John Downing: Labour ducks for cover as it lets FG get soaked by Irish Water ruckus
Published 16/01/2014 | 02:30
LABOUR has spent the past 'water week' standing well back lest they get too spattered. It has been a subtle enough operation, more about hanging back and hiding in plain view as much as possible, rather than ever going to ground. But, as there are now about 18 weeks to go to local and European Parliament elections, it would suit Eamon Gilmore and colleagues if this little debacle were laid mainly, if not entirely, at Fine Gael's door.
It is precisely one week today since Irish Water boss John Tierney put his foot in it by admitting on RTE radio that his organisation had spent €50m on consultant fees. He was barely off the radio when Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore faced reporters at the Young Scientist Exhibition at the RDS in Dublin.
Heading to the RDS, Mr Gilmore had good reason to expect the bulk of his time would have been spent defending some tricky cuts to home adaptation grants to the disabled and elderly. This is Labour heartland and the direct responsibility of junior housing minister Jan O'Sullivan, his party colleague. A little-noticed 'water dividend' for Labour was an early end to that controversy.
At the RDS last Thursday, there were indeed questions about the housing grants -- but it quickly switched to Mr Tierney's radio comments. The Labour leader saw the gap and went for it: he had seen the figure for Irish Water's consultancy spending and thought it rather high.
"I think Irish Water will have to demonstrate that it represents good value for money," the Labour leader said. He went on to agree that this was best done before a Dail committee.
There followed some political pulling and dragging about which Oireachtas committee and when.
But for a variety of reasons it fell to the Oireachtas Environment Committee, which is chaired by Labour Cork South West TD Michael McCarthy, to deal with the matter.
Mr McCarthy did well in media performances over the following days and he skilfully chaired Tuesday's marathon five-hour grilling of Mr Tierney and his senior colleagues.
But he made it clear that he would have no problem in seeing Environment Minister Phil Hogan attend a later scheduled hearing of his committee next month.
On Tuesday, in advance of the Irish Water bosses' first grilling, Labour's Social Protection Minister Joan Burton was also happy to put a bit of distance between her party and this farrago. "What we want is to see all costs under strict management so that there is best value for money for taxpayers. And what we want is effectively run operations as opposed to gold-plated operations," Ms Burton told this newspaper.
Yes, it is true that many of the Fine Gael ministers tried to sing the same tune over those five days and since then. A sort of: "Oh dear, that water crowd certainly know how to spend money. We need to find out about all that." The FG effort was equally unconvincing. Veteran politicians of any hew trying to play the innocent abroad rarely, if ever, impresses.
But Labour's attempts to keep their distance did curiously appear to work. They were even facilitated by Fianna Fail, who abandoned the habits of a lifetime and attacked Fine Gael full on, rather than seeking the Labour fault line as their way through the Coalition's defences.
Fianna Fail's environment spokesman, Barry Cowen, put in a strong performance. But his assertion that Irish Water was 'a Fine Gael project', both in opposition and later in government, was music to Labour stalwarts' ears.
Another point which helped Labour's low-flying strategy was the presence of Mr Hogan at the heart of this controversy. The Kilkenny deputy is one of the 'big beasts' of politics and trouble often finds him.
It is also true that it will suit all political parties to call an early halt to incipient arrogance on the part of a new quango on the block -- in this case Irish Water.
What we are left with when all this ends is rather uncertain. John McGuinness, who chaired last night's committee hearing, several years ago conceded that very little of lasting value remains once the chastised officials depart Leinster House after their committee ordeal.
Many fear that these Irish Water hearings will yield the same non-result in the medium to longer-term. But that is for another day.
Meanwhile, we can note that Labour has been busy standing back and trying as much as possible to sit this water war out. Between now and late May we will see a great deal more of this as the two coalition parties try to give it a bit of differentiation.