Monday 22 July 2019

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have left us all high and dry with water charges U-turn

Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Sinn Féin get their message about Irish Water across ahead of the 2016 General Election. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Sinn Féin get their message about Irish Water across ahead of the 2016 General Election. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Fianna Fáil is at it again. It bought the election of 1977 by promising to eliminate household rates and car tax. Its infamous decentralisation programme, which involved the appropriation and vandalisation of the civil service and State agencies, ensured the party romped home in the local elections of 2003. For a decade up to the crash of 2007-8, in order to secure the votes of "breakfast roll man", Fianna Fáil recklessly spent public money like there was no tomorrow; remember Charlie McCreevy's: "While I have it I spend it"?

Then, in the General Election of 2016, having just expressed deep regret for the pain it had caused the people of Ireland, sincere repentance and commitment to new politics, Fianna Fáil DNA asserted itself again and the 'Soldiers of Destiny' jumped on the anti-water charges bandwagon, once it saw which way the electoral winds were blowing. Today it is all over the media with "alternative facts" and spurious arguments, trying to persuade the public that it never did a U-turn on water and that there is no need to charge for squandering clean water.

Common threads run through this narrative, which apply in varying degrees to all parties and most politicians, including opportunistic short-termism, with an eye to an impending election and disregard for longer-term damage to the economy and society; total disregard for the use of taxpayers' money; and shameless adoption of populism as a strategy to win votes.

The country never recovered from the loss of rates as a reliable source of tax revenue; the public service is still suffering from the scattering of technocratic expertise through decentralisation, not to mention the ongoing cost; "breakfast roll man" is gradually returning after 10 years in Australia; and tens of thousands of families are still picking up the pieces of their lives following the crash.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Populism involves the cynical manipulation for political advantage of people's legitimate fears, frustration of legitimate aspirations and sense of injustice, by offering simplistic solutions to complex problems -solutions which invariably turn out to be detrimental to the interests of the very people these supposed champions of 'ordinary working people' purport to be concerned about.

Just, for example, who suffered most from the €1bn blown on decentralisation, from the crash of 2007-8 or from the waste of money on the Expert Commission set up to advise the Government on water? And who will suffer most if the €300m needed annually to clean up our rivers and deliver clean water has to compete with grossly underfunded child protection services?

The answer is perfectly clear: poor and otherwise disadvantaged people who rely most on public services will suffer most.

With regard to the current row over water in Leinster House, we are witnessing Irish politics at its worst. Because most TDs are against water charges, they interpret this as a mandate to abolish them. But how did the majority come to adopt this position? It had nothing to do with the facts of the matter. The depressing truth is they did so out of base political expediency when spooked by Paul Murphy's by-election victory in Tallaght. Sinn Féin was first to do a U-turn, followed by Fianna Fáil and then the Independents.

Now scrambling to justify their positions, they brazenly deny their U-turns and advance a range of contradictory and simplistic arguments. When Mary Lou McDonald began in the Dáil on Thursday, "Sinn Féin has always been clear...", she was interrupted by spontaneous laughter and ridicule.

TDs disingenuously quote from the Expert Commission's report in support of resistance to charges. Members of this group first clearly set out 'best practice' as a metered system of charges, with waivers for those who cannot afford to pay, but then departed from the standards we have a right to expect from a panel established to provide expert advice. They crossed the line between expert advice and political interference in two ways: one, by remaining silent on the sensitive matter of metering; and, secondly, by taking it upon themselves to factor in the "feasibility" of metering and charging, alluding to the current political storm over the matter. It wasn't their job to comment on the politics of the case.

The particular issue that all parties seem stuck on right now is how to define wasteful use of water. Sinn Féin says that Irish people are so civic-minded that they don't waste water. Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin (pictured), says we already have laws to deal with people who waste water but, in any case, people should not be charged for doing so.

All of this philosophising is bogus. The challenge is not to catch the few who leave the tap running or otherwise squander precious water irresponsibly. The bigger prize is to get everyone to use water more conscientiously in their daily activities and this is best achieved through a charging system that incentivises this behaviour. The efficacy of charging for usage beyond a decent 'free' allowance is proven elsewhere and was demonstrated by the noticeable drop in consumption in Ireland immediately after it looked as if charges were coming into force.

British politicians inflicted Brexit on their nations by a populist, dishonest campaign, and they are now impaled on a path that will have negative outcomes, most especially for the people they persuaded to vote to leave the EU. Likewise, the 'left behind' people of the United States who voted for Donald Trump have been sold a pup and they will only realise this when Obamacare is ditched, taxes for the rich are lowered, fortress America curtails trade and jobs don't return to the rustbelt.

In the same way, in Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are now impaled on a populist water policy which served their purpose in the last General Election, but which eventually will be paid for, one way or another, by those least able to do so. At the decisive point in the election when Fianna Fáil shafted the government's policy and ditched its own, 63pc of households had signed up to pay for water and the figure was heading towards 70pc. Ultimately, in Ireland, with any kind of decent leadership on contentious, complex matters, there is a constituency for doing the right thing.

Incidentally, Sinn Féin considers a 54pc 'Remain' vote in the North as a mandate to keep Northern Ireland in the EU, but 63pc willing to pay for water in the Republic is discounted as of no consequence.

Eddie Molloy is a management consultant

Irish Independent

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