Sunday 19 November 2017

Cormac McQuinn: Old habits die hard as FF plans to 'give people what they want'

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: water charges will form a key part of any talks to form a government. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: water charges will form a key part of any talks to form a government. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Give the people what they want. It's been something of a Fianna Fáil mantra for decades. But perhaps the party's populism is most apparent when it comes to water charges.

As far back as the late 1970s, the incoming Fianna Fáil government scrapped domestic rates - which included water charges. They didn't replace them with any specific tax to cover water.

And so it is we have today's Fianna Fáil seeking a suspension of water charges and the abolition of Irish Water, as a price for either entering government, or supporting a minority Fine Gael regime.

In one sense it is a very smart move. Getting rid of the hated utility will surely play well in another election whether it is months or years away.

But it is also a renewal of the same old populist streak in Fianna Fáil. The kind of streak that saw the party literally give money away to savers with the SSIA scheme in the noughties and embark on a failed decentralisation project to send jobs to the regions.

Other parties aren't immune to these kinds of considerations as the history of water charges shows.

It was a Labour minister who reintroduced a local service levy that included a water charge, with most councils implementing it in the mid-1980s. It was another Labour minister who abolished water charges again a decade later.

Fianna Fáil have a chequered record on the subject.

Charlie McCreevy actually backed a proposal for the introduction of a €200-a-year charge in 2003, only for it to be opposed by then Environment Minister Martin Cullen.

Later Fianna Fáil and the Green Party renegotiated their programme for government in October 2009 and agreed on introducing water charges in principle.

According to documents, a metering programme and sum of €500 was discussed just a fortnight before the Troika arrived in November 2010. Fianna Fáil later said this sum was an estimate. Under the Troika bailout it was agreed that water charges would be introduced in 2012 or 2013.

Then the government fell and it was left to Fine Gael and Labour to implement the deal.

Now Fianna Fáil says Irish Water has been "a complete failure", blames the outgoing Coalition for the mess, and wants to scrap the utility.

The party wants to set up a national water directorate and hand back local water services to the councils.

Fianna Fáil's manifesto quotes Environment Department figures that put the net cost of axing the water charges themselves at more than €1bn over five years. Internal estimates at Irish Water reportedly put the cost of abolishing the utility as high as €7bn over the same period.

Ultimately, aside from the politics of the situation, the cost of doing as Fianna Fáil wishes and getting rid of Irish Water will have to be taken into consideration.

But there's an obvious trap here for Fine Gael, which stood by the deeply unpopular charges during the election campaign. The party is in a tight spot. If a deal is done, Fianna Fáil will be seen as the party that got rid of Irish Water and put €160-a-year back in people's pockets.

As the election results show, Fine Gael clearly didn't give the people what they want.

Old habits die hard for Fianna Fáil. They've latched on to the water issue and may be on the verge of getting one over on the old enemy.

Irish Independent

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