Tuesday 25 October 2016

For 40 years, our politicians bottled it on water funding

Published 26/04/2016 | 02:30

Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government killed water rates
Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government killed water rates

It is all but 40 years since the bulk of Irish households have had a direct water charge. It would be a risible situation if you could ignore daily evidence presented to your own nose and mouth giving serious alarm signals about public health.

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Populism means many families cannot trust the kitchen tap and at 40 centres raw sewage is running into our water systems. It's nothing short of lamentable.

We have a Victorian water and waste water system that creaks and smells and does not deliver the quality of water in the required quantities.

Dublin lives on a knife-edge where a week of fine weather is enough to sound alarm bells.

Experts agreed it would cost about €700m per year for many years to come. The dithering appeared to be ending when Irish Water was established to take over from 34 local authorities tasked with providing our water supplies.

It is hard to defend Irish Water, due to the manner of its setting-up and the way it failed to present its case. At its worst, it sometimes projected the image of another self-serving quango. But it is with us now and abolishing it would mean the worst of all worlds, as we would lose a major chunk of taxpayers' money.

The big advantage which Irish Water was supposed to bring us was the ability to be a standalone entity which could borrow separately without affecting the national debt. The outgoing coalition put the kibosh on that idea, by establishing so many grants and subsidies, that the EU ruled it could not be anything other than an integral State entity.

Despite rhetoric from the outgoing government, it is clear that Irish Water, if it persists at all, will probably never achieve this independent-borrowing capability. It is equally likely that if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil put this ham-fisted water deal together, they will risk having the EU again on their case in the future.

But that is not really the biggest tragedy of what is unfolding in front of us. The most lamentable thing is to see history repeat itself yet again.

Almost 40 years ago the Fianna Fáil party, in buying an epic landslide election win in June 1977, abolished domestic rates -which included a water rate.Taoiseach Jack Lynch's bribe sewed up the city and town vote for Fianna Fáil.

Other lollipops were found to mollify the rural dwellers, who curiously continued to pay their own water and waste water expenses and continue to do so right up to this day. With the rush to again meet the imagined demands of Irish urban dwellers, these rural dwellers justifiably raise their voices on the issue also.

Granted, we did have water charges as part of general domestic charges from 1985 onwards. These included an element of water charges and were generally accepted in many parts of the country, though there was fierce opposition in parts of Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

Labour, in coalition with Fine Gael, quite frankly wimped out on these in 1996. Labour was feeling the pressure from Joe Higgins's then small protest group, a forerunner of the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit. It is worth noting that the cave-in did not put a halt to the rise of AAA-PBP, which is never likely to lack things to oppose. But let us not digress too far.

The point here is that the two parties involved in these talks have been publicly committed to the principles of water charges for the past seven years.

It is true that a large chunk of the new Dáil membership are ostensibly opposed to water charges.

But let us note how Sinn Féin's stance was belated, rather questionable and largely based on two by-elections in 2014 where AAA-PBP contenders won out over its fancied candidates. Let us also note that, while there are no water charges in the North, all new buildings require water meters.

More significantly, 61pc of the Irish people said everything on this issue by paying up. But now we are heading back to 1977.

Irish Independent

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