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Stephen Collins: Water charges to dictate future of Irish politics

Victory for populist parties would call two largest parties’ viability into question

The threat posed by populism to the way of life Europeans have become accustomed to over the past half century was one of the themes raised by European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici during his visit to Dublin on Monday.

He was referring to the potential for instability posed by the elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany this year, not to mention the implications of Donald Trump's presidency in the United States for the current world order in trade and security.

From an Irish point of view Brexit represents the most obvious and immediate threat to our prosperity and values but there are also some developments a little closer to home which reflect the dangerous international climate.

The left-wing populists in the Dáil loudly decry Trump and his European counterparts such as Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen but their contempt for the European Union and all of the institutions that sustain our parliamentary democracy is just as intense.

The campaign against water charges represented the big breakthrough by the populist left in Ireland. It was facilitated by Government bungling and a considerable level of uncritical support in the broadcast media but the issue has not been settled yet.

Water charges may have dropped from the headlines but an Oireachtas committee is currently weighing up all aspects of the issue and it will inevitably come back to haunt the political world at some stage in the year ahead.

That will test not only the stability of the government led by Enda Kenny but the credentials of Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil as an alternative party of power.

A lot will be at stake in whatever solution ultimately emerges. A victory for the populists would raise huge questions about the ability of mainstream political parties to govern the country. It would also cost the taxpayer a fortune in EU fines and an inefficient and water service.

Polluter pays

A letter from European Commissioner for environment Karmenu Vella to Simon Coveney, the Minister responsible for water, earlier this month spelled out the obligations entailed in the water framework directive.

"Any water pricing policy must comply with the principles of cost recovery and 'polluter pays' which is fundamental to the directive," wrote the commissioner, who went on spell out that any solution must involve a charge for excessive and wasteful use of water and a system that allows Irish Water to recover the costs of maintenance and investment.

Whether the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services will heed the letter from the commissioner only time will tell but it would be extremely foolish to ignore it.

The committee has met twice this month to hear expert opinions and it is due to report by the end of March. The issue will then go to the Dáil for a final decision but it will be no surprise if the debate is dragged out indefinitely because of an unwillingness by the Government and Fianna Fáil to confront the problem.

On the Government side most Fine Gael TDs would have no problem endorsing a system in which the average household is given a generous free allowance with a charge based on metering for excessive use.

Fine Gael represents the segment of the electorate who paid their water charges and a sizeable proportion of it could well turn against the party with a vengeance if it colludes in rewarding the minority who did not pay at the expense of the majority good citizens who did.

However, some the Independents who support the Government would have difficulty with any charging system and might withdraw their support if one was adopted.

Fine Gael will face a test of its mettle when the issue finally comes before the Dáil. To support what it knows is good for the country or take the road of political expediency and collude in a system that will do serious damage in the long term.

Hard line

Fianna Fáil is also at sea on the issue. After appearing to support a system of a generous free allowance linked to a metered charge during the last election campaign the party took an unexpectedly hard line in its negotiations with Fine Gael, appearing to opt for complete abolition of charges.

The party is now committed to waiting for the report of the Oireachtas committee before coming to a final decision on its future strategy but there are clearly divided views on the matter.

If Martin ultimately opts to compete with the populists and go for total abolition of water charges he risks forfeiting the goodwill he has engendered for acting responsibly after last year’s inconclusive election and ensuring that the country was not left without a government.

The challenge facing both big parties is whether they are capable of acting in the long term national interest regardless of potential the short term political cost.

In truth their own party interests and the national interest coincide. If they allow the populists to win on water both parties will do serious damage to their own credibility and with it their future prospects of power.

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