There is a rising wave of protest across Ireland against the hated “bin charges,” an extra tax for garbage collection. The focus is now on the Dublin area, where a campaign of mass non-payment and protest in working class areas has been going on for several years. Most working class people in Dublin are currently refusing to pay this form of double taxation.
One socialist TD (member of Irish Parliament), one socialist city councilor, three grandmothers, one nursing mother, a mailman – all told, 22 people have now been jailed by the Irish courts in recent months at the behest of an unpopular right-wing government and local authorities, for their part in the mass protest campaign.
Struggle in the “Celtic Tiger”
During the 1990’s, the Irish economy experienced an unprecedented boom. But the years of the “Celtic Tiger” are now over. Growth has slowed dramatically and is now close to 0%. Among the working class, there is a sense that they largely missed out on the boom. Income tax cuts benefited mainly the rich. Minimal tax cuts for the majority of workers were generally in exchange for paltry wage increases. For tens of thousands of workers, the Celtic Tiger meant soaring prices, especially housing prices, but low wage increases.
Inequality increased dramatically during the Tiger years. The gap between rich and poor in Southern Ireland is now the second highest in the OECD, trailing only the U.S.
In addition, there has been a spate of corruption cases over the past decade involving figures from both main political parties who have been in the pay of Irish big business. Publicly funded investigations failed to jail anyone responsible, succeeding only in costing taxpayers millions.
The garbage charges are the second time the Irish government has attempted to charge extra for a basic service. In the early ’90s, they tried to charge extra for water supply in order to pave the way for privatization of that service. The Socialist Party, the Irish sister organization of Socialist Alternative, was key in organizing the mass non-payment campaign that defeated the water charges. As a direct result, the Socialist Party candidate Joe Higgins was elected to the Dail (Irish parliament) where he has been a major thorn in the side of the political establishment since 1997. Joe has been described in the Irish media as “the only real opposition” in parliament.
“Collect All Bins or None”
Garbage charges were introduced by the four local councils in the greater Dublin area over the last several years, and the Socialist Party has been in the forefront of a very successful campaign of mass non-payment since. Working people are furious at yet another “double tax” because garbage collection has traditionally been included as part of taxes they already pay. Nor do they buy the argument that the tax is good for the environment. Household waste accounts for only a very small part of total waste (1.2 million out of 80 million tons). The bulk of waste is produced by agribusiness and other large industries, and the government has no serious plan for targeting the major polluters or recycling household waste.
The campaign has now come to a confrontational head because of the steps taken by the government and the local councils to break it. Some time ago, they decided they would no longer collect garbage from households that had not paid the charge. They were delayed in bringing this into effect when Joe Higgins, acting on behalf of the Socialist Party and the anti-charges campaign, brought a legal challenge to the Supreme Court.
The case was won with a ruling that, under existing law, the councils were obliged to collect all garbage whether people had paid or not. The government responded by rushing through legislation to close this legal loophole early this summer.
Early in September, Fingal Council officials announced they would no longer collect the garbage of non-payers. The campaign replied by leafleting houses throughout the area, calling on people to blockade the garbage trucks if non-collection went ahead. Their slogan was “collect all bins or none.”
On the first morning, residents successfully stopped collections in a number of areas. Three garbage trucks were blockaded throughout the day. Socialist Party City Councilor Clare Daly played a vital role in Dublin North in preventing repressive retaliation by police and bolstering the confidence of the residents. Several hundred people came together for an impromptu meeting held beside one truck, with Joe Higgins and another local Socialist Party councilor, Ruth Coppinger, addressing the crowd.
Over the next few days, more trucks were stopped and the garbage collection was completely disrupted.
Peaceful Protestors Jailed
One week after the blockades started, Fingal County Council responded by bringing charges against 15 demonstrators, ten of them Socialist Party members including Joe Higgins and Clare Daly.
As a result of their participation in this non-violent direct action, Joe and Clare were sentenced to one month in prison and had court costs awarded against them. Fingal Council’s hope was that the threat of fines and imprisonment would intimidate residents. They also wanted to single out the Socialist Party, which they – correctly – saw as the backbone of the campaign.
The effect the jailings had on the campaign was electrifying. It went from being a localized issue to commanding the national headlines.
The following week, 5,000 people marched on the jail demanding the release of Joe and Clare. Far from intimidating people from continuing the blockades, many more got involved, and they spread from the Fingal Council area, which is in the north of the city, to the central districts, which are controlled by Dublin Corporation.
In October, the Corporation started non-collection, but only in the most well-off areas where almost all households have already paid. In mid-October, the Corporation succeeded in jailing 13 campaigners for two weeks each (with the exception of a nursing mother who was “leniently” given one week).
The campaign responded by organizing a city-wide day of action covering all four council districts. The day was focused on all-day pickets of the seven council depots throughout the city, with the aim of preventing all trash collection. It was a total success, with large protests at all seven sites and a demonstration in the city center. Most importantly, the garbage truck drivers not only refused to cross the picket lines but staged walk-outs in several places in support of the protestors.
As we go to press, the center of the struggle has shifted again to the south of the city. South Dublin County Council has jailed two more protestors for three weeks each.
This campaign has now developed into a direct confrontation between working class residents led by the Socialist Party and the capitalist political establishment. Whatever the outcome, there will be huge political repercussions. Even in the worst scenario, where the government does eventually get away with imposing this tax, they could very well pay a huge political price.
Whatever happens, the Socialist Party is set to benefit. The party has shown in action that it will honor its commitment, and that of its representatives, to struggle on behalf of working people. The Socialist Party’s standing across the country has already been raised enormously.
The Dublin garbage tax is part of the Irish version of big business’s neo-liberal “globalization” agenda, in which public services and all other state assets are up for privatization.
In the U.S. we are experiencing massive cuts in social services and municipal jobs, under the guise of a “fiscal crisis.” We in Socialist Alternative oppose all cuts in jobs and services here in the U.S. and stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters fighting big business around the world.
The garbage tax campaign in Ireland galvanized the anger of working class people. It is a powerful example of the type of struggles which could develop in many countries in the near future, including the U.S. But it also demonstrates the necessity of building a socialist organization rooted in workplaces and communities which can provide a decisive and tested leadership for such struggles.
“As soon as I get out I am going to go straight back on the protest line. This has gone beyond just bin charges – it’s about freedom of speech and freedom to protest.”
– Jailed protestor Declan Mahon
“Threatening people with jail won’t stop the protests. We will stand by the thousands in the communities.”
– Jailed Socialist Party City Councilor Clare Daly
Solidarity Needed! How You Can Help:
Please send protest letters (demanding a reply) to the Taoiseach (Prime Minister):
Mr. Bertie Ahern T.D.,
Department of the Taoiseach, Government Buildings,
Upper Merrion Street,
Republic of Ireland
email: [email protected]
Please send copies of your letter to: [email protected]
for the latest updates about the anti-bin tax campaign
website of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)