Joe O’Toole is first victim of new politics

Joe O’Toole’s decision to step down from the newly formed expert commission on water charges leaves the group rudderless, without direction, and in need of a new chief.

Mr O’Toole’s position as head of the independent commission became increasingly untenable in recent days, after candid and critical comments he made in an interview with Monday’s Irish Examiner.

Mr O’Toole was well capable of getting the job done. What let him down was his overtly frank views on other politicians and the payment of charges.

Furthermore, once Fianna Fáil told the Government it would not support him, that was that. Mr O’Toole has become the first victim of new politics, where the main opposition party is the puppet master.

The former trade union boss, well-used to the art of debate, came down heavily against left-wing politicians and expressed personal support for water charges.

Mr O’Toole had told the Irish Examiner he was “not afraid of risk” and liked a bit of “mischief and argumentation” and so decided to accept the offer of the chairmanship from Housing Minister Simon Coveney.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

The two had known each other for years, he said, but had never discussed their views on water charges. Maybe they should have.

Taking charge of a commission designed to take the heat out of the water charges debate was always going to be a delicate job. The role requires forensic analysis of the options available to fund Irish Water, the need to listen to all sides, and the ability to steer difficult meetings in order to come up with a comprehensive report.

In addition to suggesting Revenue might consider collecting charges in the future, Mr O’Toole told one radio station that the job of the commission might be to produce a report and solution that would “have enough sugar on it to make the medicine go down easily”.

Opposition TDs took this as a suggestion that the commission had a predesigned role, to make some sort of charge acceptable in future.

It’s a bad start for the new commission. Mr Coveney in the coming days will travel to Brussels to explain to environment commissioner Karmenu Vella why we are suspending charges.

He now has the unenviable task of telling the EU chief that the commission — tasked with resolving differences in Ireland over the levy — has fallen at the first hurdle, losing the chairman tasked with guiding them through turbulent waters.

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