Skirmishing over water charges


Good leadership should provide vision and straight talking. But short-term electoral considerations have dominated Irish politics to such an extent in recent decades that necessary decisions were avoided and unpopular measures were reversed. That style of government eventually led to the building and banking collapse of 2008. Despite that, however, the main political parties continue to embrace old-style populism in their skirmishing over a new water charge.

The latest intervention came from Tánaiste and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore whosuggested that water charges would not apply from next January. The Meath East byelection result and internal demands for more robust leadership may have prompted Mr Gilmore’s comments. When analysed, however, they differ only slightly from those of Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. Both men confirmed that Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin would discuss postponing an agreed starting date with the troika next month. And while Mr Hogan focused on Fianna Fáil's role in deciding this date – perhaps in the belief it would be altered and Fine Gael would benefit – Mr Gilmore took a more assertive approach in pushing the introduction of charges beyond next year’s local elections.

Fine Gael and the Labour Party abolished flat-rate water charges in 1997 because of their unpopularity. In terms of an administrative fiasco, it was on a par with Fianna Fáil’s abolition of rates 20 years earlier. As outgoing Dublin city manager John Tierney remarked this week: if, instead of abolishing water charges, a new house metering system had been introduced, up to 40 per cent of the housing stock would now be covered at no cost to the State. Having narrowed the tax base, Fine Gael and the Labour Party resisted the reintroduction of charges in opposition, even when the cost of treating water became unsustainable.

In terms of brass neck, however, Fianna Fáil must take the political biscuit. Party leader Micheál Martin formally apologised to the public for past mistakes. Having done so, however, he has now returned to the political tactics that proved so destructive. Ignoring the party’s formal acceptance of the need to expand the tax base, spokesmen have led the charge against the introduction of property and water charges. In the case of water charges, the party even lacks the benefit of a troika fig leaf to cover its blushes. A full year before taxes and cutbacks were agreed in the bailout programme of 2010, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party formally agreed to introduce this measure.

In many cases, politicians themselves can be to blame for the low regard in which they are held. Greater political courage is required. They cannot please all the people all of the time. Fair and equitable actions and long-term planning should do their talking for them.