Thursday 22 August 2019

Voters won't thank FF if it triggers election over populist water stance

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe (left) and Finance Minister Michael Noonan. Mr Donohoe is a measured politician, so his criticism of FF over its water charges stance is significant. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe (left) and Finance Minister Michael Noonan. Mr Donohoe is a measured politician, so his criticism of FF over its water charges stance is significant. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Shane Coleman

The sight of political parties in retreat on an issue is rarely an edifying one - and never less so than with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil's furious back-peddling on water charges.

Having abandoned the (moral) high ground of a charging system (after failing to quell an unanticipated, but hugely successful, uprising against the modest levies), any sense of dignity is quickly being surrendered. The two centre parties are desperately scrambling to draw a line under the hits they've already endured.

To be fair to Fine Gael, its flank has been left completely exposed by Fianna Fáil's complete capitulation, when a bit of backbone from the main Opposition party would have ensured a decent compromise could have been agreed.

A fragile truce had been reached after the General Election. And it seemed that the Expert Commission's report offered the establishment parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, a way off the water charges hook.

Political reality meant charges were dead in the...ahem...water. But the proposal that there would be a charge levied on those households that exceeded a generous quota of free water at least paid lip service to the notion of water conservation and the principle of 'the user pays'. It would also likely have ensured Ireland kept on the right side of the EU Water Framework Directive.

Of course, it wouldn't have been acceptable to the Right to Water campaign and the hard-left parties. Or to Sinn Féin, which has vowed never to be outflanked by Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy on the issue again.

Those groups are not interested in compromise. But, while they would have collectively ranted and raved about levies by the back door, it would hardly have got any traction with the middle ground voters who made the anti-water charges campaign such a surprisingly potent force.

With the vast majority of households paying nothing for water, would the average citizen have manned the barricades again to ensure that somebody with a swimming pool, or the person who leaves their tap running on frosty nights, didn't pay for water? Hardly.

Yet Fianna Fáil, bizarrely and illogically, still ran scared on the issue and sided with Sinn Féin and the AAA/PBP. And this is where things really entered the realm of the ridiculous. The main Opposition party's position now is that people shouldn't be charged for excess usage (as proposed by the Expert Commission) - that would be wrong. However, it's OK to fine those households (under the 2007 Water Services Act or some amended form of that). How that would work is completely up in the air. The system of penalties under the 2007 Act has never been levied against anyone. Presumably because it's difficult and costly to prove in court if a household is wasting water, particularly if there isn't a meter.

Even if new legislation is drawn up that simplifies the system for fining errant households, it must be hugely doubtful that it can work in practice. Or - and this is crucial -that it would satisfy the EU water directives. Maybe the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services can devise a robust and simple arrangement to penalise wasters and keep the EU happy. But, from this remove, it's difficult to see how.

The first question the European Commission (not to mention the courts) will presumably ask is: without a system of water meters, how can the polluter be made to pay? Are the advances in district metering technology really sufficient to determine if a household is wasting water?

Fianna Fáil's brinkmanship on the issue has left Fine Gael between the devil and the deep blue sea. If it doesn't meet Fianna Fáil somewhere along the road, there'll be a general election, which the party certainly doesn't want or need.

But if Fine Gael does compromise to avoid an election, it's facing the prospect of leaving the State open to massive fines from the European Commission. Neither option is remotely appealing.

And one has to also question whether Fianna Fáil thought through its hardline position in advance. Will the electorate thank the party if it brings about an election on this relatively marginal issue - particularly if it is widely perceived the party was playing populist politics on the matter?

Sure it might see Fianna Fáil regaining votes, at Sinn Féin's expense, in urban working-class constituencies. But it might not play well in more middle-class urban areas. Rural Fianna Fáil TDs, whose constituents already pay water charges, would hardly welcome fighting an election on this issue.

The first week of any campaign in such circumstances would inevitably be dominated by the party defending its position, and on the hustings when you're explaining, you're most definitely losing (the election). Perhaps Fianna Fáil is betting Fine Gael will blink first. That is a real possibility, given how high the stakes are. But it's not guaranteed. There was a very definite straw in the wind with the comments this week from Paschal Donohoe. The Public Expenditure Minister is a measured and careful politician. So when he highlighted Fianna Fáil's "inconsistency" in being willing to fine, but not charge, households, and added its approach would present significant challenges for any government, it was particularly significant.

Privately, other senior Fine Gael figures are determined they won't carry the can for Fianna Fáil for what they see as bad policy, particularly if it leaves the country on a collision course with the EU. With Ireland looking to call in favours in Brussels in relation to Brexit, they don't want to be sidetracked by talking to the Commission about water.

Only the two main parties have the ability to fix this. Fine Gael figures say that, while they don't want to fight an election on water, it might prove to be the lesser of two evils. Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, is genuinely looking for an out, but the worry is it might already have created too many hostages to fortune to back down.

The divided Oireachtas Committee has bought itself some time to try to come up with a solution. But it has still only got a matter of weeks to do so.

Unedifying as things have been to date, they have the potential to get a lot messier, unless the centre and common sense prevail.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast' weekdays from 7am

Irish Independent

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