Resisting the privatisation of water…

Eamon McCann, singing from a similar hymn sheet as North Down Unionist MLA Bob McCartney, argued in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph that the possible privatisation of the DoE’s Water Service can be “scuppered by non payment”.

“The first point to be made is that non-payment of water charges does not amount to a criminal offence.”

That’s the opening sentence in a briefing paper commissioned from specialist lawyers by a leading trades union.

The assurance will ease the anxiety of many who see the charges, correctly, as a scam, but who fear the repercussions of refusing to pay up.

The union had asked for legal advice on the implications of the vote of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions at Newry last April to support non-payment.

The briefing paper also confirms that the authorities won’t be able to turn off your supply if you flush the water charges bill down the drain.

We have been paying all along for water, through the rates. But, far from reducing the rates to take account of separate charges, rates bills, too, are set to soar. To impose charges is to make us pay twice over.

The message, then, must be: don’t pay twice, it’s alright.

It is not a mantra which ministers and mandarins are likely to find soothing.

There have been suggestions in recent weeks that “something will be done” on water charges as a sweetener for a reconstituted Assembly and Executive. Sinn Fein and DUP spokespersons have seemed particularly keen to claim credit for the anticipated “concession.”

In fact, the main reason New Labour ideologues might back off a bit is that they are seriously worried about the viability of their privatisation/water charges project if they press ahead with their plans on present schedule. They are unsettled by any suggestion of a half-decent non-payment campaign.

New Labour’s proposal is to hand our water service over to a government-owned company in April next year. The “GoCo” will be operate as a private firm. The government will be the sole shareholder, but the business will be incorporated under company law and its management required to take decisions in the interests of notional investors.

After three years, it’s planned to move on to full-blown privatisation. The sole shareholder will put Northern Ireland Water on the market. The only likely bidders will come from the handful of multi-national companies which have making a mint from monopoly control of water supplies in countries across the globe.

That’s it in essence. “Water reform” is a private-sector sting on the Northern Ireland public, designed to relieve us of an asset which we have paid for over the years, while our attentions are diverted elsewhere. And then they want to charge us for using it—as we have no option but to do—-for the rest of our lives.

Tony Soprano’s control of New Jersey waste disposal was achieved on a more ethical basis.

But can the Government grifters be certain there’ll be buyers for NI Water when the time comes around? Here we come to the heart of what’s fluttering their resolve.

By 2010, it’s anticipated that the management now in situ (none of them from Northern Ireland, of course: they have contempt for this place) will have re-structured our water industry so it has assumed the ethos of a private capitalist rather than a public service enterprise. Hundreds of local jobs will have been destroyed, pay and working conditions of the remaining jobs downgraded, a tradition of worker-management consultation discarded in favour of edicts from on high. It’s happening already.

And—the key and crucial point, the condition which above all others must be met if the scam is to succeed—revenue must be flowing predictably and reliably into the coffers of the company. This is to say that the vast majority of the people must be compliantly paying up when if ever the company is floated on the market.

Or, to put it another and better way, the entire scheme can be scuppered by non-payment.

The uncertainty of the schemers, the equivalent of a pick-pocket suddenly afflicted by the fumbles as he sidles towards an assembly of supposed mugs, comes through clearly in the “strategic review” of the plan by a team of free-market zealots hired at vast expense(to us) by the NIO. Again, the strategic reviewers, natch, included not a single representative of any Northern Ireland constituency, institution or interest group. Fair enough, I suppose, in a twisted way. You don’t consult the victims about how it’s proposed they’ll be fleeced.

The UBS Investment Bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Halcrow, Deloitte and the like identified a number of “revenue uncertainties” standing in the way of successful privatisation. Top of the list was, “Uncertainties about revenue collection following the introduction of domestic charging.”

We will come back to the strategic review soon. By implication at least, it identified a number of reasons for believing that water charges here, if we allow their introduction, could rapidly escalate beyond the highest estimates so far suggested even by committed opponents of the plan.

In the meantime, let’s be done with debate about whether a non-payment campaign can win. It can, and will if it has broad enough backing.

Political parties who say they won’t back non-payment because it won’t work are intervening to ensure that it won’t work. Some of them are understandably embarrassed by their own roles as precursors to the plan. Some are nervous of the implications of a mass movement built on a basis which has nothing to do with the community from which anyone comes. Some are deep-down convinced that the class war is over, neo-liberalism has won, resistance is futile. Some of them are all the same people.

As for the rest of us, we should shout with one confident voice: we won’t pay!

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty