Thursday 25 December 2014

Lack of courage lets local authorities call the shots, again

Published 28/01/2014 | 02:30

Fianna Fail Environment Spokesperson Barry CowenTD speaking to media in relation to  Irish Water on the Plinth of Leinster House,Dublin.
Fianna Fail Environment Spokesperson Barry CowenTD speaking to media in relation to Irish Water on the Plinth of Leinster House,Dublin.

'DEMOCRATIC revolution' how are you? Forget all the highfalutin talk in the Programme for Government about "breaking from the past and starting anew". Nothing has fundamentally changed under Fine Gael and Labour.

In that extraordinarily self- congratulatory Programme for Government, the Coalition promised to be guided by Albert Einstein's words, "learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow". Instead, it simply repeats the mistakes of 'yesterday'.

For the HSE over a decade ago, read Irish Water today. The parallels are striking.

Replacing the dysfunctional health boards with a depoliticised HSE was the right call. However, Bertie Ahern's relationship with the unions meant all the obvious savings of a centralised agency were lost. The staff numbers remained the same. Everybody now agrees how unwise that was, a point belatedly recognised by the introduction of an HSE voluntary redundancy scheme.

So you'd imagine, when it came to the setting up of Irish Water, lessons would have been learned.

We now know from an ESRI submission that Irish Water will need around 1,700 staff to provide the service. But via its service agreements with the local authorities, due to last until 2025, it will get 4,000 – 2,300 more than they need. Over the next 13 years, that brings a cost of €2bn, says an ESRI report.

So forget the coalition narrative about Irish Water saving €2bn (a substantial percentage of which is revenue from water charges). It's really €2bn in potential savings being squandered.

Reports over the weekend revealing that local authorities had "strongly hinted" their co-operation with the new regime was dependent on assurances over jobs, pensions and the length of the service agreements suggests nothing has changed from the Bertie Ahern era. The same people are calling the shots and, for political expediency, the Government of the day is allowing them to.

Few, by the way, are suggesting the additional 2,300 workers should simply be fired, even if that's what happens in the UK when a quango is abolished.

But as with the establishment of the HSE, it beggars belief that a voluntary redundancy scheme hasn't already been introduced.

Irish Water said yesterday it would seek voluntary redundancies from the staff it plans to take on from local authorities. But why wasn't this done in 2012 when the ESRI submitted its report?

It also stretches credibility that the service agreements with the local authorities need to run to 2025. Whose needs are being served here? Some transition period was necessary, but 13 years? Only in Ireland, where the needs of vested interests still prevail over the common good.

Which brings us back to the Programme for Government and its promises of a "fresh start from the failed politics of years past" and an administration "guided by the needs of the many". There hasn't been a fresh start and the "needs" of the few often still prevail.

THIS Coalition never tires of reminding us how it inherited a calamity from the previous crowd – Enda Kenny was at it again last week in relation to the charity sector. But the election was three years ago. It's time they took responsibility, instead of blaming Fianna Fail and, worse, the troika, for their woes. The affliction has even affected Pat Rabbitte – a politician with a deserved reputation for spotting 'BS' a mile off. Irish Water's shortcomings are not the troika's fault, as suggested by Rabbitte. A shortage of political courage, not the timeframe for establishing Irish Water, is the problem.

Nor can the blame be laid at the door of Fianna Fail. If anything, there are legacy issues from the last FG-Labour government in the mid-1990s that abandoned water charges and the requirement for water meters in every new house built.

Why did they do so? Political expediency, of course. The more things "change", the more they stay the same.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR OF NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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