Sunday 15 December 2019

Coalition's concessions on water are too little too late

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Too little too late. The level of public disillusionment with the Government is now at such a pitch that I don't believe the partial climbdown on water charges can save it.

That package of concessions laid out in the Dail by Alan Kelly may have worked at an earlier stage in the Coalition's life cycle. But the people's confidence is lost. Yesterday's amendments did not shore up the Government's position - instead, the walls of the Fine Gael-Labour pact have been breached and the end is closer for this administration.

Protesters scent it, opposition politicians scent it, backbench Government TDs scent it. General Enda can make all the plans he likes for 2016, including centenary celebrations, but he won't be in power to lead the parades.

Yesterday's fudge needs to be accepted by the public or the Government will not survive. And the people are not in an accepting mood. Protests will continue until the tax on water is dismantled. However, such demonstrations would be preferable without water balloons or bricks thrown, or ministers trapped in their cars. And organisers have a responsibility to that end.

People can see how the sums don't add up. What's proposed will not pay for an upgraded water infrastructure, or encourage conservation, or even raise significant revenues. Instead, our water bills will feed a swollen super-quango tainted by cronyism. Marches began as soon as people joined the dots - they won't now surrender the streets in a hurry. It achieves results.

Instead of the necessary U-turn from the Government, we saw a change of gear. It adopted a softly-softly approach: pay low bills now, and let the future take care of itself after 2018. But households are already contending with inroads on their income from the Universal Social Charge, property tax, bin charges, the pension levy - the list of extras keeps growing. Even reduced water bills are too much for some.

Ministers bent half an ear towards water charging concerns. But they did not listen with their full attention. Otherwise, they would retreat from this ill-constructed and badly executed tax. It has left many of them unelectable.

A flat system of charges is still the way the Government has chosen to proceed, which means water bills impacting with most severity on the poorest in society. People are expected to pay the same whether they are on minimum wage, or number among top earners. That makes it a regressive tax.

Granted, bills have been reduced in an effort to assuage resistance, but water charges will increase once the payment principle is established. Protesters understand this, and will take to the streets on December 10 to show they do. Democracy in action works. But the infiltration of marches by a hooligan element has played into the Government's hands, allowing General Enda and his colonels to huff and puff about a sinister agenda. Joan Burton's Jobstown experience should never have happened. Undoubtedly, it was unpleasant for her. But it was no riot. People must not be deterred from legitimate protest by troublemakers.

Why are demonstrations happening now, and why is water the catalyst? I suspect people were paralysed during the early years of austerity - too afraid of the rocks we were shipwrecked on to protest. But that terror has gone, leaving anger at the two-tier society which continues to exist. Irish Water highlights continued high fees for consultants, and a bonus culture.

The Government says the additional payments won't be made for 2013 and 2014, giving rise to an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, we have politicians accepting the will of the people and saying no bonuses. On the other hand, we have Siptu's intervention, saying bonuses are a contractual obligation and must be honoured. The union is acting in the best interests of its members, of course. But bonuses conflict with the best interests of the people - and it makes you wonder how many other deals are struck to prioritise special interest groups above the population at large. Meanwhile, the case is a parable for how some are bearing the brunt of austerity, while others are cushioned.

The Government's attitude can be summed up as follows: we realise we've set up a quango in a singularly incompetent fashion and we'd prefer if the public wasn't annoyed. All the same, we want people to continue giving us money so we can carry on being incompetent. No wonder banners are being unfurled.

Irish Independent

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