Sunday 17 February 2019

Sarah Carey: We must do everything we can to ensure Irish Water does not go into private ownership

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, deputy leader Catherine Martin and chairman and justice spokesperson Roderic O'Gorman at the party's campaign launch for a referendum on the public ownership of water at the Hilton Hotel on the Grand Canal in Dublin
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, deputy leader Catherine Martin and chairman and justice spokesperson Roderic O'Gorman at the party's campaign launch for a referendum on the public ownership of water at the Hilton Hotel on the Grand Canal in Dublin
Irish Water boss John Tierney
Cork Water protest
The Government needs to tilt the balance against another monster anti-water charges rally on November 1.
Irish Water Managing Director John Tierney leaving a meeting in Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren

Sarah Carey

I doubt there was anyone who gave the Greens a harder time than me when they were in government.

By campaigning to Keep Fianna Fail Out of government in 2007, and then promptly putting them in, their electoral annihilation in 2011 seemed like mere justice.

However, having taken their beating I wasn’t entirely displeased to see them do pretty well during the local elections.

I’m not saying all is forgiven, but I am all for learning lessons, and second chances.

Therefore, I’m quite happy to give a three cheers to the Green Party proposal to have a referendum to insert a ban on the privatisation of Irish Water into the constitution. It’s about time an opposition party highlighted this issue, because the row over water charges has been all wrong so far.

I know people are outraged about water charges. They’re completely worn out paying bills, and I understand that. This feels like the proverbial straw and the camel’s back.

But many people oppose paying for water on a point of principle and I’m afraid that’s simply wrong.

Even if there was no bailout, Ireland would still have to introduce water charges and that’s because a) it’s the right thing to do and b) the Water Framework Directive introduced by the European Union made it European law.

That Directive was passed in 2000 and set 2015 as the target date by which domestic water charges had to be introduced. That predates not only the bust, but the boom too.

It is dreadfully dishonest of any politician to ignore that and say that this is an austerity measure. It’s not. It’s a legal and moral imperative. People will never conserve water unless they have to pay for it.

One consequence of the campaign against the principle of paying for water is that the most threatening aspect of Irish Water has been relatively ignored.

The government has said that Irish Water has been set up as a commercial semi-state body so that it can borrow money for investment “off-books”. In other words, the debt won’t appear as national debt.

That may well be true, but there’s another very obvious reason - it will make it remarkably simple to sell the company in five years time.

If you want to know how that will turn it out, think Telecom Eireann. A national asset flogged off with the money raised diverted away from investment in infrastructure and towards the employees and venture capitalists.

But Private Irish Water would be much, much worse than Private Telecom Eireann.

That’s because some form of competition emerged in telecommunications the pressures of which created some choice for customers - mostly urban ones. But as Ossian Smyth, the Green Party Spokesperson on Natural Resources, observes; realistically there can only be one water provider in each local authority area. So a private water company simply becomes a monopoly.

And we know what monopolies do: they charge higher and higher rates simply because they can.

And we know what private companies do, don’t we? They “extract value” from the company. That means they tear all the cash out of the company rather than invest in its future. They don’t care a jot about the long term because they’re all on five years profit taking plans. So apart from the fact that handing public infrastructure over to a bunch of greedy MBA’s would be morally wrong, it’s also a recipe for a future water supply disaster.

Given that we’re not stupid and can see this coming, the government has assured us that there will be no privatisation.

The establishing legislation contains a formula of share distribution that can technically prevent this.

I'm not one for faith-based conspiracy theories, but I am firmly convinced that keeping the privatisation option open is explicit in the establishment of Irish Water. Even if it's not right now, a future government could simply change its mind. With a majority in the Dail they could simply pass new legislation and it’ll be done before we know it.

This is why the Green Party proposal is the only answer.

We cannot wake up one morning to discover a U-turn has been made as a result of technocratic pressure to reduce debt; the arrival of a PD-like-ideologically right-wing minority party in government or a rush to the head – all three being highly likely when one examines the current political landscape.

A constitutional ban is the only safe insurance policy we have. And let me put it like this: if the government means what it says – that there is no privatisation planned – then how could they oppose that referendum?

The Greens have no TDs to put that question to Minister Alan Kelly in the Dail. Oppostion TDs should stop wasting time fighting the idea of Irish Water and do what they can to ensure that it remains in public ownership.

Sarah Carey

Presenter Talking Point, Newstalk 106-108FM

Columnist, INM

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