Friday 30 September 2016

Main parties will pay for populism on water

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Given the many far more pressing concerns facing the country, such as homelessness, a chronic housing shortage and a hopelessly over-stretched health system, fixating on water – a significant stumbling block – for purely populist purposes was disingenuous. Stock Image
Given the many far more pressing concerns facing the country, such as homelessness, a chronic housing shortage and a hopelessly over-stretched health system, fixating on water – a significant stumbling block – for purely populist purposes was disingenuous. Stock Image

In the tense aftermath of the election, when a tip-toeing and tentative feeling of the shaky ground beneath one's feet might have been wise, Fianna Fáil's environment spokesman Barry Cowen, and Fine Gael's Simon Coveney, both managed to put their feet in it.

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Subsequently, they were forced to do embarrassing flip-flops. Given what has gone before, it would seem almost impossible to add even more confusion, more annoyance and more acrimony to the vexed issue of Irish Water, yet it is a feat which both men have achieved with aplomb.

Bombast is not something that serves a politician well, but Mr Cowen often slips into it, as if forceful language could add credibility to what many merely see as naked political opportunism. Yesterday, Mr Cowen rowed back on his claim that the future of water charges was a "red-line" issue for his party.

Given the many far more pressing concerns facing the country, such as homelessness, a chronic housing shortage and a hopelessly over-stretched health system, fixating on water - a significant stumbling block - for purely populist purposes was disingenuous. Yet twice last week, Mr Cowen said Fianna Fáil would insist on the suspension of water charges for at least five years and the abolition of Irish Water.

Mr Coveney also came a cropper on the same point, insisting that Fine Gael will "certainly be willing to talk about water".

Both men were later slapped down by their party leaders for their remarks. Fine Gael has just paid a massive political price for its failure to walk in step with the voters. For talking down, as opposed to talking to, the electorate.

Fianna Fáil has not yet even committed to entering government, and already it, too, risks alienating people once more with misplaced priorities, indecently brandishing over-blown promises that have been the harbingers of disaster in the all-too-recent past.

Already, there seems to be a political lethargy, a sense that because the result of the election gave no party an overwhelming majority, the wishes of the voters are somehow less binding. Such a delusion had better be dispelled if democracy is to have any currency.

Funding for third level is crucial to recovery

Uptakes in college courses generally correlate to economic trends. Thus, one hopes that the renewed interest in courses connected to construction, as reflected in CAO applications this year, is indicative of a much-needed revival in the sector.

Business, technology and professions such as law and architecture have also become more popular as confidence in the economy takes root. The figures come in the same week as the latest report from Peter Cassells and his expert group on future funding for higher education. The report bluntly suggests we have been sleep-walking into a crisis on the issue.

One of its main priorities must be to address the dire need to put third-level education on a sound financial footing. Soaring demand for places, as seen in the CAO applications, and intense international competition on quality, has put the sector under enormous strain. Skilled graduates are vital to our future, and are also essential to attract foreign investment.

Mr Cassells and his team believe the current level of funding is not sustainable and that the entire sector could be threatened. Simply put, the group has made an overwhelming case for a new financial model. Boosting State aid and some form of student loans scheme must now be considered.

Irish Independent

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