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Government's big test lies in December's protest - which could be its real Waterloo


Environment Minister Alan Kelly. Photo: Collins

Environment Minister Alan Kelly. Photo: Collins

Environment Minister Alan Kelly. Photo: Collins

Minister Alan Kelly had a relatively good day in Dail Eireann on Wednesday. In terms of delivering a climbdown, he served up an epic government retreat the likes of which has not been witnessed since Napoleon's withdrawal from Moscow in 1812. But today is more important because it is the day TDs host their first local "constituency clinics" since the announcement of the new water charge tariffs.

These "clinics" afford public representatives an opportunity to have direct interaction with their own voters. Across the country in small offices, and sometimes even in the back of pubs, TDs and government ministers will get their first full-on face-to-face reaction to how the "new and improved water charge regime" is going down in their local constituencies.

Too frequently, even seasoned politicians mistakenly believe that making an announcement in Dail Eireann and landing the top spot on the 'Six One News' means they are home and hosed. It's a dangerous fallacy which is often short-lived.

In reality, any government decision and subsequent announcement is only the beginning of the hard-sell political process, it is not the end of it. The real work on water charges begins today at local level. Feedback from TDs in the coming days will determine the success of this volte face and dictate whether government TDs return to Leinster House next week with a spring in their step or a flea in their ear.

What this Government - and more importantly its backbenchers - need now is a group of people to define the agenda for this administration and lead from the front. People buy people. They do not just buy into government initiatives because they are told to do so. Through the water charges debacle, the Government has learned the hard way that this austerity-weary nation will no longer accept water charges or new taxes without question like mindless lemmings.

Any successful government communication strategy requires a competent body of people to explain it to the media and then on to the voting public. Therefore what is required now is a key group of ministers within the Government to firstly understand the rationale behind this U-turn, and secondly to understand the reasoning behind the inception of Irish Water and its consequences.

One of the greatest ironies and irritants of modern politics is that when they are in opposition, politicians spend all of their time trying to become part of the news agenda. In government, they will frequently do everything to stay off the airwaves. Ministers who have spent years trying to garner public support through publicity have a tendency to head for the hills and bunker down beneath their mahogany desks once they secure senior positions. There is a propensity to leave the fray to the line minister in charge. The 'every man for himself' approach to government communications leads to unattended airwaves and collective damage to everyone.

Disgruntled TDs expect senior ministers to fulfil the role of carrying the load. They expect ministers who have secured promotion to lead from the front. Failure to carry out this most basic duty can lead to much resentment and disquiet on the back benches. It can also result in malevolent 'off-the-record' commentary to the media resulting in a lack of cohesive messaging. This lack of discipline fuels public disagreements and even strains coalition partnerships.

If you take any significant crisis over the past year (and you have a lot to choose from), rarely have we seen the same group of people put forward by the Government as a cogent and united team who are singing from the same hymn sheet. Without a number of familiar faces and a leader who inspires fondness, or at least respect, any message, whatever it may be, will fall flat on its face after its initial delivery.

The Taoiseach made a start this week. By actually appearing on a news programme he attempted to lead from the front. Similarly, the head of Ervia and other ministers took to the airwaves to apologise for their sins and declare that they had learned valuable lessons. I suspect that many did not do it of their own volition, and the sole of Alan Kelly's boot may be imprinted on some trousers.

Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan are undoubtedly the Government's strongest performers.

They all possess a significant amount of political experience; but they hardly exude youth and exuberance.

Alan Kelly is something of an antidote to this problem, as are some of the newer Ministers of State like Simon Harris and Ged Nash. The difficulty is that most of them are making their debut in a debacle. Their first introduction to the public is apologising and explaining for ineffective administration. Hardly a dream start.

Appeasement may have been delivered, but arresting the nascent public protest may yet prove more difficult to effect.

Big brother in Brussels is watching developments with interest, and the Government needs to tread these murky waters carefully. Even if the measures announced this week succeed in changing the minds of the remaining 1.2 million households who are yet to register for water charges, the Government still faces a potentially huge public protest on December 10.

Should the demonstration transpire to be significant in terms of people on the streets, then the opposition and media may assume that the public volatility is no longer about water and more about the way this Government is perceived generally.

This protest may no longer be about the price of water, it may be against the Government itself. The opposition smells blood and fear. Government be warned - this is never a good starting point for a pre-election resurrection.

Napoleon made it home from Moscow, most of his troops did not. But the next stop was Waterloo.

Irish Independent