Radio: Astute questioning brings Irish Water debate to boiling point

Review: Brian Dowling brings a tetchy ministerial response on RTÉ Radio 1. Over on Newstalk, George Hook finds a panto partner in Vincent Browne

Hot water: Irish Water chief executive John Tierney, accompanied by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, talks to journalists at Ringsend waste-water treatment plant. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

It's the day after Halloween, but the horrors are just beginning for Government Ministers seeking to rally public support for Irish Water. Such is the mood of anger after last weekend's anti-water- charge protests that otherwise opposed figures are united on Saturday With Brian Dowling (RTÉ Radio 1) in pouring scorn on quango and administration alike.

If it's no surprise that the United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly sounds exultant and even chirpy as she talks to Dowling, the spectacle of Senator Katherine Zappone, who has long campaigned for recognition of same-sex marriage, and Senator Ronan Mullen, who opposes such unions, both berating what Mullen calls the "cackhanded approach" to water charges is more startling. When the two senators eventually square off on the normally charged topic of gay marriage it's a disappointingly civil exchange, an indication of how utterly the water issue dominates the agenda.

The person charged with defending the beleaguered body is Minister of State Gerald Nash, who might elicit sympathy for the thanklessness of his task were he not so blandly officious in downplaying public rancour. Conceding that "people have difficulty with the new charge", the Minister is sure that "legitimate concerns can be addressed". He gamely characterises the whole shambles as a "process", adding that "we have one opportunity to get this right". All of which suggests the Minister is either an unheralded master of comic understatement or a talented ostrich impersonator.

As Dowling presses his increasingly tetchy ministerial guest, the latter option seems more plausible. Pointing out that the company’s problems go beyond communication skills, Dowling wonders why no Ministers questioned the charging regime. In response, Nash starts talking blithely about a “comprehensive review” to make the company more accountable. “It’s about more than accountability,” interjects Dowling, whose determinedly unshowy presence belies his critically astute grasp of politics. “You seem to want to answer the question you’re asking,” Nash sharply replies.


By the end Nash is crabbily claiming there is a growing sense, “even among sensible people”, that Irish Water is “a conspiracy to finagle money from people – it’s a public utility”. Cue a chorus of ridicule from the rest of the show’s panel. That a member of the Government should seem so contemptuously dismissive of people’s anxiety – not to mention rage – is scary.

As so often happens, the ongoing disquiet about Irish Water finds a ready outlet on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Rather than ramp up the fear factor, however, Joe Duffy takes a low-key approach, as he tends to do when the outrage du jour is of real importance. Indeed, the presenter sounds positively jovial as he introduces his callers on Tuesday.

“I’ve a number of different men called John on the line. We’ll get their surnames to help clarify things,” he says before referring to revised pricing proposals “being leaked, so to speak”. Ba-dum-tish! Take my wife, please. What emerges as the various Johns (and one Martin) speak is no laughing matter, however. All have been monitoring usage on their meters and estimating their bills.

The figures they come up with are eye- watering. Martin, a plumber who lives with his wife and three sons, calculates he’ll have to pay €922 a year, despite low-pressure fixings. John No 1 puts the annual sum for his unexempted family of four at €824, even though they’ve swapped baths for showers. Another John reckons his bill will be €1,200.

Aside from the fact that such sums are far beyond the ballpark figures bandied about by Ministers, the most striking aspect is the level-headed way the men make their case. All agree to some degree with the principle of paying for water, and their similar findings are apparently based on sound evidence, making it all the more damning. Duffy sounds flabbergasted, if not by the odds of hosting three calm and cogent callers in a row then at least by their findings.

Anyone seeking ramblingly apoplectic radio could tune into The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays). Talking to the station's political editor, Shane Coleman, on Wednesday, George Hook gruffly proclaims that the Government is "goosed" over Irish Water, before moving on to suggest that any government that helps bring the actor Eva Longoria to the Web Summit in Dublin "can't be bad". When he laments that "old-fashioned patriotism has gone down the toilet – bring back Michael Collins", his transformation into caricature seems complete.

But that is to reckon without the appearance of the journalist Vincent Browne, as Hook and his guest form a partnership so cartoonishly grumpy as to rival Statler and Waldorf, the misanthropic hecklers from The Muppet Show. As Hook posits that every other country has a water tax, Browne is outraged, asking if such charges exist in China or India. Hook snarls that he's talking about the EU. "Ah, who cares about the EU?" splutters Browne. "Do you want to live in China or India?" comes the considered response.

By the end Browne is ribbing the presenter that he won’t use much water when brushing his teeth, so few does he have left. It’s pure pantomime. Unlike the water-charges farce, at least we can switch it off.

Moment of the Week: Damned politicians

Pat Wallace, the former director of the National Museum of Ireland, joins Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, weekends) to discuss the funding crisis at his old institution. Wallace says that new Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys needs support to escape the moribund departmental mindset that hobbled Jimmy Deenihan, her predecessor. "Jimmy didn't get much vision or help or support," says Wallace, "and he finished up just opening small exhibitions and launching books." Ouch. It's hard to imagine a more quietly damning political epitaph.