Eric was on holiday in Spain during last October’s Right2Water march, the first major rally against water charges held in Dublin. Taken aback by the size of the “colossal” crowd that marched on that autumn weekend, however, he was quick to get involved in the mobilisation that subsequently took place in Stoneybatter upon his return. The campaign that was forming now was different, though many people he knew from other protests were involved. In October, information stalls were set up on Stoneybatter’s Manor Street as the movement prepared for the installation of water metres. Eric observed anger similar to his own in the reactions of other residents as they realised they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay the tax. There were working people, as well as those on benefits.
The increasing pressure put on those whose income is diminishing is a “violent act”, as people lose their ability to feed or house themselves properly, he says. The response to the water charges is a focused attempt to reverse the debilitating trend of austerity policy. That these sentiments resonate so strongly is part of the reason the independent protest have established themselves so quickly, following the “spark” created by Right2Water’s initial mobilisation. Mark Malone, a freelance journalist and TV producer specialising in activism, suggests that the “immediacy of the installation of the metres and the possibility of not paying the bills” presents people with tangible action in a way that other recent policies have not. Eric also states that the campaign hinges on convincing enough people not to pay. He is optimistic and perhaps he is right to be: as Malone points out, water charges target a much larger social group than many recent policies.
Social media allows groups like as Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax to circumvent traditional media channels.
It’s a matter of strength in numbers as the campaign attempts to render punishment for unpaid charges “impractical” for the government to implement. Thus far, it seems everything is working in the protesters’ favour. Eric points out that a door-to-door poll carried out by the movement demonstrates that the majority of Stoneybatter residents say they will refuse to pay. Each week, he and other volunteers knock on approximately a hundred doors. Only a small number of these answer, but it is this activity in tandem with the public protests and meetings that makes up the “multi-faceted” campaign that, in Eric’s view, is too strong to fail.
‘Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax’
Another facet of the campaign is its use of social media. Social media allows groups like Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax, which has one of the most well-subscribed pages of its kind on Facebook, to circumvent traditional media channels, such as corporate newspapers and press releases, states Malone. It also affords the groups a chance to challenge the narrative created in the mainstream media. Aspects of protests that are misrepresented can now be reappraised.
The tactic of filming has also been deployed against the protesters. Though they’ve had some “scary moments with masked unidentified people”, Eric says he and others remain undeterred. Having been filmed by masked security, or even people posing as protesters, he sees the tactics as somewhat desperate. Malone on the other hand sees as more symptomatic of social discontent. Though it is intimidating for protesters and the footage may be used in court, it is a “very normal aspect of privatised policing” rather than a sign of desperation.
Photo: Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax
Malone also speaks of how the use of social media can alter the “psycho-geography” of a protest. Being able to see content and share ideas makes people feel less isolated in areas where they may be less numerous in that it creates “a very real community which they can feel a part of.” Though this may not be entirely the case in an urban area such as Stoneybatter, there are some similarities. Eric’s opposition to the charges is based on “self-defence”, he says, and his attending meetings and knocking on doors is an “instinctual” response. Of the images of the “colossal” Right2Water march, he says they showed that “everyone felt the same way.”
Photos of groups as far as away as Detroit showing solidarity suggests the feeling is not confined to Stoneybatter or even Ireland.
Photos of groups as far as away as Detroit showing solidarity on the Stoneybatter movement’s page suggests the feeling is not confined to Stoneybatter or even Ireland. That Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax and the others groups in Dublin and around the country took inspiration from the Right2Water march but are now mobilising forces in their own right is, to Eric, the protest’s great strength.
The content on the Stoneybatter Against the Water Tax Facebook page is moderated in an “informal, yet effective way” over Facebook messages as members see videos or photos and then deliberate on their worth quickly, says Eric. Similarly, public protest and larger meetings are co-ordinated and publicised online. Social media presents a low cost medium for protesters to mobilise themselves and others. Yet, Malone is quick to dismiss the notion of “technical determination”, that the protest is being driven by social media tools. Their deployment come down to the “agency” of the people in utilising them.
One of the most recent posts on the movement’s page is an event for their next public meeting on March 31st, which will centre around a talk on “what will happen when I don’t pay my water tax.” At the groups previous three public meetings in the Parish Hall, items such as how the non-payment phase of the campaign can be built have been put to the floor. These sort of public meetings are important, says Malone, as they allow the finer details of the campaign to be teased out. Having an active social media platform is important, but it may well “begin to seem like broadcast.” Though a social media presence grants the movement the opportunity to control their own narrative, the large amount of content being produced also allows other outlets to emphasise the campaign’s negative aspects such as the harassment of state officials.
Though they’ve had some “scary moments with masked unidentified people”, Eric says he and others remain undeterred.
Much like Eric said, however, the social media presence is just one part of the campaign. Both agree that the campaign’s most crucial moment is around the corner with the arrival of the first bill from Irish Water in April. Though the Right2Water campaign are not campaigning for non-payment, it is widely believed that this is the only way the campaign will succeed. Malone points out that a successful non-payment campaign is strategically sound as it would “invalidate the government’s performance” in the eyes of Europe.
However, though it is an important moment, it does not signal a change in the Stoneybatter movement’s focus. Though they will be looking inward to maintain the solidarity they have built up, they will still be publicising themselves and protesting in public as it is “crucial that all these things happen at the same time.” Even talking to student press is an important measure.