The legislation establishing Irish Water was passed by Dáil Éireann after a mere three hours of debate. The decision to hold just three hours of debate was itself the subject of a Dáil Order of Business vote, which was passed with the support of my vote, under the party whip.
I regret and apologise for this. As a vocal and enthusiastic advocate of Dáil reform, particularly the relaxation of the party whip system, I recognise that there should have been greater debate on the establishment of such an enormous utility as Irish Water.
Perhaps if there had been greater debate on the Water Services Bill, we might have circumvented at least some of the issues that have arisen since then. The lack of discussion showed huge disrespect to Dáil Éireann and the Irish people.
Under the current whip system, if a Government TD votes against his or her party, they are automatically expelled from their parliamentary party. So, if I ever disagree with the Government on a matter of policy in the Dáil or in Committee, or even on how much time should be given to debate an issue, I must vote against my own views or suffer expulsion. This Parnellian way of conducting business is stifling democracy and must end. For a start, to help ensure that inadequate discussion of critically important legislation never happens again, I and other Government TDs are actively campaigning for the removal of the whip on all Order of Business votes.
In relation to the current fury over the shambles that is Irish Water, it would be very foolish of the Government and a dereliction of its duty to its citizens not to take swift and decisive action. To begin with, it should hold an immediate, all-embracing debate on the matter in Dáil Éireann.
Unfortunately, it seems the plan is for a small number of people to make decisions behind closed doors over the next fortnight, before publicly announcing the details and then involving the Dáil. This is similar to the approach that led to the disastrous Bank Guarantee in 2008. Have we learned nothing since?
‘The Two Brians’ have merely been replaced by the Economic Management Council. The Government should also strongly consider presenting the Irish people with an opportunity to guarantee that Irish Water will not be privatised in the future without the direct consent of the Irish people, as distinct from a decision by the Oireachtas, by holding a referendum. The Government still does not seem to grasp that the people simply no longer trust politicians, regardless of hue, to safeguard the public ownership of Irish Water.
How the Government responds to the current crisis will be its defining moment, and the wrong response may precipitate its premature demise.
The Irish Water debacle is largely, but not entirely, a product of our unfit for purpose parliament. I call on other government deputies to echo calls for Order of Business whip reform, and call on the Government to consent to this. Without meaningful reform, the Dáil will continue to be effectively powerless to force accountability on the unacceptable levels of incompetence that have been shown throughout 2014 on issues such as gardaí, state appointments and now Irish Water.
For almost a year, serious concerns expressed by me and many others regarding certain aspects of the establishment of Irish Water, have been largely ignored by the Government. There’s an attitude in government circles that fixing the economy should be enough to keep TDs, and the people, happy. It isn’t. The Government needs to look after and respect the people of the country as well as achieving macro-economic progress. From now on, the Government needs to earn my vote and must start listening.
- Brendan Griffin is a TD for Kerry South
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