leader of the party are former members of Democratic Left though they have pulled the party even further to the right by making it clear they are not opposed to the privatisation of services and openly courting business leaders. There is no left-wing in the party any longer, though some populist backbenchers occasionally dissent from the Blairite leadership.

This situation is reflected in the complete lack of involvement of Labour members in the anti-bin tax campaign. Anxious to win middle class votes, the party has consciously abandoned working class communities to Sinn Fein, a stance aptly summarised in the comment made to the writer by a leading Labour strategist: “Fuck Fatima Mansions” (Fatima Mansions is a Dublin inner city flats complex traditionally wracked by unemployment, crime and drug addiction but also the site of powerful community resistance and regeneration). The strength of working class opposition to the tax has led to some modification of this stance. Labour now claims to be opposed to the bin tax despite the fact that its councillors have voted for it in the past.

Ireland’s environmental reformists, the Green Party, have played a shameful role during the campaign. They berated the anti-bin tax activists as enemies of the environment and lauded the tax as an example of the “polluter pays” principle. The utter failure of the Greens to understand the real nature of the bin tax was a reflection of the party’s class base. The Irish Greens are a thoroughly middle class party with little or no working class support. Another factor has been the dominance of the ‘pragmatic’ wing of the party whose ambition is to join a coalition government and implement environmentally friendly policies from above. The more radical environmental activists, largely alienated from the now respectable Greens, were broadly sympathetic to the bin tax protesters, instinctively sympathetic to the anti-establishment nature of the campaign.

Sinn Fein has now emerged as a major political player in the Republic. In many working class areas Sinn Fein is the only game in town. A certain crude class consciousness allied to the lack of a genuine left alternative has fed working class support for the Republican movement. Yet party leaders openly acknowledge that their goal is to enter coalition government as soon as it suits them. The only difference seems to be over whether to join forces with the nationalistic Fianna Fail party or wait until it is feasible to form a centre left coalition with Labour and the Greens. Few senior activists now talk of the old goal of a socialist republic. What is remarkable about Sinn Fein is the conservatism of its leading cadres. For a party steeped in a history of armed struggle they are none too keen on radical activism. Outside a small number of areas they have confined their role in the bin tax campaign to issuing supportive statements through their elected representatives. Mass direct action left them decidedly uneasy!

Realignment of the left

In Ireland as elsewhere, the prospect of establishing a broad party which will unite the far left and mobilise the mass of working people is a key point of discussion. The bin tax campaign has posed this question more sharply because for the first time in many years there is a campaign which has mobilised large numbers of ordinary people and united most of the left under a single banner. The two largest players on the left, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, have adopted fairly divergent strategies regarding left cooperation though this has not prevented them from cooperating. In fact, sometimes given their shared adherence to Leninism, they find themselves united in opposition to others on the radical left. This was particularly evident during the height of anti-war agitation in the spring of 2003 when they shared a common position opposed to direct action to prevent the use of Shannon Airport by the United States military.

The Socialist Workers Party has long argued for the formation of a socialist bloc, uniting the existing left primarily for electoral purposes without, it seems, the necessity of large scale involvement of broader working class forces. Perhaps the idea is that such a block will itself lead to the mobilisation of the class. They have combined this with working in (very) broad fronts such as the Irish Anti War Movement. It remains to be seen whether they abandon the socialist block strategy and replace it a demand for a much wider electoral front based on the bin tax campaign.

The Socialist Party has consistently argued that it would be premature to launch what would in effect be an alliance of the weak and isolated forces of the far left. The argument advanced is that a new party of the working class can only emerge from a real upsurge of working class mobilisation. In practise this boils down to two somewhat contradictory positions: refusing to contemplate a formal alliance of the left in the hope that some new elements will emerge from the working class in the form of community campaigns and independent political groupings to provide the basis for a new movement or party. The second element of thinking in the Socialist Party has been a view that in reality theirs is the new mass (revolutionary) party in waiting and that all that is necessary is to build their own organisation. While this is rarely verbalised it is evident in the lack of mention of the question of the broad party in public discourse by party members.

I have concentrated on the position of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party because these are the largest of the far left organisations, though it should be emphasised that they have a tiny membership (roughly around a 100 active members in both cases) in comparison to Sinn Fein and Labour, whose membership numbers in the thousands though many are inactive paper members. The only other larger left group, the stalinist rump of the Workerís Party has shown little interest in cooperation with those they view, through a prism of fossilised 1980s politics, as ultra-left ‘Trots’. I have neglected to concentrate a critical gaze on the positions of the smaller groups simply because these are too small at the moment to have anything other than a local impact. Suffice to say that there are a growing number of individuals and groups, including the Irish Socialist Network, who are advocating the creation of a broad mass party of the working class based on solid socialist principles and trying to learn from the successes and mistakes of the process of left unity unfolding in Scotland, England, France etc. without slavishly advocating the importation of any particular model.

The weakness of the Irish Left

The weakness of the left in Ireland has been the result of both subjective and objective factors. The colonial history of the country, the underdeveloped, agricultural nature of the economy, the power of the Catholic Church and the dominance of the national question were among the major factors that caused this weakness in the 20th century. Even the rapid industrialisation, integration into pan-European structures and modernisation of the country over the last forty years failed to bring a major advance for the left, though it did have an effect on the political superstructure, seen primarily in the decline of the redundant Fine Gael and the rise of the left reformists of Sinn Fein and the Greens.

The leadership of the Labour Movement has remained firmly in the hands of the right since the execution of James Connolly in 1916. Never has a Labour leadership dared to assert an independent position and refuse the blandishments of coalition. Most left challenges to Labour have emerged from the Republican movement and these have repeatedly ended up mired in the bog of reformism. Until now the far left has failed to capitalise on this situation though the degree of cooperation that exists today in contrast to the naked sectarianism of the past gives one reason for cautious optimism. It may be some time yet before Ireland sees the emergence of an equivalent to the Scottish Socialist Party or Portuguese Left Block.