Tuesday 23 July 2019

Water fiasco is like a tracer that shines a light on all that is wrong with our political system

Last Thursday night on RTÉ’s ‘Prime Time’ programme, Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart said that the water charges shambles in the Dáil earlier that day was “no longer about water, it is now about trust
Last Thursday night on RTÉ’s ‘Prime Time’ programme, Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart said that the water charges shambles in the Dáil earlier that day was “no longer about water, it is now about trust
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Last Thursday night on RTÉ's 'Prime Time' programme, Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart said that the water charges shambles in the Dáil earlier that day was "no longer about water, it is now about trust. Fianna Fáil is a party that keeps its promises and Fine Gael doesn't". In the same interview, having sought to claim the high moral ground, Mr Lahart then denied point blank that Fianna Fáil had contemplated introducing meters and hefty charges as recently as 2010.

The facts are that Fianna Fáil did advocate the establishment of a single national water utility along with meters and charges in 2010. Another fact is that Fianna Fáil's U-turn had all to do with not being outflanked by Sinn Féin and little to do with the substance of the matter, and likewise Sinn Féin's volte-face in its electoral battles with Paul Murphy.

Up to the moment, last year, when Simon Coveney's resolve weakened, conceding that Fine Gael may be open to discussion about water charges, 63.5pc of households had signed up to pay. Irish Water said that, such was the rate at which people were signing up, it expected the figure to reach 70pc soon thereafter. If we add a conservative estimate of 100,000 households who didn't sign up because, genuinely unable to pay, they would have qualified for a waiver, and add a similar number already paying for their own private water schemes, this means that well over 70pc of citizens were ready to comply.

Nobody likes new taxes so, not surprisingly, enrolment stopped abruptly and went into reverse as people sensed that the charges might be abandoned. However, it is a measure of the leadership vacuum at the heart of Irish politics that this large constituency for doing the right thing was shamelessly abandoned first by Sinn Féin, quickly followed by Fianna Fáil, and later by Fine Gael.

The dearth of political leadership since water became such a hot potato allowed all kinds of misinformation, deceit and unbridled demonisation to dominate the debate. It also allowed virtual open season on ordinary workers in Irish Water; for example, a letter in the 'Irish Examiner' from a Donegal writer put their safety at risk by comparing them to murderers, con-men and Black and Tans.

One of the latest sticking points concerned the definition of wasteful use of water. Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Broin said it was a non-issue. Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen created the straw man of people with swimming pools who like to water their five-acre gardens with sprinklers and then agrees they should have to pay for such excesses. The purpose of charging for use beyond a reasonable allowance is not to curb this kind of "wilful waste" but to incentivise conscientious use by everyone, every day. That's the purpose of the European directive on water.

The bitterest of all ironies in this saga is the contention by parties of the left, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil that poor and disadvantaged people will benefit if water is funded from general taxation. The opposite is true. Ultimately the €300m needed every year to repair our ramshackle water infrastructure will deflect this enormous sum from the investment desperately needed to plug glaring holes in the public services on which poor people in particular rely.

Just for example, the CEO of the HSE says that €9bn is needed to transform the health service; billions more is needed to house families currently enduring slum-like conditions in hotel rooms; and still more to deliver rural broadband, public transport and care for our ageing population.

To peddle the line that there is a huge pot of tax out there, moreover one that the Government can get its hands on, and which will enable water, garbage collection and other services to be 'free' is a lie.

The net losers, if we don't have disciplined conservation of water, if the bill is paid from general taxation and if Ireland is fined for breaches of the European water directive, will be the very people whom those politicians trumpeting "victory for people power" on the plinth of Leinster House say they are concerned about.

The so-called "best practice" in water utilities was set out by the International Expert Committee established to advise the Government; it consists of a metered system, payment for use in excess of a reasonable allowance, and a waiver for those who cannot pay. The real reason, of course, for setting up this committee was to kick the can down the road.

Sinn Féin considers a 54pc Remain vote in the North as justifying an accelerated campaign for a united Ireland but it thinks it's OK for "people power" in the form of street protests by, at the very most, 5pc of adults to trump people power as represented by 70pc of law-abiding citizens. This week in Dáil Éireann, still high on the rush of last Saturday's "can't pay, won't pay" marches, it will extract further concessions from a confused Fianna Fáil now impaled on a policy it doesn't really believe in, and leave Fine Gael waving the tattered remnants of a water policy that, by right, ought to reflect best international practice.

Thisfiasco is like a tracer that shines a light on all that is wrong with our political system, particularly the unprincipled, short-term opportunism that prevails, most especially when an election is in the air. It is the same political culture that caused the crash of 2007-8.

They all say "no one wants an election over water". Well I do. An election is worth the risk on the off-chance that the kind of leadership the country so desperately needs may emerge. The outcome can be no worse than the "new politics" (what a joke) that we have now.

Eddie Molloy, a management consultant, conducts masterclasses in strategy managing change and innovation

Irish Independent

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