Coalition tensions rise over water charges

Inside Politics: Political parties dodging the issue since troika programme agreed

‘Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that (1980s) government and Enda Kenny a junior Minister so it is hardly a surprise that they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

‘Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that (1980s) government and Enda Kenny a junior Minister so it is hardly a surprise that they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 00:01

The spat between the Coalition parties over the introduction of water charges will probably be sorted out in a couple of weeks but the row has fuelled a growing impression of a government that is losing its grip.

If that image takes hold in the public mind it will do far more damage to the Coalition’s long-term prospects than any decision it makes, however unpopular.

The fate of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the 1980s is a case in point. What undermined public confidence in Garret FitzGerald’s government was not so much the range of tough choices it made but the endless wrangling between the parties in the face of every decision.

Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that government and Enda Kenny a junior minister so it is hardly a surprise they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the departure of the troika last December, rather than marking the new political dawn imagined by both Coalition parties actually started a slide that is becoming ever harder to stop.

The irony of the row over water, which burst out in advance of Wednesday’s special Cabinet meeting, was that just a day earlier at their regular Tuesday meeting Ministers had a frank discussion about the need to refocus and take control of the political agenda. Concerns were expressed that Government departments were slipping back into old habits of deferring decisions indefinitely now that the troika three-monthly deadlines no longer applied. Ministers were urged to get a grip on their departments and put an end to drift.

Those good intentions went out the window the next morning when Labour went public with its annoyance at what the party’s Ministers regarded as an attempt by Fine Gael to bulldoze through a decision on water charges before the issue had been properly teased out.

The Fine Gael reaction was to say Labour foot-dragged to delay a decision until after the May 23rd local elections. The Fine Gael view was that such a move would have allowed Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to make exaggerated claims about the likely scale of the charges.

Both Coalition parties had a case but the public squabble did neither of them any good. They will need to make a coherent decision by April 30th and be prepared to defend it on the doorsteps for the following three weeks.

Water charges have been on the agenda since the troika programme was agreed in 2010. The issue should have been dealt with long before that but all of the political parties dodged their responsibility even though they all knew charges would ultimately have to be adopted as part of our EU commitments.

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