Monday 17 December 2018

Enda will hope water protesters' errors will help him regain public confidence

John Downing

John Downing

ENDA Kenny's maxim for the coming week is not hard to guess. Try the old proverb: "It's a long road that has no turning."

On Wednesday we expect the Taoiseach to tell the nation that water will cost the average family less than €4 per week. From that point on, he will begin what he hopes will be a successful battle by his Government to win back public confidence.

The calculation is that die-hard water charges opponents always were and always will be irredeemable. This is a battle for the middle ground as represented by the tens of thousands of working people who swelled the ranks of water charge protesters for the past month.

Fine Gael and Labour TDs have long felt that much of the ordinary citizens' angst about the water charges was based on fear of the unknown which allowed opponents of charges cite exaggerated sums. They also believed that their own soundings told them that people were not against water charges in principle, but were disillusioned by errors in implementation and the establishment of Irish Water.

The events last Saturday, when Tanaiste Joan Burton was held prisoner in her car for two hours and an adult education conferring ceremony was marred, have dented public confidence in the water protesters. The vast majority of the throngs who took to the streets in Dublin on October 11, and at up to 100 venues on November 2, will be neither impressed nor reassured by an infringement of others' rights and insults to their dignity.

The Tanaiste, like any other citizen, has a right to move about without being obstructed. The dignity of her elected office should not be insulted. Working people are entitled to celebrate educational achievement at an awards' ceremony without disruption.

The Government will hope that events at Jobstown in Tallaght on Saturday afternoon can help separate "middle Ireland" from more radical left-wing demonstrators. The behaviour on Saturday of Paul Murphy, a TD elected largely because of his unequivocal opposition to water charges, does not inspire confidence.

Will the reassurance of a small manageable bill push home that government advantage and begin to rescue this Fine Gael-Labour Coalition from its own rank incompetence?

Only time will tell. Mr Kenny's first task - and indeed that of Labour leader, Joan Burton - will be to "sell" their water charge regime to their own backbench TDs and Senators who have soaked up a heck of a lot of public anger in recent weeks and months.

If they are not convinced first off, then the public cannot be convinced. The reality is that the new regime will only get a fair hearing if all government politicians are enthused enough to fight for it.

In doing so, Kenny cannot overlook the issue of reforms at Irish Water. By extension this involves reforms across the semi-state sector. That will be no easy task and it will take time. But a start must be made.

All Government politicians know that in the end of it all the water charges were only a symptom of a bigger malaise. The 2pc VAT hike, the vicious universal social charges, the relentless service cutbacks, all hurt people far more than just being charged for water.

It was the visibility of the charge for an element fundamental to all our lives, the outrageous self-serving image of Irish Water, and the precedent that the Government had previously backed down, which helped to build this into a national protest.

So, Mr Kenny knows he must frame the water charge issue in a larger context of other charges and taxes. He must lead a debate on how we are to be taxed and how that revenue must be spent.

It has been impossible to do that as the whole of this year has been spent fire-fighting and dealing with repeated crises in the Garda, a rolling series of rows over Irish Water and allegations of cronyism, to name but a few unforced errors. The evidence of the past 11 months suggests that this Government may not be up to the task. But among Kenny's traits is a capacity to surprise.

Among his advantages is a pretty hopeless vista of division among the disparate groupings on the left of Irish politics. There are people of considerable ability and sincerity active in Irish left-wing politics.

But their perennial inability to deal with particular divergences of belief and get over personality clashes means they have a spectacular capacity for self-harm.

This past weekend is a good example. Just when they are gathering a critical mass of support around a particular issue, an extreme fringe does damage.

Time is now running short. By this time next year we will be in election mode. At Leinster House there is a growing view that the General Election will follow quickly on the heels of Budget 2015 in the middle of next October.

The Government clings rigorously to the line that it will run the full term to late March 2016. But in a sense that is academic, because there are only some 16 weeks between the two putative General Election dates.

The big fear within the ranks of both Fine Gael and Labour will be that the opposition can profit from spreading the message that this Government's big achievement - seeing off the very detailed EU-ECB-IMF troika supervision - was the sole product of a Troika plan agreed by the Fianna Fail-Green Party government in late 2010.

Unless Kenny and Burton can be seen to get back on top of things, this message will be a major feature of the Coalition parties' general election campaign.

So, the Government fight-back begins on Wednesday. Kenny will hope that his long road to political ruin can finally turn in a more favourable direction. It will be hard to undo 11 months of unforced errors.

Irish Independent

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