Skobie city demands free gas

stephen_nolan_shout_252.jpe

Say what you like about Stephen Nolan, he does have his moments. This morning’s show was deadly crack.

The story was the latest scam sweeping Belfast. If you’re a Phoenix Gas customer, you’ll probably be disgruntled at the way the bills have been going up of late. Well, as per Nolan, now you can get that sorted. If you slip some bloke sixty quid, he’ll doctor your meter so you effectively get free gas. At least, until you’re rumbled.

Nolan had on the PUP’s Dawn Purvis, who was worried that the working class is making a rod for its own back by buying into these scams. Dawn opined that eventually the punters would get hit with massive bills, so it would turn out to be a false economy. And with that, Nolan went to the phones.

If Nolan thought that he could win a few populist brownie points by bashing spongers, he was to be sorely mistaken. Most of the punters who rang in were all in favour of fiddling their meters. They felt they had a right to free gas, and it was Phoenix’s lookout if customers were resorting to these measures. They also reckoned Dawn Purvis was a disgrace to her working-class constituents and their fundamental civil liberties, which include the right to dodge utilities bills.

Nolan seemed taken aback by this blatant support for illegality. At one point his voice got so high that I feared he was in danger of turning into a human dog whistle.

But he really shouldn’t have been surprised. During the Troubles, almost nobody in Belfast bought a TV licence, not even the Prods. People here won’t pay for anything if they can get away with not doing so. (This is why, even though I’m against the water charge, I’m sceptical about polls and petitions showing support for non-payment. Ask Belfast people if they want to not pay for water, and you’ll only get one answer.) And this is the atmosphere where this sort of scam flourishes. For instance, if you know the right person to call and are willing to pay a reasonable fee, you can get a computer hacker to erase your debts.

I think Nolan may have made a bit of a faux pas here. It’s all very well to shoot your mouth off about lawbreakers and spongers, but you don’t want to target a popular scam. Remember, Belfast people don’t think of this sort of thing as breaking the law, just bending it a little, until it comes to closely resemble a Curly-Wurly. In fact, the response seems to indicate there could be some potential for a populist campaign here. Let’s have Eamonn McCann defending the proletariat’s right to fiddle their gas meters!

7 Comments

  1. Mark P said,

    September 5, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    On the water charges aside:

    A general reluctance on the part of people to pay such bills/taxes may be an argument that non-payment sentiment isn’t necessarily all that politicised, but it isn’t an argument that non-payment will be harder to build. Quite the opposite in fact.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 5, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    Quite so. When the bills finally come in, I would expect there to be a big incidence of non-payment, at least in the early months. A lot of people won’t pay at least until they get the final final warning.

    Question is, how much of the non-payment would be “hard” political non-payment, and how much “soft” non-payment based on a general unwillingness to pay any bills? It’s at least something a non-payment campaign needs to take into account.

  3. Phil said,

    September 5, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    I think the Autonomists would argue that routine, low-level, everyday non-payment of utility bills is more radical than doing it as a calculated act of civil disobedience – and the Autonomists in their prime had thousands of people at it. (It helped that they also had people at the electricity board, in Rome at least, who could reconnect anyone who got cut off.)

  4. ejh said,

    September 5, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Did the Autonomists come to that conclusion on their own?

  5. Mark P said,

    September 5, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    I quite agree with splintered sunrise that there will be different “layers” of non-payment. Some will be more politicised than others, some will be “harder” in their determination not to pay than others – and it’s important to note that these two divides are unlikely to map entirely onto each other.

    That’s been true in all of the mass non-payment campaigns we’ve seen over the last couple of decades and I think it’s something which non-payment campaigners are well aware of. It would take quite extraordinary pig headedness to have been involved in, say, the Dublin anti-bin tax campaign, and particularly to have spent years going door to door and holding public meetings on the issue, and to somehow have failed to notice that.

    The point to remember in this is that the building of a non-payment campaign gives us the opportunity to politicise and harden non-payment sentiment. Some of the leftist critics of non-payment would do well to actually read the newsletters and leaflets which were distributed during the anti-bin tax struggle by the hundreds of thousands. Arguments were made over and over again in this material, on door steps, at meetings and so on about privatisation, about the political role of the state, about the environment and so on.

    Even so, that does not mean that all non-payers agreed with the campaigns on these points. Many did, many did not and many held, as people so often do, internally contradictory views on the subject. The point being that it was the building and later the existence and strength of the non-payment campaigns which gained campaigners a wider hearing on these questions.

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 5, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    You’re not saying anything I disagree with. My point, and it’s a limited point I know, is that we have a working class with not a socialist consciousness but a scally consciousness. A smart non-payment movement may be able to use that, mind.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 5, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    I should add: I’m not opposed to non-payment. I think a successful mass movement would almost certainly involve non-payment. I have been sceptical about some of the claims emanating from the left, but then I’m always sceptical about claims emanating from the left.

    So if we’re talking about the development of a movement against water charges, a tactic of mass non-payment would rest very heavily on that section of the working class that’s resistant to paying for anything. Plus, if we go beyond a distinction between “hard” and “soft” non-payers, there’s also the likelihood – actually the certainty – that lots of people will wait until the very last minute to pay. That would puff up non-payment figures massively in the early months.

    None of this is necessarily fatal for a non-payment campaign, as long as the campaign takes all this into account and doesn’t fool itself about the level of consciousness out there. And, as we know, there are people out there much more prone to exaggerate than the SP.


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