Eddie Molloy: FF plan to axe Irish Water is a politically motivated stunt - and it would cost us
Published 08/04/2016 | 02:30
The country was badly served when Irish Water was set up in such a ham-fisted way but it would be even more badly served if it were now to be "abolished", as Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and others would have it. If ever there was a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, abolition of Irish Water would be it.
Decades of neglect by successive governments and piecemeal delivery of services by 32 local authorities left our national water infrastructure in a dire state. Ironically, it is only because of the mapping done by Irish Water that we now know just how precarious is the supply of clean water, the scale of losses through leaks and the extent of pollution in our rivers and lakes.
It took external pressure from the Troika for an Irish government to do what was long overdue, to establish a unified national water utility. However, the inept way in which it was set up by then Environment Minister Phil Hogan in 2013 saddled the fledgling organisation with a plethora of problems that were seized upon by opposition parties and ultimately moulded into the main plank of their General Election platforms. Both the Government's handling of these problems - for example, the absurd €100 sweetener - and some of Irish Water's responses to media queries compounded the company's difficulties.
With a General Election in the offing, Fianna Fáil, seeing the anti-Irish Water bandwagon gather momentum, opportunistically reversed its original support for the utility and now, after the election, having hoovered up votes on foot of its promise to abolish Irish Water, it is making this a "red-line issue" in negotiations to form a government.
Puffed up with moral self-righteousness, Timmy Dooley proclaims that Fianna Fáil will "honour its electoral promise to abolish Irish Water". However, there was no honour in making this promise in the first place. Rather, it was classic Fianna Fáil pre-election expediency in the tradition that gave us the infamous abolition of house rates to buy the 1977 election and the equally shameless Public Service Decentralisation to boost its vote in the local elections of 2003.
The strokes culture of Fianna Fáil, which we were assured had been exorcised by the trauma the party experienced in the 2011 election, has resurfaced and the party is hell bent on abolishing Irish Water as long as it can envisage political advantage in doing so, regardless of the cost to the taxpayer, as in the previous cases just mentioned.
Sinn Féin also did a U-turn on Irish Water when its candidate in the 2014 Dublin South-West by-election surprisingly lost to anti-Irish Water campaigner Paul Murphy.
Fianna Fáil promises a "slimmed-down" organisation with a "lean coordinating body like the National Roads Authority". Responsibility for services "will be restored to 32 local authorities and … surplus staff will be let go and the rest transferred over to the new Authority", according to various party spokesmen.
This commitment, which they now feel honour-bound to fulfil, is wilfully blind to the fact that Irish Water is actually doing what it was set up to do, delivering clean water to more homes and reducing toxic emissions into our rivers, lakes and beaches.
From a standing start just three years ago, Irish Water managers, engineers and on-the-ground staff have already implemented a huge range of remedial projects right across the country and have coherent short and long-term plans to complete the job. If the HSE had achieved a comparable level of progress in delivering on its mission so soon after its establishment, we would now have the safest, best quality and most cost-effective health service in the world. Though in fairness to the HSE, its politicisation by various parties and players has been a major impediment to progress.
Plans to abolish Irish Water show typical disregard for the cost to the public of politically motivated manoeuvres. In addition to six-figure pay-offs involved in "letting people go" and other direct costs incurred in dismantling an existing organisation, the reassignment of responsibility for water services to 32 local authorities would inevitably lead to costly duplication and the loss of economies of scale now being gradually secured by centralised Irish Water support functions.
As for slimming down this "bloated quango", as Barry Cowen calls it, the company has already taken out about 14pc of cost and has plans to take out 7pc per annum for the next several years. This is about as fast as you can slim down without expensive exit settlements and disruption to urgent work programmes.
Many legitimate public concerns surrounding Irish Water remain to be resolved but these are largely political matters, such as providing reassurance that the utility will never be privatised or sourcing the funds for essential remedial works - be it from household charges, off-balance-sheet borrowing or general taxation.
In the meantime, to abolish Irish Water would be an act of political vandalism, comparable to the aforementioned decentralisation of the public service. Were it to happen, the people who would suffer most would be precisely those whom advocates of abolition purport to protect from "unjust charges". If the €600m per annum required to modernise the system were placed back on to the State's balance sheet, with no chance of ever reversing that piece of creative book-keeping, the restoration of public services, starved of investment and degraded during the recession, would be delayed as a consequence. Alternatively, investment in water would again be deferred, leaving us with lead pipes, boil-water notices and pollution for another decade.
It is a measure of the perverse nature of our politics that uncertainty over the future of Irish Water, an organisation that is successfully doing what it was set up to do, is now stymieing the formation a government, at a time when there are many more serious problems and risks to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Eddie Molloy is a management consultant