Fianna Fáil reverts to the worst kind of populist politics

Approach to water charges demonstrates they remain unfit for government

With cabinet shuffles and cross party alliances the last year has been an absorbing one in the Dáil. But has the introduction of 'new politics' in Ireland been effective? Video: Enda O'Dowd


Fianna Fáil’s cynical approach to water charges has demonstrated that the party is unfit for government for the foreseeable future.

The espousal of “new politics” over the past year had helped to rehabilitate Fianna Fáil’s reputation but by lining up with Sinn Féin and the hard left in outright opposition to water charges it has reverted to the worst kind of populist politics.

It is now advocating a policy that is illegal and damaging to the environment. It would also inevitably cost the Irish taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro in EU fines.

The party’s approach casts doubt on whether the current arrangements for keeping a minority Government in place are worth persisting with for very much longer.

Fianna Fáil’s approach to water charges proves it has learned nothing from its past mistakes and raises serious questions about whether it can be trusted with the levers of power.

It is difficult to believe but Fianna Fáil actually sponsored the introduction of water charges as part of the programme for government agreed with the Greens.

That programme stated: “In order to fund our water infrastructure in the years ahead we have decided to introduce domestic water charges for households over the next four years. This will be preceded by the roll-out of water meters.”

Fianna Fáil followed that up by agreeing to implement the EU water framework directive, thus bringing an end to the derogation from charges which had been negotiated in the 1990s. Finally, it committed the Irish State to water charges as part of the EU/IMF bailout of 2010.

Fianna Fáil did not remain in power long enough to devise a system for water charging. That fell to the Fine Gael/Labour coalition which, after a good deal of dithering, made a mess of its introduction.

Nonetheless, 63 per cent of households were paying water charges by the time negotiations for government began after last year’s election.

Toughened position

During those negotiations Fianna Fáil suddenly toughened its position from advocating a charging system that would allow average households to pay little or nothing to outright opposition to any charges.

The party has adhered to this line at the Oireachtas committee set up to consider the water issue despite the clear advice from Attorney General Máire Whelan and the European Commission that Ireland would be in breach of EU law if it follows the course that the party is advocating.

In choosing to ignore all of the expert advice on the desirability of a proper water-charging system and the prospect of EU fines Fianna Fáil is at one with Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit. That says more about the party’s lack of direction than anything else.

If Fianna Fáil has shown itself to be spineless and irresponsible on the issue, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has shown himself to be the exact opposite. He has enhanced his reputation by firmly rejecting the Fianna Fáil approach regardless of the consequences for the future of the Government.

“I am not going to take a position that is contrary to the independent legal advice from the Attorney General’s office. That would be blatantly irresponsible of me and I won’t do it,” he said.

Coveney can be faulted for opening the door to Fianna Fáil opportunism last April when, in his eagerness to strike a deal on the formation of Government, he conceded that the abolition water charges could be a matter for negotiation at an Oireachtas committee.

The subsequent confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil owes more to Coveney than anybody else. Fianna Fáil may have calculated that because the Minister had shown so much patience in the effort to put the Government together he would give way on water.

In adopting a tough line in defence of the national interest he has shown a commendable willingness not to become addicted to power at any price.

Unlike Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the Greens have followed a consistent and responsible line on water charges. Former Labour minister for the environment Alan Kelly made an impassioned defence of a coherent water charging system in the Dáil in April and his party has adopted a similar line at the committee.

Conventional wisdom has it that Fine Gael and any other party that defends water charges will suffer unpopularity with the electorate but it may well be that the opposite is case.

Torrid year

If Coveney sticks to his guns and refuses to legislate for the abolition of water charges he will mark out Fine Gael as a serious party of government on the side of the law-abiding majority of citizens who were willing to pay their water charges. After a bad election and a torrid year in office it could even be a platform for the party’s recovery.

It is also likely to do Coveney no harm in the Fine Gael leadership election, which is about to get under way.

In all likelihood the impasse over water will be resolved by some fudge that will kick the problem down the road again. That would enable Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to continue with the current Government arrangement for a short while longer, but the controversy indicates the clock is ticking on that arrangement.

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