Thursday 18 January 2018

Washout for Cowen after his victory on water drains away

Barry Cowen has kept the topic of water charges, which is of questionable political value to his party, in the headlines. Photo: Tom Burke
Barry Cowen has kept the topic of water charges, which is of questionable political value to his party, in the headlines. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

In the end, Barry Cowen somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

If Mr Cowen had taken the draft deal on water charges that was available a fortnight ago, he could well have said it was an honourable outcome which ended water charges for all but a small coterie of people who waste water. He had grounds at that stage for calling it "a victory". Instead we have got something which has looked like "water charges for slow learners".

In practice, the Fianna Fáil environment spokesman's belligerence helped kick off 12 days of pulling and dragging at the special Oireachtas water committee. It ended with the same final outcome at the end of this prolonged attrition.

Yes, Fine Gael was guilty of naivety, and also of descending at times into personalised and puerile politics.

But now, Fine Gael generally, and Housing Minister Simon Coveney in particular, can reasonably argue that it stood its ground and faced down Fianna Fáil.

Along the way, Mr Cowen has also kept this topic, which is of questionable political value to his party, in the headlines.

For a time, he also appeared to throw in his lot with Sinn Féin and the far left - never where Fianna Fáil, the "sensible party of middle Ireland", needs to be.

This allowed Leo Varadkar to claim that "the party of Lemass" was being led by Sinn Féin and the hard left. That was a charge which stung many traditional Fianna Fáil supporters.

There is a view among many Fianna Fáil TDs and senators that Mr Cowen's actions were endorsed by the party leader, Micheál Martin, who remained markedly out of view for much of the increasingly bitter toing and froing. It was not lost on people that an email last weekend - which suggested Fianna Fáil might not back a change of Taoiseach following an expected change of Fine Gael leader - had come via the party leader's office. There was also frustration that Mr Martin hung back, leaving Mr Cowen to take the strain.

There is a perception that Mr Cowen approaches his politics with a sense of aggression which often appears unnecessary.

Yesterday, Mr Martin was repeating the mantra that water charges were gone - that nobody got a water charge bill since last July. Surely a Fianna Fáil win? Well, it would have taken a lot less laborious explaining if it had been all locked away two weeks ago.

The situation confounds the discomfiture of Fianna Fáil rural deputies, senators, councillors and party activists who have always paid for water one way or another - and very likely always will.

These people will surely be looking for more detail on the general promise of increased support for rural group water schemes.

These people also had been prepared to "quietly soldier" on the issue as more general domestic water charges were increasingly reduced to something very nominal.

So, they did not appreciate a very public, ill-tempered spat spanning the greater part of a fortnight.

In the earlier part of the past week, Fianna Fáil supported Sinn Féin in removing the distinction between normal and excessive water use.

It no longer used "excessive usage" as a phrase, instead resorting to the higher threshold "wastage or wilful use".

Significantly, Fianna Fáil also withdrew agreement on installing water meters in all newly built homes.

That was explained as being the only way of getting an overall agreement by the special committee over the line, with the support of water-charge opponents. By yesterday it had done an about-face on both issues.

There has been little that is encouraging about all of this, bar signs of a conclusion.

We can only hope that the two parties can make a better fist of agreeing the legislation to underpin this belated deal.

Irish Independent

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