Sunday 19 January 2020

Water charges still toxic enough to bring down this Government

There will be opportunity in March for Fine Gael to remove Enda Kenny as leader before the election

Demonstration: The decision on whether or not to retain water charges will be the most contentious this Oireachtas will take. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Demonstration: The decision on whether or not to retain water charges will be the most contentious this Oireachtas will take. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The return of the Dail last week brought into sharper focus the issues on which this experiment with 'new politics' will live or die, and it is clearer now than before the summer that it will die an ignoble death sooner rather than later, probably before next summer.

All that remains is the seq- uencing towards collapse, in this order: the Budget; events; the Fine Gael leadership question; and the death knell that now looks almost certain to come in April or May.

Until now I had thought it might last until October, but continued dysfunction throughout the political system, which was more evident than ever last week, makes me think it will not last even that long.

The issue upon which the minority government looks set to fall will be a familiar one - water charges.

A pointer in this regard will be whether Fianna Fail factors into its alternative Budget this week the estimated cost of the continued suspension of the charges - around €200m.

But first, let us look at the issues in sequence: the Budget is the first hurdle. That will be surmounted, but it will leave a mark in terms of bad relations between Fine Gael and the various groups of Independents and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

The bottom line is presented as this: whatever resources are ultimately available, around €1bn give or take, will be split 2:1 between spending and taxation.

The real bottom line is that there will be relatively little cash available and the Budget will end up being a disappointment to almost everybody whose expectations have been irrationally raised.

The truth is that the economy, while performing well, is not performing nearly well enough to meet the demands of the squeezed middle or any other group for that matter, squeezed or not.

So, the Budget will be a relative damp squib, which is just as well as far as continued economic development is concerned, but will be not nearly enough to ease, let alone remove, the dysfunction.

Still, it should contain enough to keep the show on the road for a while longer. Expect the Independents, and the Independent Alliance in particular, to have some of their pet demands met. The Alliance has all but given up the pretence of having a coherent political vision, let alone ideology. As John Halligan has recently shown, it is everybody for his or her self in there, so you can expect the bottom of the pork barrel to be scraped.

Fianna Fail will also have a few of its demands met, for which it can claim credit. The wily Willie O'Dea was quick off the mark in this regard. His demand for a €5 weekly increase to the old age pension will keep relatively satisfied that key voter group, but expectations are so high that, ultimately, Fianna Fail will also end up dissatisfying more voters than it satisfies.

However, the Budget will disappoint Fine Gael and its supporters most of all. Initially, Fine Gael will seek to claim credit for whatever few 'giveaways' it may contain, but it will slowly dawn on its TDs and supporters that the Fine Gael stamp will be little or nowhere to be seen on this Budget, which is perhaps just as well considering the last five regressive budgets presented by that party.

The effect of all of this is that there will be growing resentment in Fine Gael, specifically towards Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan, who will both be obliged to step aside after St Patrick's weekend.

The Taoiseach's humiliation of minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor last week - he sided with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin against her - told us more about Enda Kenny than his inexperienced minister (or her hapless spin doctors) and in itself has served to copper-fasten Kenny's a-little-earlier-than-expected departure.

But first, to those events, dear boy: the first clear and present danger is the industrial chaos already becoming evident, specifically the threatened garda strike action, the outcome of which will inform the leadership ambitions of Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

The Government is warning that the Lansdowne Road Agreement is the only show in town and is holding out the potential of the Public Service Pay Commission, which is advisory in nature and will not report until the middle of next year.

A garda strike cannot be allowed. It seems evident at this stage that Fine Gael will need the support of Fianna Fail to face down what is an unprecedented challenge or else all hell will break loose in the public service: expect teachers, nurses and others to follow if this clearly weak Government caves in to gardai. Fine Gael's reliance will cause deep unease in Fianna Fail.

Another event with the potential to further destabilise the Government is the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. It was announced last week that the inaugural Citizens' Assembly will meet on October 15, with this issue at the top of the agenda. However, a number of Independent TDs are anxious to have the Eighth put to the people by way of referendum at the earliest opportunity, and Enda Kenny will have no intention of slapping down, say, Katherine Zappone as he did Mary Mitchell O'Connor. It may be that this issue cannot be kicked to touch for much longer. That is not to say it will be passed if or when it does go to a referendum, only that Enda Kenny may be forced to go to a referendum or risk the collapse of his administration.

That takes us to the real issue underlying the fading longevity of this Government, which is the continued - by a thread - leadership of Enda Kenny.

The campaign to oust him will gain some momentum immediately after the Budget, though it now looks more likely than not that he will be allowed to remain in situ to visit the White House over St Patrick's weekend one last time. Call it his lap of honour.

For many reasons, Enda Kenny would be well-advised to make way for a new party leader around the time of this ceremony, before the most contentious decision this Oireachtas will take must be taken: a final decision in a vote by the end of March on whether or not to retain water charges.

Herein is the only available window for Fine Gael to elect a new leader - that is, before the election that will almost inevitably follow the final vote on the water charges.

An independent expert commission is examining the future of water charges. It is due to report at the end of next month. Its report will dictate all. As is entirely likely, if the commission recommends some form of charging regime, the spotlight will immediately turn to Fianna Fail.

In a submission to the commission, Fianna Fail has proposed the abolition of charges, despite initially being in favour of suspension as part of its deal with Fine Gael.

It is my understanding that the altered party position was not discussed, let alone agreed, with either the parliamentary party or even the front bench before the submission was made and subsequently leaked.

Fianna Fail cannot now resile from this (latest) position - the abolition of charges. A continued position of suspension for the lifetime of this Dail may have prolonged the life of the Government, but not the (yet another) new position of abolition.

Likewise, should the commission recommend some form of charging, Fine Gael cannot and will not resile from its position of retaining charges.

There remains the possibility that the commission may not report by next month; or more likely that whatever Oireachtas committee the issue is eventually kicked on to will helpfully decide to extend its deliberations far longer than the expected March 31 deadline.

Alternatively, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail may agree to a continued suspension of the charges, a decision that currently rests with and will really test minister Simon Coveney. Will he stand his ground or kick to touch again?

As I said at the time of the formation of the Government, the issue of water charges will eventually come back to haunt Fianna Fail. That time is almost nigh.

Ultimately, the issue will have to come down to a vote of the Oireachtas: at this remove, it is difficult to see that vote being postponed indefinitely.

When Fianna Fail votes against the reimposition of water charges in whatever recommended form, the Government is bound to fall. In April, give or take, maybe May unless another almighty and costly fudge is arrived at.

So, we will likely see an election before the summer, but what a choice: Fine Gael will go to the country seeking a mandate to reimpose water charges and Fianna Fail will go on the side of Sinn Fein and the far left. What a mess.

Sunday Independent

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