Water Wars in Ireland: the politics of claiming rights ‘from below’

Dr. Thomas Murray,

Lecturer in Equality Studies, UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice.


On the 1st of November, 2014, over one hundred and fifty thousand people filled Ireland’s rain drenched streets. From Dublin to Galway and Cork to Donegal, some one hundred protest groups gathered in their communities to demonstrate their opposition to Irish Water, a water metering utility introduced after the financial crisis of 2008 as part of the state’s bailout programme. What began as solitary community groups physically preventing the installation of water meters had grown into a countrywide celebration of civil disobedience and mass refusal to pay water charges. People had had enough. ‘Austerity has gone too far’ was the most cited reason given for protesting. Other reasons for marching were ‘to stop the future privatisation of water’, to abolish water charges and to oppose the ‘bank bailouts/debt’. Water, some demonstrators claimed, was ‘not for profit’ but ‘a human right’.[i]

At present, opposition to water charges remains a broad, decentralised community movement which continues to boycott Irish Water bills and to organise local demonstrations informally over Facebook. At the same time, however, the period preceding February’s parliamentary elections generated additional considerations. More traditional organisations – including political parties and independent representatives, trade unions, assorted NGOs and academics – have sought to give formal expression to diffuse talk of rage and rights on the streets and to propose new or left-leaning electoral candidates as the best means of advancing diverse aims. Notably, on May Day, 2015, the ‘Right2Water’ campaign announced its ‘Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government’.[ii] The campaign advocated the constitutional recognition of rights to water and to housing, accompanied by rights to jobs and decent work, to health, to debt justice, to education and to democratic reform.[iii] Of course, this is not the first time that people have considered constitutionalising water rights in Ireland.


Water featured prominently in the discussions of those designing the basic laws of the emergent Irish Free State in 1922. In fact, the inclusion of water initially divided the Constitution Committee. Framers such as Hugh Kennedy, Clemens France and James Douglas argued that ‘the water in the streams and lakes of Ireland belongs as a Natural Right to all of the people of Ireland. This water is something which is continually renewed by the precipitation of moisture. Because the water happens to flow in certain channels because of the topography of the country is no reason why any limited group of people should claim individual ownership therein’. Conversely, another group of framers, notably Darrell Figgis, warned: ‘[I]f the words ‘and water’ are included in the Constitution, many criticisms will be directed against the Constitution by farmers the value of whose property would be affected’. The exchange was a brief one, and soon resolved, but the concern the framers expressed over established property rights and interests was not atypical.

Ultimately, the drafting committee and the subsequent Constituent Assembly opted to mirror constitutional usage in Great Britain. Article 11 of the 1922 Constitution, concerning the vesting of ‘lands and waters, mines and minerals’ in the Irish Free State, sanctioned the maintenance of existing forms of tenure and left the precise terms of these property relations to future parliamentary discretion. The right to water the first time around thus suffered the same fate as numerous other socio-economic rights proposals, initially suggested for inclusion to appease agrarian and labour militancy but discarded once the Provisional Government established its authority.[iv] Instead, upon reaching a compromise with the empires on Thames and Tiber, the Irish Free State would defend the dominant financier-grazier interests of its peripheral agrarian economy and thus consign the immense working majority to comparatively lower living standards for a generation.[v]


In Ireland today, as elsewhere, the real politics of constitutionalizing socio-economic rights once more centres precisely on this clash between popular, anti-systemic movements and established interests’ attempts to contain the ideals and practices of these movements. On the one hand, entrenching a constitutional right to water may offset the rampant commodification of social reproduction and ease the pain following the most recent structural crisis of capitalism. On the other hand, the universal emphasis of rights discourse, invoking the state as a neutral site of arbitration between competing interests, misrecognizes and thereby helps to reproduce those particular interests or social relations capable of influencing the state in a capitalist society.

Contemporary activists in water struggles have drawn similar conclusions as to the limits capitalism and representative democratic forms (the mass party and the Constituent Assembly) impose on ‘rights’ movements today, most notably in Bolivia where notable victories have been recorded.[vi] Similarly, recent movements, from the Zapatistas to Occupy Wall Street and beyond, continue to question the disjuncture between direct democratic forms of popular self-organization and representative democratic forms such as the party and constituent assembly. Water warriors could do worse than reflect on these emergent, critical sensibilities and their proponents’ refusal to be contained.

Thomas Murray is the author of T. Murray, ‘Socio-Economic Rights Versus Social Revolution? Constitution Making in Germany, Mexico and Ireland, 1917-1923’ (2015) 24(4) Social & Legal Studies 487-508 available here.


[i] Rory Hearne, 2015, ‘The Irish water war, austerity and the “Risen people”: An analysis of participant opinions, social and political impacts and transformative potential of the Irish anti water-charges movement’, pp. 2, 15. Available at:

https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/sites/default/files/assets/document/TheIrishWaterwar_0.pdf; accessed 26 May 2015.

[ii] The Right2Water Campaign is an umbrella group of the trade unions UNITE, MANDATE, the Communication Workers Union, the Civil and Public Services Union and OPATSI. See http://www.right2water.ie/

[iii] Available at: http://www.mandate.ie/Documents/111930_12796_R2W-Unions_Policies_A5.pdf; accessed 26 May 2015.

[iv] See my analysis of the first wave of attempts to constitutionalize economic and social rights in Mexico (1917), Weimar Germany (1919) and the Irish Free State (1922). Thomas Murray, 2015, ‘Socio-Economic Rights Versus Social Revolution? Constitution Making in Germany, Mexico and Ireland, 1917–1923’ in Social & Legal Studies, Vol. 24: 4, pp. 487-508.

[v] On socio-economic rights in Ireland in subsequent years, see also Thomas Murray, 2015, ‘Socio-Economic Rights and the Making of the 1937 Irish Constitution’ in Irish Political Studies: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07907184.2015.1095738.

[vi] Bolivia has witnessed years of social movement mobilisation, the election of a left-populist government, and the inclusion of environmental rights in a new constitution. Nevertheless, processes of exploitation and oppression dictated by international financial markets continue.  Most recently, the MAS-Morales government has allowed Bolivia’s booming mining sector to use huge quantities of water, placing mines, many foreign-owned, in direct competition for water resources with local and indigenous communities. In March 2015, Oscar Olivera, a key organiser within the Cochabamba Water Coordination, expressed his outrage and frustration: ‘The government is not interested in the water struggle now because there is no money behind it; it is interested in extractive industry. And the worst of this government is not that it established an extractive economic model, the worst is that it has dismantled the autonomous social organizations, to turn them into spaces of party political propaganda for the government. Organizations such as the Cochabamba Water Coordination, that were the social basis for Morales to become president, have been destroyed, with social activists tempted by the government into public officialdom’. Oscar Olivera (2015) Dirigente social boliviano: “Evo Morales ha perdido el contacto con el pueblo”. Interview. 6th March. Available at: http://www.latercera.com/noticia/mundo/2015/03/678-619528-9-dirigente-social-boliviano-evo-morales-ha-perdido-el-contacto-con-el-pueblo.shtml



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