25 September 2003 Edition
Whose law? What democracy?
It was interesting to hear the chorus of condemnation from certain quarters against the bin-charge protesters over the weekend. From the levels of outrage expressed by some establishment commentators, you'd think the protestors had captured government buildings and occupied the GPO (at least), rather than barricading a single lorry.
Passing sentence on Joe Higgins TD and Councillor Clare Daly, judge Iarfhlaith O'Neill said they had struck at the very heart of democratic order. Describing Higgins's actions as "reprehensible" for a member of Dáil Éireann, he said it was the fundamental obligation of every citizen to comply with the law.
No less a person than the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, called on Higgins to resign his Dáil seat. Fine Gael and the PDs said they would support any motion of censure against the Socialist Party TD.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects in the media - from the shrill tones of the Sunday Independent to the stuffy pages of the Irish Times - joined the chorus. Who on earth are these anti-bin tax campaigners, that they dare defy the authorities? Why, they've hardly an Armani suit or an offshore bank account among them! The Irish Times sniffed: "The issue goes deeper than bin charges, to the rule of law and the democratic validity of lawful decisions."
The issue does indeed go deeper than bin charges. How impartial is the law? And how healthy is our democracy? With every protestor jailed in the coming days and weeks, it will become more and more clear that there are two systems of law in the 26 Counties - one for the elite, and the other for the rest of us. And every protestor jailed will be a further indictment of "democracy" as practiced in this state.
I am not referring simply to the hypocrisy of a judiciary that jails two public representatives for disobeying a court order on a point of principle, while after years of obstructing the Tribunals, Liam Lawlor remains a free man. I think it is important to ask two questions: Why has it become necessary for the protesters to take direct action in the form of blocking bin lorries? And why has the condemnation visited upon them been so shrill?
Nobody wants bin charges. If there was a referendum on the issue tomorrow, the charges would be rejected by a huge majority. Tens of thousands of people have consistently refused to pay them, risking prosecution in the process. Hundreds of thousands more, while unwilling to carry their opposition so far, are supportive of their stand.
When any law provokes this level of defiance, its legitimacy and rationale needs to be questioned. But far from being abolished, bin charges have risen rapidly year on year. In Cork county (where I live) they have doubled in the past year.
Refuse charges being a local tax, in a functioning democracy opponents should be able to elect local councillors opposed to the charges and ultimately overturn them. However, local democracy in the 26 Counties has been systematically undermined. The government forced refuse charges on reluctant local authorities, first by underfunding them, then by threatening those that refused to pass estimates with dissolution. Finally, this year it transferred the power to raise local charges from local authorities to unelected city and county managers.
So why is the government so set on introducing a bin tax? It claims (and the Greens, who should know better, have fallen for this) that the charges are a progressive tax on waste, based on the principle that the "polluter pays". This is nonsense. It ignores the fact that it is not the ordinary householder who produces waste - although they are the ones who ultimately have to dispose of it. The manufacturers and retailers who wrap their products in layer upon layer of expensive packaging are the real polluters.
If the government was serious about tackling our waste problem, it would establish a system of levies and incentives to reduce the amount of packaging on consumer products and to encourage reusable packaging. To take only one example, it is not that many years since milk came in glass bottles that could be returned after use. Why cannot this system be reestablished for milk and other beverage containers?
If bin charges were designed to encourage recycling, they would be consistently linked to bin weight and be accompanied by a system of sorting recyclable waste. But neither measure is in operation across the majority of local authority areas. Recycling facilities are patchy and often difficult to access. It is also striking that in Dublin City, households pay €16.4m for waste collection as opposed to €10m paid by business - in spite of the fact that households generated 204,000 tonnes of rubbish in 2001, as opposed to 242,000 tonnes produced by business.
Refuse charges, then, have little to do with waste policy or the environment. They are a straightforward revenue-generating measure - a double tax that falls disproportionately on the less well-off. As such, they are directly related to the determination of the Fianna Fáil-PD coalition to keep income taxes low.
Refuse charges are also part of a government agenda of reducing the role of the public sector and increasing that of private business through straightforward privatisation, contracting out of public services, and extending public-private partnerships. Increasing charges for public services like electricity, or introducing them for services like refuse collection, is paving the way for their privatisation.
This is an agenda shared by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the PDs and, increasingly, Labour - whatever their current stance on refuse charges. It is part of the "Washington consensus" that has dominated Western politics since the 1980s, eliminating the differences between parties and replacing politics with economic management. Hence the growing democratic deficit in our society; hence a government aloof, arrogant and unresponsive. In the absence of a properly functioning democracy, the bin-tax protesters are forced to engage in pickets and sit-ins to prevent the enforcement of the charges by the non-collection of their waste.
The protestors are, by and large, not political activists but ordinary people forced into taking a stand by the government's demand that they pay an unjust and inequitable tax. Because the normal routes of effecting political change - by lobbying and electoral politics - have been rendered ineffective by an increasingly sealed political class, they have taken matters into their own hands.
And this is why their actions are unforgivable to the establishment. Because in the neo-liberal world order, we are meant to accept the decisions of the political and managerial class, who know best. We are meant to be passive consumers, not politically literate and activist citizens. Our place is to watch Friends and debate United's chances in the Premiership while the people who are qualified to do so manage politics and the economy.
Whose law? What democracy? Are we to sign over politics to a managerial elite in the pocket of big business and acquiesce in whatever decisions they choose to make? Are we to bow down before the law like a tribal idol without questioning its justice or the process by which it is made? Are we to give up our citizenship, and become a nation of passive consumers?
James Connolly spoke of "the reconquest of Ireland" - a reconquest that was social and economic as well as political and territorial. It is as good a definition of republicanism as I know. Connolly viewed capitalism as an alien system imposed upon this country by her colonial masters. Fianna Fáil is striving to impose a neo-liberalism concocted in the boardrooms of New York and Dublin, which goes against the instincts of the vast majority of Irish people, on this state.
Refuse charges are one item on this agenda. The struggle against them is also a struggle to reclaim the realm of politics for ordinary people.
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