Abolition and the Water Charge Debate

Why "abolition" means more than free water

Scrolling through my Twitter feed this weekend, I came across an illustration mapping out an “abolition walk.” Oh, this is interesting, I thought. I love a good abolition walk, having forced my family to march a 5K once upon a time in order to raise funds for the abolition of child sex trafficking. To be fair, my children were less than enthused about walking for matters they could not yet comprehend, but at the time it felt like the only real action we could take against such a heinous evil running rampant around the world.

That 5K took place exactly five years ago, so I wondered if maybe this abolition walk might be of similar purpose. Abolish modern day slavery, perhaps, or the wage gap between men and women, or maybe even religious or sexual or minority or class discrimination. But no, this walk is not for a similar purpose. It’s not even close.

Saturday's walk, the latest in what surely must be dozens of such walks in the last two years, is to abolish water charges.

Abolition indeed.

Say what you will about water charges; I find myself of two minds. Yes, I do believe access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but when it was legislated that we, as residents in Ireland, should pay for our water, that’s what we did. We paid our water bill, just as we did in America, just as residents across Europe and in most modern societies do. Though we didn’t love the 64 quid leaving our less than robust bank account every quarter, the fee seemed reasonable and the benefit more than fair. In fact, it’s the lowest rate in the European Union.

Still, I understand the qualms, frustrations and antagonism behind not loving the water charge. In fact, we’d often brag to our American compatriots that our tasty Irish water was free. It’s a human right, we’d say. Everyone should have free access to it! And we believed those who held better knowledge of Irish law and tax history, that maybe it had already been worked into the system, and the citizens of the Republic were already paying for it. This seems reasonable, too.

So I really could take it or leave it. I’m willing to pay for it, but it would sure be great not to have to.


Oh what a strong word abolition is. When I think of abolition, I think of the desegregation of white and black schools in the American south. I think of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. I think of William Wilberforce’s amazing, risky grace. I think of the good work of International Justice Mission, fighting for the rights and the very lives of generations of people living under extreme oppression and slavery. And I think of a free Ireland that came at great cost.

Maybe I don’t have much right to speak into Irish politics and law. We aren’t yet citizens, though we’ve been legal residents for the better part of 8 years. And I clearly don’t know all the ins and outs of Irish history, legislation and culture, though I’ve had opportunity to listen to and learn from those who do. And while I admit to being relieved at the suspension of water charges and that extra bit each quarter we have to do what we please (or need) with, I have just this one quibble:

Let’s save our life-giving words for hills that are worth dying on.

I’m not sure water charges are worth chanting Abolition! for, no matter which side of the tap you find yourself on. Abolition stands as a defining marker between life and death, a world-wide cultural harbinger of justice. Ireland may be the only country in the western world offering a chance at free universal access to clean water, but charging or not charging for it will not change the course of history.

Or maybe, if free water is something worth marching for, let’s do it on behalf of those in developing nations who have NO access to clean water. Let’s walk and fight towards abolishing their need to walk miles, to barter and beg, to go without any water: free, clean or otherwise.

Let’s not strip the weight from words that matter, or it may not just be water charges we’re abolishing.