Water fiasco shows Fianna Fáil remains wedded to old-style, unprincipled politics
There was a point this week when it appeared the "talks" were going nowhere. For most observers, this represented a disappointing failure of politics; a straightforward example of an inability to shift from fixed positions to a reasonable compromise. Another election loomed, an option to which I viewed as being preferable to a total cave in by Fine Gael to Fianna Fáil's populist policy of abolishing Irish Water and water charges.
But as it turned out, Fine Gael did roll over. Such a reversal of a major public policy as the price for Fianna Fáil facilitating a minority government is a spectacular example of unprincipled politics. After all, it was Fianna Fáil in Government that legislated for the imposition of water charges in line with the EU Water Framework Directive. But later, for base political motives, it reversed that policy so as not to be outdone in opposition by Sinn Féin and the other protest parties.
Former Fianna Fáil environment minister Noel Dempsey struggled to defend the party's changed position on water. Bad enough that Fianna Fáil is back to its old tricks of populist giveaways as in the 1970s, it was disgraceful to use the issue as a deal-breaker for the formation of a government.
It is true that Irish Water had flaws; its initial profligacy on consultants and salaries was just the start of its problems. From the start it was a lightning rod for street protest and anti-austerity resistance, leading inevitably to climbdowns, concessions and changes. But despite all the controversy, the new body has succeeded in correcting many of the problems that have beset the public water and sewage system for decades.
Neglect of water infrastructure, poor governance by local authorities and inadequate funding had resulted in a degraded and at times dangerous water supply. Over 800,000 people were being supplied with potentially contaminated water; more than half of drinking water in the public system was being lost through leaks; and a third of waste treatment plants were overloaded. Thousands of people were boiling water before they could use it and there was a health risk in major cities caused by lead piping.
In a relatively short period of three years, the new utility has begun to tackle major defects, installing 820,000 meters and collecting water charges with over 60pc compliance. Now all this progress could be set at nought.
Strangely, in the most recent ructions over water, few had the courage to champion the compelling environmental and economic argument for staying the course with the new utility, given the dire need for major investment. Even those in Fine Gael and Labour who support Irish Water and the principle of charges, with a few notable exceptions, seemed to lose their bottle. Fine Gael negotiators, spooked at the prospect of another election, caved in. Both sides will be congratulating themselves on the fudge, which kicks the problem into a commission and a suspension of charges. But the truth is that it is a victory for old-style, weak-minded politics.
It is disappointing too that the Green Party's two TDs were not stronger. Of all parties, this is their pitch and they are best placed to advocate the environmental arguments for charges. Opting to stay in opposition, for reasons of self-preservation, instead of backing the Fine Gael position on water within government, was in my view ill-judged.
Some people in Fine Gael are mortified by this forced climbdown. Backbench TDs Michael D'arcy and Regina Doherty questioned the merits of government at any cost, particularly when the Fine Gael parliamentary party voted so recently to hold firm on the Irish Water policy. They are right.
Acting Environment Minister Alan Kelly, who bore the brunt of the anti-water charge protests, warned that the "deal" would deprive Irish Water of billions of euros in investment, claiming it amounted to "environmental treason". And by requiring that water services have to compete with other public spending priorities, the suspension of charges will deprive health and social housing of much needed resources. Political expediency is being placed before public welfare and good governance.
Fianna Fáil may see this as a gratifying humiliation of Fine Gael with more to be extracted on other policy issues. In my view, it will rue the day it stooped so low as to sabotage Irish Water. The party will forever be associated with unprincipled politics, under the guise of honouring an ill-judged election promise. It had a good election eight weeks ago, suggesting that its core voters were willing to migrate back to the mothership after a long period of banishment. It didn't take long for the party to revert to form.
It rejected out of hand the offer to share power with Fine Gael, which was the most obvious and popular option. Not having the numbers to form a government itself with independents, it chose instead to put in place as many obstacles to the formation of a Fine Gael minority government as it could muster. The party brazenly tried to call the shots on government policy from opposition. The farce of the last eight weeks will live long in the memory of Irish voters.
Regrettably, this will be a government compromised by an unprincipled fudge from the very start. The anti-austerity parties and Sinn Féin are unlikely to turn down the heat on the demand for abolition of charges. In addition, the State may be fined for non- compliance with the EU directive to add to the expense of potentially refunding the 900,000 people who have paid their water charges. If Fianna Fáil continues to exert its influence in the fashion witnessed since the election, the minority government is doomed to a short life. Another election would be preferable.