Kathy Sheridan: Why are water charges still up for discussion?

Latest threats to supply highlight argument our politicians are too scared to make

“When analysis of our home’s metered data convinced Irish Water that the unusually high usage suggested a leak, contractors spent several sweaty summer days digging in multiple locations to find it and repair the holes, at no charge.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“When analysis of our home’s metered data convinced Irish Water that the unusually high usage suggested a leak, contractors spent several sweaty summer days digging in multiple locations to find it and repair the holes, at no charge.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Abroad last week, a few of us squinted at John Major’s powerful speech on a phone and exhaled. His evisceration of the hard Brexiteers with their witless levity, lies and historical ignorance is worth an hour of your time if you missed it. Find the recording that includes the excellent question and answer session, showcasing a quietly furious 75-year-old statesman, Margaret Thatcher’s anointed successor, fearlessly putting country before party and imploring others to do the same. Yes, country before party.

The speech was delivered in the plainest of language, in the accent that long triggered many a snobbish jibe in the English shires. Despite the baffling actuality of Jacob Rees-Mogg, some say the Tories have come a long way since a chief whip reputedly brayed that “the trouble with Michael [Heseltine, Major’s deputy prime minister] is that he had to buy all his furniture” (ie the poor schmuck had to earn it rather than inherit it from daddy). If that was the verdict on the wealthy, well-educated, self-made Heseltine, imagine the sotto voce neighing around Major, the 16-year-old school-leaver with three O Levels.

Last week, he said plainly that “any form of Brexit is going to be a total economic disaster for the average British person”, rejecting in the process every atom of the insular, Little Englander mentality and reminding us that for him, the Irish Border is a specialist subject. He might even be an expert. What a novel idea.

Speaking truth to the people

But the standout line for this viewer was this, addressed to his political successors: “It is as necessary to speak truth to the people as it is to speak truth to power.” Paste those words on a thousand billboards, mount them on pick-up trucks and have them driven in a continuous loop around every politician and every wannabe, every political chamber, party headquarters and polling booth across the land.

What would it take to settle this debate? I would be happy to donate Irish Water’s refund to the purpose of public education courses with appropriate clothing 

Speaking truth to power is considered brave because the speaker risks life-changing blowback. But genuine Maurice McCabes are rare. In political terms, citizens of most western democracies have no bother at all speaking truth to power as any politician on the doorsteps will confirm with a wince. That “truth” may comprise a string of bellowed obscenities but the power at that point lies squarely with the people. The problem lies squarely with the politicians, too fearful and craven to tell them what they don’t want to hear. Brexit is a prime example. So is social housing and nimbyism. So are water charges.

As large parts of the country and Dublin succumb again to water restrictions or no water at all, the air is alive with incomprehension and furiously clucking chickens coming home to roost. “Why were water levels compromised. . . we’ve had rain more or less since last September?!?” “We’ve had snow, which has melted back to its original form. Why is this necessary again?” “Why should we pay twice for water?” “Water isn’t a commodity but a right.” “Parasites making themselves relevant” (the latter addressed to Irish Water Care and government.

Yes, we are back to that “debate” about when precisely water expansion causes pipes to burst, whose fault that is, why the network is hopelessly antiquated and who is responsible, why we know or do not know how much of it is down to leaks and how much is from taps left running, and why there is still talk of draining the Shannon to sate Dublin’s expansion.

‘Paying twice’

Why is any of this still up for discussion? For example, is there a politician or protester alive who has actually read economist Séamus Coffey’s 2015 blog on why the “paying twice” claim never held water?

Yes, the policy system failed miserably in setting up the water charges regime and Irish Water made a proper hames of its establishment. All have been comprehensively pilloried and beaten into submission. But in practical terms, when analysis of our home’s metered data convinced Irish Water that the unusually high usage suggested a leak, contractors spent several sweaty summer days digging in multiple locations to find it and repair the holes, at no charge. The point is we never knew we had a leak. How could that meter – installed at the height of the protests – be anything but a common good?

What would it take to settle this debate? I would be happy to donate Irish Water’s refund to the purpose of public education courses with appropriate clothing. How about day-long tours of the city’s sewers? A winter week out with repair teams, trudging through streets and housing estates (especially those of the proud meter refuseniks) trying to source the leaks? A day dealing with the enraged water-deprived on social media? All wrapped up with a short seminar given by engineers and economists, with a well-moderated Q&A?

No politician would have a role. Or at least none who fails to show a track record of putting country before party. The list will be a short one.

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