Monday 27 January 2020

Martin will not profit from an election about water

John Downing

John Downing

Once more unto the brink they go. And this time the row is over water charges and the future of Irish Water. It is a pretty depressing spectacle and its dreariness is only exceeded by the risk that it could up-end the inch-by-inch slow crawl towards the making of a government.

Water charges were an issue for voters in the General Election on February 26. But concerns about the unfair spread of economic revival, especially ongoing rural blight, and the pernicious run-down of public services, far exceeded water in political importance.

Let's also recall that, in rural areas, most people have always paid directly for water one way or another.

The reality is that only the die-hard opponents of water charges can claim any consistency on this issue. The Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA-PBP), and other like-minded leftist candidates, were always against the principle of these service charges - and they remain that today.

Sinn Féin was busy having a shilling each-way until October 2014, when it lost a by-election in Dublin South West to Paul Murphy, then of the AAA end of what eventually became the AAA-PBP. Then Sinn Féin hardened up and became totally opposed to the charges.

Fine Gael and Labour were minded to have water charges from the point they entered government on March 9, 2011. They proceeded to delay the issue and they vacillated hugely while they rowed very publicly about how these charges would be levied.

It was undoubtedly their big political failure over five years, especially the failure to qualify under EU rules for Irish Water to borrow off the national books for development. But they framed a water charge regime and paid politically, with heavy losses in the local elections of May 2014 and again last February.

Fianna Fáil committed in principle to water charges as far back as October 2009 in the re-negotiated Programme for Government with the Green Party. In fairness, Fianna Fáil never favoured Irish Water, which is essentially a Fine Gael creation, and proposed a more modest national coordinating body.

Fianna Fáil also disputes the fate of subsequent draft legislation, tabled by Green Party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley, shortly before the dreaded Troika landed and deprived us of economic sovereignty in November 2010.

But it was committed in principle and the party further showed this in 2014 as opposition built a head of steam, drawing tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets. Many Fianna Fáil die-hards were dismayed that their party was absent from such a popular vehicle of political opposition.

Fianna Fáil's mantra - "Yeah, we support water charges. But not like this and not now" - appeared very limp. So, the party upped the ante and included a call to suspend water charges and abolish Irish Water.

The charge suspension would continue until water services were of a standard which merited charges. That appeared a serious case of putting the cart before the horse. It did not address where development funds would come from.

That is a rough thumbnail sketch of where we find ourselves on this spring Monday morning, Fifty-nine days after the General Election and still without a government. Of course, it takes two to tango.

But there are clear signs that Fianna Fáil, fretful about Sinn Féin outflanking it, has got itself on a rock here. It is not pretty to see - political brinksmanship rarely is.

But it must help itself to get off that rock. Fine Gael must help it extricate itself. Otherwise, both parties are facing another election.

It is hard to calculate precisely which of the two big parties would lose in a swift election. Some will argue that Fianna Fáil would have caught its opponents on the hop.

That is based on the reality that Fine Gael does not want to fight another election with Enda Kenny as party leader. There is a strong tendency within Fine Gael to apportion a large share of blame for their recent election failure to Mr Kenny.

So, the Fianna Fáil calculation is that it would force its opponents into the field without enough time to change leader. It is a nice theory - but it is rather limited in focus.

But let's not lose sight of some other simpler political realities. Chief of these is the reality that six out of 10 obeyed the law and paid for water. Many of these also voted Fianna Fáil.

How are those Fianna Fáil voters likely to view a situation where they are told they were mugs to pay up? The argument advanced by Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley, that the 61pc payment rate included those who had only paid one bill, is as limp as its mantra of yes to charges - but not these and not now.

Any post office clerk will tell you that the reality is that the fall-off in payment rates is directly attributable to uncertainty fomented through the election campaign and subsequently. Fianna Fáil contributed to that uncertainty and payment fall-off.

And then there is the other political reality, that many rural Fianna Fáil voters have always paid for water, be it via group schemes, or their own wells, and they do not empathise with anti-water charge campaign. What is that segment of the party's support supposed to make of things?

Much of this suggests that Micheál Martin will not profit from an election about water.

Irish Independent

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