Thursday 21 November 2019

Politics of water is all going down the plug hole

Environment Minister Alan Kelly with Irish Water chief John Tierney at a media briefing. ‘While not as electorally damaging for Fine Gael, the whole thing has been disastrous for the Labour Party, ‘ Photo: Mark Condren
Environment Minister Alan Kelly with Irish Water chief John Tierney at a media briefing. ‘While not as electorally damaging for Fine Gael, the whole thing has been disastrous for the Labour Party, ‘ Photo: Mark Condren

Liz O'Donnell

There were echoes of the electronic voting machines debacle this week with yet another twist in the Irish Water saga.

This time it was an unwelcome but not wholly unexpected report from Eurostat declaring that the cost of Irish Water had to remain on the State balance sheet. The company had failed the so-called "market corporation test". Households were not paying an economically significant contribution to the true cost of water. The cost of funding the €5.5bn investment programme into Irish Water to 2021 will be largely borne by the State. The level of Government control of the utility via board appointments and control of pricing was also criticised. Eurostat saw Irish Water for what it is, essentially an expensive State-funded quango.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan played it down; it wouldn't affect the October Budget. But there was no hiding the blushes and disappointment of the Government parties. In retrospect, it was probably delusional on the Government's part to attempt to decouple it from the State as an independent body, given all the backsliding on charges which would have allowed it to be commercially viable and independent.

From the very beginning, Irish Water was accident prone and a cause of discord between the Coalition parties. The original mistake was failing to make the case for conservation and quality of water as a finite resource.

Instead, the narrative was allowed to develop that water charges and the establishment of the new utility was yet another measure required in the context of the bailout and cutbacks in public services. The Government failed to get across the message that all over Europe citizens pay for water on a metered basis without controversy, based on an established conservation principle of the "polluter pays."

Former FG Environment Minister Phil Hogan set up the new utility but was safely ensconced in his EU Commissioner's chair before the proverbial hit the fan.

The first sign of real trouble was when Irish Water CEO John Tierney revealed that millions had been spent on consultants in the first year. Large salaries and a bonus culture added fuel to public anger, even for those who agreed in principle with paying for water. But for those with ideological objections to water charges, the administrative shambles and profligacy was manna from heaven.

Irish Water became the lightning rod for visceral public unrest with violent protest marches and attacks on the workers installing water meters. Few will forget the unprecedented scale of civil unrest and anger which dominated the local European and by- elections.

Despite concessions such as capping the charge and a €100 refund designed by Labour Environment Minister Alan Kelly, the anti- water campaign has continued. The non-payment by so many of the first water bills is evidence that the campaign still has traction.

While not as electorally damaging for Fine Gael, the whole thing has been disastrous for the Labour Party, who are shedding votes to the combined leftist opposition. The latest poll indicates the Independents as a group are at 31pc, higher than any other party,

The rise of the Independents is a mystery to me. The prospect of a cohort of them propping up the next government is alarming. Independents tend to be focused on local issues and are therefore unreliable. Having served in an administration dependent on them, I know the hold they can have over Governments. Their priority is invariably their own constituency, to the detriment of the national interest.

But like it or not, people are plumping for something other than traditional politicians. After all we have been through, with a banking and economic collapse, the national humiliation of an IMF bailout and financial ruin for so many, it is understandable that "change" is attractive. Independents, by their nature, are maverick and opinionated. They exude an air of "authenticity" which people may feel is lacking in media savvy and polished politicians from traditional parties. Look at the appeal of individuals like Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party leadership race and Donald Trump in the US.

But give me a party any time. At least there is policy coherence, discipline and order when there is a party. It was interesting to note the emergence of a new party in the political firmament, the Social Democrats, made up of three strong Independent TDs, Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and former Labour TD Roisin Shortall. Three is a very small party. However, they are three safe seats and each has a track record in sound politics and integrity. Catherine Murphy has been an outstanding deputy, forensic and responsible in her work on IBRC. Stephen Donnelly has the perfect credentials in an age of economic discourse. It was a pity that he withdrew from the Banking Inquiry, as he would have been an asset to it. Roisin Shortall is an experienced and thoughtful politician, who resigned as a junior minister on a point of principle relating to the alleged favouritism for his constituency in the funding of primary care centres by then Health Minister James Reilly. They are serious players. If they had another two or three credible TDs, they could make up the numbers in a future coalition just like the PDs did over 20 years.

But even the Social Democrats are on the anti-Irish water bandwagon. Renua, in its first sensible outing on a policy matter, defended the principle of paying for water, although it was critical of Irish Water as a body. For that piece of rationality, the party was punished by the resignation of its Galway West "candidate" Councillor James Charity. An example of jumping ship before it set sail.

It's a funny old world. The economy is growing at pre-crash levels, jobs are proliferating and the Government is for the first time in a position to produce its first popular Budget in October. It has been a "white-knuckle ride" to take the country from bust to growth. Unpopular decisions were taken in the national interest.

Fair-minded people will acknowledge that in the round, the two parties performed well in appalling circumstances, mostly fighting bush fires inherited from the previous government. But their home-grown debacles cannot be attributed to others.

Irish Water, despite the validity of water charges on environmental grounds, tops the poll when it comes to voter dissatisfaction. It screams incompetence by Government. But, unlike the voting machines, there is no warehouse big enough to hide or house Irish Water.

It is too expensive to wind up and too politically dangerous to make viable by increasing charges. With all its faults, it is probably here to stay.

Irish Independent

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