Bad politics harmed the force for good that is Irish Water

Bad politics harmed the force for good that is Irish Water
Áine O’Connor and Paul Murphy TD at a We Won’t Pay Campaign demonstration outside Irish Water‘s HQ on Talbot Street, Dublin, in April 2015. One of the episodes recounted by Michael Brennan in his new book is how Mr Murphy’s by-election victory in 2014 helped precipitate a shift in Sinn Féin’s policy on water charges. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There is no doubt about it — it was an omnishambles.

The establishment of Irish Water is a perfect case study of how not to do something: From its inception to execution, it backfired at almost every turn.

As revealed in his new book, In Deep Water, political journalist Michael Brennan sets out the troubled road the embattled utility has had to march.

For a time, it was the focus of much of the country’s anti-austerity ire, and such ire was not restricted to the margins. Middle Ireland, to use that hackneyed phrase, rose up in opposition, and the Government was left reeling.

Talk of €180m spent on consultants, Denis O’Brien’s company installing the pipes, and a heavy dose of austerity fatigue all combined to create a maelstrom of controversy.

Mass marches of more than 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin were followed by nasty and bitter protests across the country as pipes and water meters were installed outside homes.

President Michael D Higgins was branded a “midget parasite” by protestor Derek Byrne in Dublin for signing the Irish Water legislation into law in 2015.

The impact on the political system was significant. Such was its toxicity, it almost felled the Fine Gael-Labour government in 2014, and did topple one tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, after both parties suffered huge losses in the local and European elections.

Phil Hogan, the line minister charged with its establishment, did a legger to Europe just as things were heating up.

His successor, Alan Kelly, accused Hogan of “giving me the biggest hospital pass in political history”.

The rise of the anti-water movement was typified by the arrival of Paul Murphy, Socialist TD. Murphy blazed a trail in Irish politics and upset the apple cart no end.

His victory in the Dublin South West by-election at the expense of Sinn Féin forced Gerry Adams’ party to change its stance on water charges. That, in turn, forced Fianna Fáil into a massive U-turn ahead of the 2016 election, which, in turn, forced the hand of Enda Kenny in his bid to hold on to office.

Brennan’s book details all the chaos — the messing, the fury, the anger, the climbdowns, and the disasters along the way.

Water charges were one of the conditions imposed on the then Fianna Fáil-Green government by the Troika, and the late Brian Lenihan was willing to back bills of up to €500 a year per house.

As we know, Fianna Fáil and the Greens were dumped out of office and Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore promised a new dawn with their so-called national government.

On taking up his post as environment ministerin 2011, Hogan told the cabinet sub-committee on economic infrastructure the job of setting up Irish Water had to be given to either Bord Gáis or Bord na Móna, the only two semi-states interested. The need for speed trumped the advice from PwC to set up a standalone Irish Water company.

“You would have spent 18 months putting together the core of a management team. You would lose a year,” said a government source. The cabinet ultimately decided to give the job to Bord Gáis. After all, it was used to operating a network of pipes and collecting money from customers.

As Brennan details, Hogan was about to make the biggest decision of his ministerial career. He had drafted a cabinet memo for a €450m plan to put water meters in more than 1m households.

But Hogan had to win over one Fine Gael minister who wanted to call a halt. Michael Noonan believed that there was no point looking to collect water charges in working-class estates. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was conscious of the potential backlash against water charges. But both Kenny and Gilmore were convinced that water charges would not work without metering.

They remembered the failure of the flat-rate water charges in the 1990s, when Joe Higgins was heading up the protest campaign.

“They were very strongly of the view that unless you could tell people you could control the charge, it would be very difficult politically. That trumped Noonan’s concern about the visible target on the streets,” a government source said.

But doing this at a time of deep recession and austerity would prove to be a lethal cocktail.

Then came the details of how much it would cost, and Hogan’s famous threat of reducing the supply to homes “down to a trickle” for those who failed to pay.

Tensions between Fine Gael and Labour emerged as how to best implement the fees structure.

For the only time, Kenny tabled the matter at a full cabinet without Gilmore’s consent ahead of the 2014 local and European election.

“It was a breach of trust,” the then tánaiste said.

The two had their most explosive row during which Kenny swore at his coalition partner. It was certainly a febrile atmosphere.

After the elections, Gilmore’s resignation, and Hogan’s exit to become EU Commissioner, a much chastened coalition sought to end the controversy.

Before it was axed, the system which Kelly introduced was much clearer, fairer and viable, with compliance rates approaching 80% and rising.

The presence of the charges also saw a determinable drop in water usage, thus aiding conservation. Overall, the system was working, and Irish Water could begin to plan to do the very things it was set up to — one national utility to improve the network with 49% leakage rates.

But once again politics got in the way.

Fianna Fáil, spooked by the revolt on its left flank engaged in a blatant and disgusting act of political populism at the expense of good public policy.

It changed its position on water charges to one where it wanted them eliminated.

And as we all know, the price of Fianna Fáil’s support for the confidence and supply deal in 2016 was the suspension/abolition of water charges. In doing so, it robbed Irish Water of the means to fund itself, and increased the reliance on the State.

But despite those flaws and its highly traumatic birth, Irish Water remains a force for good in this country and deserves to be backed. A proper water supply with a fit-for-purpose network, no more running of raw sewage out to sea, and a viable drinking supply for an expanding population.

That is the reason for Irish Water — as opposed to leaving it to 34 county councils. We should pay for water and not just for amounts way and above normal usage.

So, because of bad politics, the Irish Water we are left with is an anemic version of what it should be or could be.

And that is a real shame.

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