High time for two biggest parties to show honesty
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
Here is an urgent message to all our elected politicians: the election happened more than a month ago; St Patrick's Day has come and gone; and, from tomorrow, Easter is also over.
So, how about putting together the Government? We know it is complex and there are many painstaking details. But time is moving on and we need a result sooner rather than later.
The vast majority of Irish people understand the value of our Taoiseach and his ministers, even in an acting capacity, taking full advantage of the global opportunities offered by St Patrick's Day. We equally appreciate the need to appropriately commemorate Easter 1916 in this centenary year.
Most of us can acknowledge that government-making talks were advanced around these events. But people's frustration at the slow progress will become more and more evident from now on.
There are no more excuses. On Wednesday week, April 6, the 158 TDs return for their third session of this 32nd Dáil. The Irish people expect a very clear signal that all our elected representatives have made real progress towards agreement on the next government of this country.
There is more to new politics than photocalls involving new faces entering and leaving Leinster House. People with even a glancing acquaintance with contemporary politics know that all hope of a government emerging from this process requires some accord between the two big parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Today, it is precisely 30 days since polling day. That is past the 1989 delay on coalition formation of 27 days and we are heading towards the all-time record delay of 48 days in 1992/93.
It is time the principals of both major parties sat down, canned the rhetoric, and talked practicalities.
For Fianna Fáil, the most visible bugbear is Irish Water and water charges. Here they are guilty of more than a little bluffing.
At least as far back as October 2009 Fianna Fáil signed up to the principle of water charges in the re-negotiated Programme for Government with their then-coalition partners, the Green Party.
There is some confusion about a cabinet meeting in early November 2010, which happened just days before the sad day when the ECB-IMF-EU Troika landed upon our shores to take control of our fiscal affairs. The Green Party insist that there was broad approval for a memorandum on water charges brought by Environment Minister and party leader John Gormley.
Fianna Fáil insist not. But it appears that they are clinging to a side issue, which was the Green Party's pressure for a referendum to ensure water resources could not be privatised in future. This led to moves to consult the Attorney General - but it did not obviate favourable comments by several Fianna Fáil ministers.
When opposition to water charges gained traction in 2014, Fianna Fáil found themselves in difficulty. As the lead party of opposition, they were out-flanked by others. Their mantra was: "Yes, we backed water charges. But not these charges and not now." It lacked definition and credibility in the circumstances of the time.
In the general election, Fianna Fáil hardened and simplified their stance. They pledged to suspend water charges for at least five years and abolish the ill-starred entity that is Irish Water. In a rather contradictory message the party talked of charges once the service was brought up to scratch.
In recent days, as reported by this newspaper, Fianna Fáil have clearly signalled that they cannot easily get themselves off that rock. It appears to be a major part of the price on any arrangement on the most likely option - to keep Fine Gael in power at the head of a minority government largely supported by Independent TDs and smaller groups.
Fine Gael invested and lost big political capital in the water issue. Any retreat would bring them the worst of all worlds in a "lose and lose" situation. It is difficult to overstate the internal fallout from a Fine Gael climb-down. Any changes would have to be very carefully packaged.
Fine Gael also bet the farm in the general election on a promise to abolish the Universal Social Charge. Their focus-group research had told all parties the USC, which brought in €4bn in precious annual revenue, was reviled.
But Fine Gael's difficulty was the perception that its promise to abolish it favoured the rich. Its formula of a 5pc clawback for those earning more than €100,000 a year, and for loss of tax credits for those earning more than €70,000, was difficult to explain.
Fianna Fáil's USC proposals would have seen the tax scrapped for incomes of up to €80,000. But those earning above this level would still have to pay at a reduced rate.
So, in summary Fine Gael bluffed on the USC and Fianna Fáil on water. Let's accept those realities and work from there.
Strip out the election rhetoric and we see ample room for honourable compromise on the taxation issue. But the water issue is by far the more fundamental of the two.
There is no gainsaying that the foundation of Irish Water was the subject of many errors. But as no less a person than former Fianna Fáil Environment Minister, Noel Dempsey, has publicly argued in recent days, it would be fundamentally wrong to abolish it.
Surely, we can restructure and reform Irish Water. Equally, what of the more than 50pc of Irish citizens who have obeyed the law and paid water charges. Realpolitik and economic realism tell us that fair water charges, related to metred usage, are the only way to develop a world-class infrastructure to replace the creaky Victorian structure we have neglected for far too long.
These issues must be addressed in a realistic way in the coming nine days. It may be too much to expect a result on Wednesday week. But we must see signs of an emerging deal by then.