Saturday 24 March 2018

Sorry saga is not over, but for now let's splash out with our bonuses and bask in the sunshine

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

Writing at the close of a champion sunny summer day, we must emphasise all the water positives we can.

And there are two big positives. First is that the law-abiding citizens, who were in a growing majority, and who paid their water charges, will get their money back, probably in time for Christmas.

Second is that all signs are the authorities may not be able to claw back the €100 so-called "water conservation grant". Based on what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to say there was a very strong indication that going after the €100, or trying to deduct it from the refund, is more trouble than it is worth.

Asked whether the Government planned to claw back the water conservation grant, Mr Varadkar candidly said this would be "very difficult to do". One can easily imagine a Varadkar political calculation which concluded this one really is not worth the candle.

It fell to Joan Burton, as social protection minister, to dole out what was a de facto bribe aimed at dialling down the water charge backlash fed by bungling presentation errors in the creation of Irish Water. Much good it did her Labour Party colleagues who went on to an historic electoral meltdown.

So, let's call that €100 bribe the "Burton bonus" and enjoy the refund. I, for one, fully intend to squander it with feckless abandon.

And let us not obsess about the, er, "administrative challenge" posed by the refund methodology. Let's just note officialdom invariably has its ways of screwing the cash out of us and most of the time takes its victims where it finds them.

Now they can apply the corollary of that and shell out as quickly as possible. And let them get on with it - we don't really want to hear their problems.

Any look back at how this water charges issue played out strains our insistence on staying with a positive frame of mind. Let's just quickly note an opportunity to put in a system of fair charging for water, based on the quantity used, has been squandered with an extraordinary political ineptness.

With it goes an opportunity to quickly end the leaking of 50pc of supplies and the shameful discharge of raw sewage into our water courses at 40 locations around the country. But the time has come to abandon water history lessons and think more about the present and future.

We must take Mr Varadkar at his word when he assures us the refunds will not further eat into the very small amount of spare cash available for next year's Budget. The official estimate of the money up for refund is €170m, which would fairly hole the mere €300m which is going spare for 2018.

We are told it can be found in savings, or in unspent allocations across the government system which accounts for €60bn per year in spending. There is a strong suggestion the continued fall in unemployment may free up some cash from the welfare budget.

It would be lovely to be able to tell you the refund decision will bring down the curtain on the water charges sorry saga. But that would stretch the term "positive" so far it would degenerate into pure mush. Paul Murphy and his Solidarity colleagues can keep their megaphone batteries charged. There is still the issue of charging for overuse and water wastage.

That issue was parked after a stand-off between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil threatened the Coalition arrangement. But it is back this autumn and must be decided in the shadow of the EU, which believes Ireland signed up to a binding obligation to have water charges.

There are other unresolved issues. But for now let's just focus on that "Burton bonus" and enjoy the sunshine.

Irish Independent

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