Tuesday 18 December 2018

Fianna Fáil fall into the Labour trap on water charges by chasing detail rather than principle

Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny Photo: Steve Humphreys
Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny Photo: Steve Humphreys

Fionnán Sheahan

In a shock development, the talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were finally going so well only to collapse nearing the final hurdle.

And it coincidentally happened in time for the Six One News on a Friday evening. Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin will now have to step in over the weekend to save the day.

What is astonishing though is the history-repeating discussion around the water charges regime.

In its election manifesto, Fianna Fáil pledged to "abolish Irish Water and end water charges".

The party doubled down on this stance after the general election, by making water charges a red-line issue, albeit briefly.

Fine Gael is sticking to having a public utility to deal with water and a "contribution regime".

The parties have kicked around various options to find a compromise: merging with property tax, suspension of charges, lowering the costs, increasing allowances, more waivers, greater concessions.

The discussion is laughably similar to the heated debates around the nascent water regime two years ago.

The Cabinet meeting of April 16, 2014, went down as probably the most fractious of the Fine Gael-Labour term in office.

Ahead of the local and European elections, Fine Gael tried to ram the water charges regime through. The Opposition were having a field day at the time, claiming the bills would be €750.

Fine Gael was trying to put a realistic figure into the public domain to kill the speculation, but Labour wanted all the details sorted first.

"The thing is half-baked, they have not thought through details of key issues like metering, standing charge, ability to pay, vulnerable groups like pensioners, conservation etc. Fine Gael's desire to have a number out there has blinded them to lack of detail on critical issues," a senior Labour figure said at the time.

A month later, Labour got trounced in the local elections and Eamon Gilmore was gone as party leader. Joan Burton's takeover failed to stop the rot.

Water charges ultimately ended up being €160 after the euphemistically named €100 water conservation grant is counted in.

Labour were right to be spooked about water charges.

It's a lose, lose scenario.

Once you agree to the principle of charges you've crossed the rubicon and you'll be pilloried by the populists.

Unfortunately, no party is willing to got back to square one, evaluate how much does it cost to provide water services, then decided who will pay for it.

From there, assistance for the vulnerable comes in through the social welfare system.

It's easier just to come out with the claptrap about abolishing water charges - and not bother explaining how upgrades will be paid.

Fianna Fáil, in particular, are kidding themselves if they think there's any credit to be won from this issue

Those who fail to learn from even recent history are doomed to repeat it.

Irish Independent

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