Thursday 23 May 2019

They're losing the game but they have to fight on

Despite setbacks, the Government will dig in its heels over water privatisation

Kerrigan cartoon
Kerrigan cartoon
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Yes, it's encouraging that despite all the threats and the bribes only 43pc have paid the Water Tax. And there's great entertainment to be had in listening to Irish Water's head of communication, Elizabeth Arnett, putting a positive spin on the bad news.

It's a "solid" result, says Comical Betty.

Alan Kelly, the Minister for Looking Uncomfortable on Television, says he's "very satisfied" that 57pc of people have told him where to stick his Water Tax.

They're on the back foot, and that's encouraging, yes. But Enda Kenny and Joan Burton will stand by Irish Water to the bitter, bitter end. This is only partly about money, it isn't about water leaks - in fact, it's hardly about water at all. It's about politics.

It's about the overall long-term strategy of this Government, and their senior management in Brussels. And it's about the immediate political needs of Mr Kenny and Ms Burton.

High up on the list of things politicians hate is the dreaded U-turn.

They cringe at the thought of their mates across the floor of the Dail pointing fingers and jeering - "You did a U-turn, you did a U-turn!"

It's a sign of weakness. Politicians like to give an impression that they know what they're doing and that they mean what they say. Nothing damages that impression as severely as a U-turn.

Particularly when done under pressure.

And even more so when that pressure comes from the people.

Doing a political U-turn demonstrates that pressure works. And that you misjudged the balance of support and opposition. And that the thing you said just had to be done didn't have to be done at all.

Most of all, a U-turn says your air of authority is a sham.

But, I hear you say, isn't this the Government of U-turns? Aren't these the politicians who said they'd restrict the use of the guillotine in the Dail? And who have been shamelessly using it to limit debate on legislation?

Yes, but that's not a U-turn.

Aren't these the politicians who said they'd cap salaries for advisers and then competed with one another to see who could get the biggest breach of the cap for his own adviser?

Aren't these the politicians who promised to protect the disabled? And, in the words of campaigner Joanne O'Riordan: "Enda Kenny looked me in the eye before the general election and promised me one thing and then, once again, did another".

Aren't these the politicians who vowed to eradicate cronyism? And weren't even Fine Gael backbenchers taken aback at the Taoiseach's blatant cronyism in the McNulty scandal?

Didn't Enda Kenny tell people in Roscommon their hospital services would be safe with Fine Gael and didn't that turn out to be so much faecal matter of the bull variety?

Didn't the Government trumpet the merits of debt write-downs in 2012, when they told us falsely that write-downs of Irish debt were just around the corner? And didn't the same Government join in the EU hard-Right's threat to lay waste to Greece rather than agree to the write-down that every credible economist of the Left or the Right says is necessary?

Didn't Enda Kenny say, "I will end the scandal of people waiting on trolleys"? And isn't the scandal just as scandalous after over four years in office?

Didn't Labour sign a pledge to oppose student fee rises, and didn't they produce fee rises as soon as they got into office?

Didn't Labour say they'd oppose cuts in child benefit - then, in office, didn't they implement such cuts?

Didn't they campaign against a Vat increase, then implement one?

Didn't they oppose a rise in car tax? Didn't they oppose an increase in wine tax? Didn't they, before the election, stand up against a 3pc Dirt tax - and in office stand over a 14pc increase?

Didn't Joan Burton promise no cuts in lone parent benefits without childcare reform? And, without any such reform, didn't she attack the family anyway?

Didn't Brendan Howlin say, just before the last election, "We're against water charges"?

Of course, but these aren't U-turns.

They're "tough decisions".

A tough decision betrays a promise about something that matters to others. This is fine, as long as you put aside enough money to ensure a couple of carefully targeted tax cuts shortly before the next election.

A U-turn is when you back down on a policy you initiated - when that policy is part of your overall, long-term strategy.

The Water Tax is such a policy. And that's why they'll dig their heels in.

The immediate need of Fine Gael Labour is to win the coming general election. Scrapping Irish Water before the election would be disastrous. They would appear weak, uncertain and panicky - when they most need to seem strong and authoritative.

The long-term overall strategy, agreed with their hard-Right chums in the EU and the European Central Bank, needs the Water Tax.

It's not about generating funds to repair the leaks - it's about producing a revenue stream to keep down the deficit. It's, more than anything, about the obsessive right-wing need to privatise public services - the need to turn them into businesses by selling them off to the usual suspects.

From the start, this was about privatisation. The attempt to build a database with our PPS numbers; the high-price executives and their bonuses; the online admission of their intention to sell Irish Water - quickly taken down - the stuff about how Irish Water "may disclose customer data to the prospective seller or buyer".

Oops, they said, we didn't mean that.

This is all in line with the politics of Fine Gael Labour and their hard-Right boss, Ms Merkel. Among the legion of the Right, privatisation isn't so much a policy as a religious tenet.

The determined opposition to the Water Tax came from the ground up. Much as some on the Left might like to believe they created it, much as some on the Right throw around silly claims about the "sinister fringe" - this is an expression of political rejection of two things: the incessant dipping into our pockets; and the ideology-driven need to sell off a public service.

The strength of the rejection, and the Government's need to pretend that this is about fixing leaks, led to temporary concessions. They cut prices, they offered bribes. Having spent half a billion on meters they rendered them pointless by imposing a price cap. Anything to reel us in.

The fact that they've got back just €30m is a setback, but they'll spend endless amounts of our money trying to beat us down, so they can sell Irish Water.

Comical Betty has spent €600,000 on advertising, and she's preparing to spend many more hundreds of thousands in the near future. Enda and Joan figure we'll crack before they do. They might be right, they might not.

Sunday Independent

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