Noel Whelan: Debacle, disaster – we’re running out of words for Irish Water

‘This is going to be one of the biggest issues in the general election campaign. Government party candidates on the frontline are going to get it in the neck at thousands and thousands of doorsteps’

‘The new Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, the Economic Management Council, and the Cabinet  redesigned the project in a way that stripped Irish Water of all its original justification.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘The new Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, the Economic Management Council, and the Cabinet redesigned the project in a way that stripped Irish Water of all its original justification.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Not since Sellafield has a company name seemed as toxic to the Irish public as Irish Water. Even though it deals in a life-giving rather than a life-threatening commodity, Irish Water’s brand is radioactive. Most of the reasons for this are not the company’s fault.

The creation of a massive “commercial” water utility funded by water charges was a project and a policy determined by politicians and senior civil servants. It was they who conceived of it as the way to meet the bailout commitment made by the previous government and who contorted its original form for political reasons. The blame for this debacle lies at their feet.

The key decisions about how Irish Water would operate were made at Cabinet level in Irish Government, not at board level in Irish Water. It was Ministers who delayed its design and implementation – and both were faulty. It was they who opted to create an expensive conglomerate where an umbrella organisation co-ordinating the efforts of local authorities would have sufficed.

They disrespected parliament by ramming through the original legislation. They dismissed Opposition suggestions and they disregarded backbench criticisms.

Forced legislation

When anger at water charges gave rise to the largest protests of the austerity era, the Government misjudged the public reaction. Then they sought to deflect blame and they dumped on the company.

After getting a wallop in last year’s local and European elections, the Government was forced to react. Phil Hogan, the chief architect of the original arrangement, was promoted to European commissioner. The new Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, the Economic Management Council, and the Cabinet then redesigned the project in a way that stripped Irish Water of all its original justification. The relaunch announced last autumn meant the charging structure no longer encouraged reduction in water usage and no longer meant a reclassification of State borrowing.

The government introduced a “water conservation grant” that has nothing to do with conservation. It was truly Orwellian. The grant was said to be a part-reimbursement for paying water bills but it is granted even to those whose water bills remain unpaid. The water charge itself became a fixed levy payable by all, irrespective of how much water they use or how much levy they can afford.

All through these twists and turnarounds, the Government, advised by senior civil servants, insisted that even though the charging arrangements no longer incentivised water conservation this new, big, expensive utility company was still necessary. It would, we were told, ease the burden on the public finances which would otherwise arise from the cost of overhauling our water and waste-water systems. They were certain, they told us, the millions required to do this could be borrowed “off the books” without adding to the national debt.

They told us over and over again that this would still be the case, even though they were subsidising the company further through a grant and large-scale non-payment always appeared likely.

This week their bluff was called. The decision of Eurostat to designate Irish Water as a State agency and its borrowings as sovereign debt is just the latest twist in this political horror story. The fact the news broke after the Dáil had gone into recess and just before the bank holiday weekend may delay the blow but it won’t dilute its ultimate impact. We’ve run out of words: debacle, disaster, even “omni shambles” seem insufficient.

Ministers should have been out in studios this week apologising but wouldn’t even go out to defend. Nobody is held to account. No head rolls. Nobody takes responsibility. They won’t even admit error.

Instead all we get are shoulder shrugs. They tell us when door-stepped that the Eurostat verdict won’t impact on public budgeting because they had already factored in a Eurostat rejection. They say this now even though they have spent months and years justifying Irish Water and water charges as a necessary evil because we are already so over-borrowed.

Furious public

This is going to be one of the biggest issues in the general election campaign. Government party candidates on the frontline are going to get it in the neck at thousands and thousands of doorsteps. They will be begging their leaders and national campaign managers to do something about it. They will get little comfort. The strategy is to brazen it out.

And yet the Government parties still wonder why so many voters, even as the recovery takes hold, are attracted to Independents or other alternatives.

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