Water debacle washed away the crucial trust
Published 27/04/2016 | 02:30
It has not been a good week for Irish politics. It bodes ill for hopes of developing "new politics" with cross-party cooperation built on give and take.
The face-off between the two big beasts of Irish politics, over water charges of all things, has damaged the trust required to build a minority government with any hope of durability. We cannot repeat often enough that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been publicly committed to water charges since 2009.
The brutal political reality is that Fianna Fáil took a half-way house stance of suspending charges and the poorly thought-out abolition of Irish Water only in response to their keen rivals Sinn Féin. And, in a further ironic twist, Sinn Féin adopted their all-out militant stance only in 2014, in response to two Dublin by-election defeats.
Water charges were a big issue throughout 2014 and Fine Gael lost 110 councillors in the May 2014 local elections, probably due in large part to the mishandling of the issue. The charges were again an issue in the General Election just over two months ago - but they were far from the main issue.
Exit polls carried out on polling day put numbers of those motivated by water charges in their voting choice at 8pc. Six out of 10 people paid their bills - though they were understandably slow to pay later bills more recently given the political uncertainty which surrounded the issue.
Because of Fianna Fáil's belated pre-election belligerence on the issue, and Sinn Féin finally making a decision two years ago, there is now a paper majority against abolishing charges, at least for the present.
While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil appear to have finally grasped the water bills nettle during talks at Trinity College yesterday, Richard Boyd Barrett of AAA-PBP and Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin loudly demanded a Dáil debate on water charges.
Given that half the nation is talking about the water charges farce being played out, a parliamentary debate on the issue appeared reasonable.
But both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil combined to defeat such a debate happening. Later, sources in both parties suggested they might relent and they appeared more amenable to the idea - further signs of cynicism and "old politics".
It all suggests that, even if a government does finally emerge after over 60 days of obfuscation and confusion, it might not be long for this world.
Now that water charges will be suspended, we still have to hear from the two big parties about what they will tell the almost one million people who paid their charges - though the smart money says there will be no refunds and only lip-service paid to the idea of pursuing those who refused to pay.
And we need to know how much more tax we'll have to pay to fund the necessary overhaul of our Victorian water and waste water system. Perhaps we will find out when they finish the melodrama. Don't depend on it.
But there were some hopeful signs for our politics elsewhere at Leinster House yesterday. Downstairs in Committee Room 3, the quiet professional Deputy John Curran chaired exchanges between TDs and experts on the problems of homelessness and the housing crisis.
It was an example of what new politics could bring us.
Sensible contributions and questions came from TDs of all parties focused on finding remedies for citizens' pressing problems.