Saturday 25 May 2019

Dam burst of anger on Irish Water could sweep Enda away

Unease: Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Unease: Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Waste can't be ignored in relation to water, but I'm tired of seeing it presented as the fault of irresponsible domestic users who leave taps running overnight and flush loos for the thrill of it.

Where was the Government campaign to educate people about water conservation? Where were the shared-cost incentives to install rainwater-collection devices, as happened with the solar-panel scheme? And why was so little of the money already gathered through taxes spent on water infrastructure?

Clearly, there has been waste in relation to water. But what about the waste at the heart of Irish Water? Bonuses for managers - even those whose performance review says improvement is needed. How many households' water charges is that?

Car allowances of €10,500 for 40 senior managers. How many households' water charges is that? Some €86m spent already on consultancy and legal fees. How many households' water charges is that? A plethora of leaky pipes could be mended by now if they had ditched the consultocracy.

Complacent inside its bubble, the Government has been a slow learner on the vexed issue of water charges. People took all sorts of pocket-picking on the chin, from the universal social charge to the property tax, but water charges are a blow too far.

October 11 should have been the day the bubble was pricked - the date when a monster rally against water charges brought Dublin to a standstill. But the message remains outside the curiously-impenetrable Leinster House bubble. Here's an unavoidable truth for the Economic Management Council to consider at its meeting today: deep-seated public anxiety surrounds water charges.

Some don't want to pay for what they regard as a fundamental human right. Some have legitimate anxieties about potential data-protection breaches. Some lack trust that this new body will spend our money wisely. Some fear a national resource is destined for privatisation - and I, for one, don't understand why it is not stated in law that the company can never be sold privately. So many reservations on so many scores cannot be discounted.

Irish Water's performance has been abysmal. As has the Government's deafness, dumbness and blindness in relation to its failings. That's why a wave of demonstrations is lined up across the country on Saturday.

Irish Water is a magnet for criticism. Its litany of failures includes allegations of cronyism and an inability to accept that the customer comes first. An overstaffed monopoly with a bonus culture is insulting to the people after six years of austerity - it represents everything we are entitled to see done differently in Irish life.

The utility is an unmitigated disaster: from being set up without a tendering process; to the way the Government railroaded the water bill through the Dail to stifle debate; to Irish Water demanding our PPS numbers and specifying massive call-out charges. The body ought to be stood down.

At least on the PPS numbers front, Senator Feargal Quinn has shown some initiative. Next week, he is to introduce legislation in the Seanad in an attempt to halt that data grab. Shame on the public representatives on the government benches who have wrung their hands and done nothing to protect citizens.

The level of anger around the country isn't dwindling. Normally tax-compliant people are among the hundreds of thousands reluctant to send back their household registration forms. The due date has been pushed back a month. But does the Coalition have a Plan B if forms continue to go unsigned? Are we back to heavy-handed enforcement tactics?

The Government has allowed this to spiral out of control. So much so, that a double-barrelled shotgun was pointed at an Irish Water worker in Ardee, Co Louth, this week. Political leaders can't be blamed for firearms brandished, and there is no excuse for such intimidation. But the Government can and should be blamed for failing to absorb the level of public resistance.

Perhaps Enda believes a change of policy on water would be a sign of weakness. Not listening is a greater weakness - and electorates punish for it.

But it's never too late to do the right thing. Don't look on it as an embarrassment, regard it as an opportunity to present yourself as the Listening Taoiseach.

Backing down is humiliating, of course - but less humiliating than being toppled because of it. Governments have fallen over less. VAT on children's shoes collapsed a previous Fine Gael/Labour coalition in the 1980s, while in Britain the poll tax brought down Margaret Thatcher's administration in the 1990s.

This resistance isn't just about people's dislike of yet more taxation. This is about injustice: at being saddled with an expensive quango, and taxed twice for the same commodity - we already pay for water through VAT and other taxes.

And while I accept the need for conservation and investment, the Government's proposal of a flat charge for two years shows water charges are really about revenue generation. As it stands, householders have no incentive to turn off taps under a flat tax system.

If the current administration had put up more of a fight in Europe, such austerity measures would not now be on the table. Instead, an easier path was chosen - a creative approach to new sources of taxation. It takes a great deal before Irish people leave their armchairs and take to the streets. Count the numbers who do it on Saturday, Enda. Then count the cost to your government.

Irish Independent

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