Wednesday 28 September 2016

Fianna Fáil TDs fear backlash on water U-turn

Martin's gamble was widely discussed at party think-in, writes Niall O'Connor

Published 21/09/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin takes his seat for the family portrait at the Fianna Fáil ‘think-in’. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Micheál Martin takes his seat for the family portrait at the Fianna Fáil ‘think-in’. Photo: RollingNews.ie

Over the next couple of months, one of the most critical questions surfacing in Irish political circles will finally be answered.

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Is Fianna Fáil ready, and indeed willing, to be the lead party in government once again?

Barry Cowen: water charges to be completely abolished. Photo: Tom Burke
Barry Cowen: water charges to be completely abolished. Photo: Tom Burke

Judging by the mood of TDs and senators at the party's think-in in Carlow, Fianna Fáil very much believes that redemption is in the air.

Half of the parliamentary party are new on the scene and many have genuine ambitions of becoming ministers.

And so, after five long years in the political wilderness, the party believes it has learned from its many, many mistakes, which left the Irish public feeling battered, bruised and very much betrayed.

Micheál Martin deserves massive credit for bringing his party back from a point of absolute despair.

But, after just four months supporting Enda Kenny's limp coalition, Fianna Fáil's mask has well and truly slipped.

The party's U-turn on the issue of water charges smacks of the type of populism we see so often from Sinn Féin.

At the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis and on several subsequent occasions, the party's environment spokesman Barry Cowen said water charges should be suspended for the lifetime of the next government.

Now, according to its submission to the water commission, charges will be abolished under a Fianna Fáil administration.

It is some turnaround from 2010, when the Fianna Fáil-led Cabinet was preparing to introduce annual charges of around €500 per household.

But the scale of the U-turn does not stop there.

Not only is Fianna Fáil promising to scrap charges forever, it has offered to refund the hundreds of thousands of householders who were foolish enough to obey the law and pay their bills.

This will come in the form of a tax credit, the party says.

How much will that cost? Well, the party hasn't put a figure on it.

What if the commission recommends charges should be re-introduced?

Well, the party hasn't explained what it will do in that instance.

At official level, Fianna Fáil denies that it has flip-flopped on the issue, instead saying the position is consistent with its election manifesto.

But at the think-in, TDs privately expressed unease about the new-found policy. In fact, one prominent backbencher complained that the first he heard about the stance was when it was reported in the media.

Several deputies also voiced concern that the party has gone so far out on a limb on water charges, that it will be the issue that not only causes the next election, but dominates the campaign itself.

If the expert commission does, as expected, recommend the re-introduction of water charges, Fianna Fáil surely will have no option but to reject its findings.

For if it doesn't, how can the party's TDs honestly look their voters directly in the eye when election time comes around again.

As Micheál Martin's gamble was discussed over dinner and drinks at the think-in, TDs spoke of a party that once again can influence everyday life in this country.

They spoke of a party that has reconnected with the people whom on so many occasions gave them their endorsement at the ballot box.

Fianna Fáil is back, the deputies say, and it will fight even harder for its supporters this time round.

The first real proof of this commitment, so we are told, will be in the Budget.

Not only will it be 'Brexit-proof', 'rural-proof' and whatever other analogy being used in the customary pre-Budget narrative, but it will also be 'Fianna Fáil-proof'.

That is of course if Paschal Donohoe and Michael Noonan can somehow satisfy the multi-million euro demands being sought by various spokespeople in Micheál Martin's party.

While Fianna Fáil is enjoying what many in the party say is a rebirth, ordinary families are not.

One thing the political events of 2016 have achieved is the moulding of the public into a much more unforgiving bunch than years gone by.

As Fianna Fáil's own TD and Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said recently, trust between the public and the political establishment is broken.

Unless Fianna Fáil fulfils its pledge of acting responsibly, that trust won't be repaired for a long, long time.

Irish Independent

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