Tuesday 19 February 2019

In the shadow of Bertie, Fianna Fáil must make hard decisions

On the way back: Bertie Ahern Picture: Niall Carson
On the way back: Bertie Ahern Picture: Niall Carson
John Downing

John Downing

Fianna Fáil along with Fine Gael will reap a bitter result if they do not signal a refund for those who paid their water charges. Weasel words about "equal treatment" for people who respected the law of the land, alongside those who did not, are a very inadequate dodge.

The idea of wasting taxpayers' money pursuing the non-payers for a charge which is politically dead is depressing nonsense.

It will facilitate further showboating for the 'pay-nobody' people and promote social strife. It does not reflect well on Fine Gael people contemplating it.

Time has come to move on. And the best way to move things on is to address the key questions. The State is still in a pretty fragile position financially with a narrow tax base and we are still borrowing more to fund public services.

An extra €840m had to be found for Irish Water's needs in 2016 due to the suspension of charges. The public utility needs €5.5bn for the upgrade of sewerage and water services up to 2021, and it has plans to spend €13bn in the longer term. Given the parlous state of our water and sewerage services it is not discretionary spending.

That must be the context for the Dáil debate due to start next week. The issue of refunds should be dealt with swiftly to ensure we can face the matter in a calm manner. We look forward to Independent Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh bringing his business sense to the issue as chairman of the all-party committee.

Given the Expert Commission's recommendation that those who use more than "normal" levels of water should be made to pay, we have to make decisions about whether the rollout of water meters should continue.

There is also the issue of a potential referendum to ensure that Irish Water cannot easily be privatised. If there is one thing worse than a State monopoly, it is a private monopoly.

This Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services was never going to provide the Government and the other parties a formula to deal with water charges. It was designed to promote compromise. It has in essence said that the bulk of funding must come from general taxation.

Fine Gael is the big loser. It failed to deal with the issue when in government with Labour, whuch proved a drag on its senior partner on the issue.

All the political parties have been particularly useless on water charges. Fianna Fáil has been the worst. It has been a total, self-serving disgrace. It was the most committed of the parties to water charges having three times endorsed the principle while in government.

But spooked by Sinn Féin, which was in turn spooked by the effective street politics of the Anti Austerity Alliance People Before Profit, Micheál Martin abandoned the idea ahead of last February's General Election.

Temporary suspension of water charges was Fianna Fáil's price under-pinning the Fine Gael-led minority Coalition. This in turn has served to underpin the established system of free allowances, which came through in the first ill-starred attempt at introducing charges.

It will be among the matters TDs and senators must examine and decide over the next three months which we hope will take place in a respectful and sober environment. After that, the Dáil and Seanad will vote on how our water and sewerage system should be funded.

The European Commission will certainly take a keen interest in whether the Water Framework Directive and the principle of the 'polluter pays' are upheld. Let's recall that raw sewage is being released into our water systems at more than 40 locations countrywide. Decisions taken in Dublin must accord with our EU obligations which were entered into freely by previous governments.

The spotlight will be on Fianna Fáil, not least because it was in power when we took on those EU obligations. Already, there have been suggestions from Fianna Fáil that it might be possible to enmesh water charges with the local property tax.

This would be a reversion to the old domestic rates system which incorporated an element of water rates. It would have the benefit of involving the 'ones-who-must-be obeyed' - Revenue - and carry other advantages.

But given FF's record on this issue, one must immediately suspect another delaying device: another series of expert studies to be commissioned. The Fianna Fáil kingpins usually had long fingers.

But the water issue must be decided in the shadow of Bertie Ahern, who suddenly popped last week with an intriguing invitation from his old confederates in Dublin Central who want him back in the bosom of the party.

The development showed that 'the Bert' still has a deal of the old intrigue about him. But suddenly the dish was running away with the spoon on this one as the 'speculationometer' did hand stands.

Were we going to see one of our few 'real socialists' back in the Dáil? Would he be a runner for Áras an Uachtaráin in October 2018?

The answer to both those notions was always going to be 'no'. But there are many within Fianna Fáil who believe he could play a role helping them rebuild a pretty shot organisation, especially in Dublin where one-third of the vote is.

For now, at least, it is clear that party leader Michéal Martin believes Bertie Ahern's return is too high a price to pay for organisational advice. But he still casts a shadow over the party.

Irish Independent

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