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Charges debacle is a slap in the face for rural Ireland, small business and those who pay their bills

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Demonstrators march along Parliament Street during an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in September 2016 Photo: Tony Gavin

Demonstrators march along Parliament Street during an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in September 2016 Photo: Tony Gavin

Demonstrators march along Parliament Street during an anti-water charges protest in Dublin in September 2016 Photo: Tony Gavin

Yes, water is free: here's a bucket, there's the river, pull away. No, cleaning and piping water is not, and never will be, free. Dealing safely and efficiently with sewage and other waste water very definitely costs a good deal of money.

Ireland still has 44 centres where raw sewage flows into our rivers, lakes or seashore. We need some €3.5bn over the coming five years to deal with that and reduce an astonishing 50pc leakage rate from our Edwardian water piping. Few people in our political system - and across our extended public life - emerge with much credit from the depressing debacle that is the water charges saga.

To quicken up, let's first cite those who emerge with some dignity.

Curiously, leading the pack here are the diverse groups who successfully campaigned for the abolition of charges. Most identifiable among these were the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) political grouping.

Anti-water charge campaigners are not interested in water services - they are interested in a larger societal struggle. They see that struggle being waged partially in parliamentary politics - they also often speak of "street action".

Sinn Féin has in the recent past struck a comparable pose, recalling its infamous "armalite and ballot box strategy" of the mid-1980s. Go back a few more decades and you have Fianna Fáil's "slightly constitutional party" approach.

But the anti-water charge people fought a dogged uphill battle and won an improbable victory. Why?

Well, because of the gutlessness of virtually all of the other political groups. And you can add the cluelessness and basic communication errors in the setting up of Irish Water.

Let's at this point exempt the Green Party from any great blame. They have always favoured water charges to curb wastage, and they never envisaged another mega quango such as Irish Water.

Equally, the battered and embattled Labour Party deserves some belated credit. In the February 2011 General Election, Labour dishonestly and unrealistically opposed charges. After an early U-turn it was extremely windy about the first backlashes against Irish Water and the introduction of charges.

More recently, Labour's environment spokesman and former environment minister Alan Kelly, however, remains courageously committed to charges.

Few are listening to his calls to end this "pay-nobody mentality" right now. But that may change - if they can keep their collective nerve.

For the rest, it's a pretty lamentable story.

Sinn Féin were sort-of opposed to water charges. But with a modicum of honesty it had refrained from advocating a payment boycott. The past history here has told us that people gulled into not paying their bills in protest have ended up alone in a courtroom in the fullness of time facing much steeper bills.

But October 10, 2014, is a significant date. That was the day Paul Murphy of the AAA end of the AAA-PBP wiped Sinn Féin's eye with a surprise win in a by-election in Dublin South West. Mr Murphy (left), then as now, has been a vocal water charges opponent.

Sinn Féin decided there was nothing for it. It went harness-after-the-horse against the water charges.

Fianna Fáil had been the most pro-water charge party of all. It agreed it in coalition with the Green Party in October 2009 and gave up an EU derogation which had exempted Ireland from water charges soon after. Water charges were also part of the bailout terms in November 2010.

With that pedigree, Micheál Martin's melted-down Fianna Fáil in Opposition felt it could not very well go holus bolus against water charges after the Fine Gael-Labour coalition took office on March 9, 2011. It was uncomfortable with its "not these water charges - not now" positioning.

Fianna Fáil felt it was time to clamber on that populist bandwagon if it was to have any chance of ever returning to power. Yet its voter messaging going into the last election in February 2016 was a little confused and ambiguous.

Its rural candidates were not shouting about party policy to totally abolish charges. And at least one Fianna Fáil deputy was not fully aware that total abolition was party policy even after the General Election.

But over the past year, Fianna Fáil has totally ramped up its complete abolition stance, to the discomfiture of many of its rural TDs and senators.

Fine Gael was for long periods rather unsure about how committed it was to water charges. In fact a rather hopeless interview on Newstalk radio on January 28, 2010, in which Enda Kenny was unable to state his water charge policy, was part of the build-up to the leadership heave against him.

But it did grasp the nettle when it came into office in March 2011. Its new environment minister, Phil Hogan, bravely shipped a great deal of public opprobrium on the issue. But he erred in allowing too much scope to the fledgling Irish Water.

Fine Gael's subsequent handling of the issue was calamitous. It included the gutless €100 "water conservation grant" which led to Irish Water losing its stand-alone identity which would have allowed it to borrow investment cash off the government books.

Fine Gael negotiator Simon Coveney's early cave-in to Fianna Fáil in government-making negotiations compounded this pattern.

Meantime, we have had an Expert Commission report, which has since been passed to the special Oireachtas committee chaired by the Galway businessman Pádraig Ó Céidigh. All of this came to a head this past week as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil locked horns on the potential final committee outcome.

It has been a week of bad news for people in rural Ireland, who variously fund their own water arrangements. It's a further insult to small business who literally continue to carry the can. And it's a depressing outcome for those of us who try to pay our bills.

Charges are gone; law-abiding taxpayers can fund their own refunds; but we may not charge water wasters. How we reconcile this nonsense with our EU obligations is a mystery.

Irish Independent