Friday 22 February 2019

Fianna Fáil was a washout over water - and now we could all be left high and dry

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy speaking to media at the Stameen estate in Drogheda, Co Louth, about the water shortages. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy speaking to media at the Stameen estate in Drogheda, Co Louth, about the water shortages. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I've just had a refreshing shower. There was rain overnight, but water didn't fall straight into my bathroom from the sky. It arrived through a pipe. Useful devices, pipes. They don't last forever, though. Irish Water says 1,000km of pipes need to be replaced by 2021.

So who pays for repairs? Protests made it plain to politicians that people expect water to be funded from general taxation, and charges have been abolished. Some two-thirds of households paid up in the end, but it was a particularly unpopular tax.

Ding-dong, the witch is dead. But pause the celebration. General taxation cannot hope to upgrade an outdated water system that's been underfunded for decades - since Fianna Fáil was elected on a pledge to abolish domestic rates in the 1970s, in fact. General taxation has a lot on its plate, between housing and health.

But a burst main, with homes and businesses left with drastically reduced supplies for almost a week in Louth and parts of Meath, serves as a reminder that water investment is unavoidable. Irish Water is warning of 46 other black spots, including urban areas, where possible leaks may occur.

Where to find the money? "Irish water will be free from the mountains to the sea," went the chant at rallies. Except water isn't free. Someone pays for its treatment and delivery. Clearly, funding certainty for Irish Water must be agreed in the interests of strategic planning. The minister responsible, Eoghan Murphy, acknowledges he is unable to promise the €3.5bn urgently needed - his commitments can't extend beyond 2018 when all bets are off.

Cross-party dialogue on water funding won't happen until September. Meanwhile, it doesn't take a pessimist to predict another outage, with a concomitant backlash against the Government from householders forced to queue at emergency stations and boil their water supplies, and from businesses losing customers.

Who benefits? Several parties, including Fianna Fáil. It did an about-turn on water charges after seeing the strength of opposition to them. A number of parties are guilty of opportunism over water charges, but Fianna Fáil bears most responsibility for its negligent underinvestment in water services during decades in power.

Water and property charges were advanced as solutions to the financial crisis by the most recent Fianna Fáil-led government, under Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan. That coalition didn't have an opportunity to introduce them because it lost office in 2011. But the taxes were planned.

Incidentally, the National University of Ireland (NUI) has damaged its brand by awarding an honorary doctorate to Mr Cowen. You can but wonder who had that light bulb idea, and why the individual wasn't laughed out of the room.

The citation lauded Mr Cowen as "a practical patriot". As finance minister from 2004 to 2008, he fuelled the boom, even before becoming the Taoiseach who lost Ireland's economic sovereignty. If that's the NUI's definition of patriotism, then Humptyism reigns supreme there. ("When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.")

Flip-flopping between positions, Fianna Fáil has been disingenuous about water. It adopts its latest stance as a vote-generator rather than because it is in the long-term interests of citizens. As for the party's criticism over the Government's handling of the Staleen leak, that rings hollow - Fianna Fáil is answerable for substandard infrastructure.

In addition, the party has made Irish Water impotent by insisting on its revenue stream being axed. Scrapping water charges was part of the price tag for the current confidence and supply arrangement.

It has suggested abolishing Irish Water altogether, raising the spectre of maintenance being returned to county councils. However, if properly run, it makes sense for a single national body to look after water. The Staleen leak covered several counties, after all.

I opposed water charges under the system set up, which was an insult to the contract between taxer and taxed. Irish Water was born as a quango, bloated with consultants and a bonus culture. Furthermore, there were legitimate concerns that privatisation was the endgame.

But the burst main at the Staleen treatment plant, which led to water rationing, is a wake-up call that it's a big ask for general taxation to pick up the slack for long-term underinvestment.

Either water charges are introduced, or we reconcile ourselves to substandard water delivery, or revenue must be diverted from other services. In the case of the latter, some needy group will lose out. But we all lose out when populist, irresponsible politics are practised - and voters are foolish if they reward them.

The problem to grapple with now is lack of money in the Exchequer to pay for necessary levels of water investment. Ireland has a national debt of €200bn and the State cannot borrow significantly more. If a standalone utility borrows money, it does not go on the State's balance sheet and is not counted as national debt. Irish Water's billing structure would have allowed it to use charges as collateral on a loan, raising money to fix the network. That's no longer possible.

Instead, more taxes may be imposed to fund water works. That counts as austerity, which Fianna Fáil opposes. Alternatively, money might be forthcoming if the Cabinet can agree cutbacks with Fianna Fáil. That could be described as austerity, too.

Over a 20-year period, around €13.5bn is needed for water maintenance and treatment. Will politicians allocate such sums from general taxation? Bearing in mind other services will suffer? Water investment is competing with health, housing, education, roads and so on.

Meanwhile, Leo Varadkar is refunding €170m to the 64pc who paid their water charges, while everyone keeps the €100 'conservation grant' which was not contingent on conserving water (more Humptyism) - including those who didn't sign up to charges.

And the icing on the cake is the possibility of Ireland being fined by Europe for not putting a charging structure in place, although the EU has tried to steer clear of the political row.

Since "practical patriotism" was flagged by the NUI this week and a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach praised for it, we'd do well to consider why loyalty to State rarely trumps loyalty to party. And why we tolerate it, as an electorate.

Waiting in the wings to return to government, Fianna Fáil is cheerfully banking political capital from the water issue.

But how much value do its senior members place on the duties of leadership?

Or are they passing time until it's time to line up for an honorary doctorate?

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss