Water issue still exacting a political price

News Review of 2016: While charges have been sidelined, the water issue has not gone away and may return centre stage

O’ Connell Street Right 2 Water protests at the start of 2016. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

O’ Connell Street Right 2 Water protests at the start of 2016. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

– Stir vigorously with a confidence and supply agreement that you prepared earlier.

– Add your spices, namely an expert commission and an all-party committee.

– Leave to marinate for at least three months.

– If you follow the recipe closely, the predictable outcome, disaster, will be guaranteed.

There are political rulebooks about what to do with embarrassments like the Irish Water fiasco. And it’s clear the Irish political ruling class have not been reading them very closely in the past few years.

Water charges were a dominant theme in the last election (and certainly in the headlines) but not as dominant as political parties think. The exit poll taken by RTÉ on the day of the general election showed it was the main issue for only 8 per cent of voters. It was certainly an important issue (if not the overriding one) for many more. Sure, there was a lot of popular support for those who opposed water charges – evidenced by very large turnouts at water marches. But the election was not decided on that issue and that cohort still comprised a minority.

Bill-payers

The rules facilitated them. Arrears had to amount to at least €500 – for a period not less than 18 months – before a defaulter was pursued. At this stage of the process, the prospect of any defaulter being pursued is as remote as Rockall.

For reasons best known only to itself, Fianna Fáil decided to put water charges at the core of its confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael. It comprised 600 words out of about 1,800 in the three-page document.

That document envisaged a convoluted process – an examination by an expert commission of the issues, and then a special Oireachtas committee charged with making recommendations on the back of its findings. The situation was not helped when the chair of the expert group, Joe O’Toole, was rather too forthcoming in sharing his own views, giving rise to charges of predetermined outcomes.

The Fianna Fáil submission to the group showed how artful the party is at speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Basically the party which first ceded on the principle of water charges to the troika in 2010 was now saying that water charges were finished until such a time as water services were “fit for purpose” and humans had established their first colony on Mars. Fianna Fáil has been more or less silent, as has Fine Gael, on equity for compliant payers on whom it relied for most of its votes.

Residual anger

It accepted that nearly every EU country charges for water by volume used, but relied on a half-forgotten Indecon report on local government funding that said it’s not good to be correct in principle on an issue if you cannot implement it in reality. That made a big assumption that charges could never be implemented.

So the exchequer pays for Irish Water services for “sufficient” household needs. It becomes a customer even though nobody pays anything. Those households who use excessive water should be charged. And how will that be measured? Well the commission remained agnostic on the continuation of the metering programme. Excessive use can only be measured with water meters yet only 800,000, or 60 per cent of households, have been done so far.

It seems like a formula that is trying to satisfy the EU water framework directive, with its unhelpful obligations on domestic charges, and the “polluter pays” principle. Independent Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh is the chair of the Oireachtas committee on water charges which had its first meeting in December. He has now the unenviable task of coming up with recommendations in three months, from a committee that is unwieldy (20 members) and deeply divided.

If faultlines develop between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over water charges at the end of the process, a big decision will have to be made. Some within Fine Gael believe it should call an election on the issue. A majority, backed by Michael Noonan, believe the issue has been crippling enough for the party and needs to be put to bed.

Water charges remains unpalatable, still contaminated, still subject to a political “boil notice”.

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