Fianna Fáil’s water stance: Populist? Yes. Credible? No

Micheál Martin’s numbers on water charges do not stack up, but this is not the most important consideration for a party fighting its way back from the political wilderness, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
Fianna Fáil’s water stance: Populist? Yes. Credible? No

BRIAN MURPHY, the lauded historian, author, and former advisor to Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen tells a great story about how shameless/ pragmatic Fianna Fáil can be when it comes to power.

It was 2007 and Ahern was chasing his historic third term in office when all of a sudden he instructed Murphy, as his speechwriter, to do something odd.

“I was surprised when Ahern instructed me to heavily focus on the environment in drafting his opening address for the pre-election Fianna Fáil ard fheis,” says Murphy. “This was hardly the traditional fare for such a speech and I expressed concerns that the taoiseach might not connect with the delegates.

“Bertie told me he was less worried about those in the hall and more interested in sending a message to the Green Party. He told me that he and Seamus Brennan had been crunching the numbers and they were convinced that Fianna Fáil would need the Greens after the election.”

Throughout the subsequent election, Ahern was careful not to say anything that would exclude the Greens from his post-election permutations.

“In the aftermath of the election, Green Party members voted overwhelmingly at a special conference to go into government with Fianna Fáil,” Murphy says.

Fianna Fáil, as we know, went on to steer the economy off a cliff and, led by Brian Cowen, were booted out of office in 2011 by a vengeful electorate.

Martin replaced Cowen as leader and took to the task of rebuilding his party with gusto and considerable success.

Decent local elections in 2014 were followed by a better-than-expected performance in the general election earlier this year.

Martin is now unassailable as leader and looks odds-on to be taoiseach, sooner rather than later.

He now leads the most popular party in the country, which is a remarkable situation given where party found itself in 2011.

And what is clear is that, for all that has happened to it since 2011, “old-school populism”, as Enda Kenny described it this week, has returned with a vengence to Fianna Fáil.

And I speak directly about the party’s stance on water charges, which amounts to the most blatant of U-turns.

It is not that long ago that the party was in government with the Green Party, recommending and supporting the concept of water charges.

In the renegotiated programme for government in the summer of 2009, the late Brian Lenihan, as finance minister, committed to a charging system that “is fair, significantly reduces waste, and is easily applied” .

Then on his way out of office, Lenihan committed to a water charges regime in the document which underpinned the €85bn Troika bailout programme in late 2010.

Fast forward to 2014 and the Fine Gael-Labour government were on the verge of collapse, given the unholy mess they had made of the establishment of Irish Water and the manner in which the charges were to be introduced.

Spooked by the emergence of hard-left elements such as Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, Fianna Fáil, Labour, and Sinn Féin all saw themselves being outflanked on the left, and they panicked.

In its general election manifesto, entitled ‘An Ireland for All’, Fianna Fáil came out in favour of abolishing Irish Water and scrapping water charges.

“Irish Water has been a complete failure on the part of the Government,” the manifesto went. “Since it failed the Eurostat test, the very reason it was set up, it is incapable of delivering major investment in our water network. Instead it is imposing a water charges regime where families are paying for a service that does not deliver, operated by a quango that simply is not working. People should not be expected to pay for a service that is not up to standard.”

It went on to offer up some numbers to back up their case.

“According to the Department of the Environment the net cost of scrapping water charges would be of the order of €210m annually,” it read. “This would be replaced by a direct state subvention to the new National Water Directorate, which will be run at an approximate cost of €16.2m per annum. We would also fully provide for the costs of winding down Irish Water, at a cost of €9.1m and 39 abolish the government’s botched Water Conservation grant to save the state €110m.”

It all sounded good but the only problem is the numbers are worthless. Bunkum. Nonsense.

We all know the stalemate result of the general election and the subsequent ‘supply and confidence’ agreement done between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which saw water charges suspended for at least nine months, to facilitate a Commission on the future of water charges.

The truth is that water charges are gone for the forseeable future and sources have told me that a major restructuring is already under way within Irish Water on the basis that domestic charges are not coming back any time soon.

“Major redeployments from the domestic charges side have taken place, with the focus now on non-domestic charges,” one senior Irish Water figure told me.

But the true killer for Fianna Fáil is that expected subvention costs to the taxpayer in the absence of water are way off.

Already, because of the suspension of water charges, the taxpayer is being hit to the tune of €600m this year to support Irish Water, as my colleague, Juno McEnroe, reported on the front page of this paper this week.

The figure for next year is likely to be even higher.

Fianna Fáil to date have given no credible means of meeting this added cost.

As reported by Fiach Kelly in the Irish Times earlier this month, Fianna Fáil proposed to the new Water Commission that the water system be paid for through general taxation and that the principle of charging for usage should be abolished for good.

It marks a move away from its previous position that charges should only be suspended, as it argued in its negotiations with Fine Gael earlier this year to facilitate a minority government led by Kenny, Kelly reported.

The party found itself stung by severe criticism about U-turns and has since tried to soften the blow.

Earlier this week, it emerged that Fianna Fáil is not ruling out supporting the reintroduction of domestic water charges, senior party sources have confirmed to journalist Sarah Bardon.

The party, which has been accused of several U-turns in this area, says that its submission to the expert commission should not be seen as setting out a permanent position.

Such inconsistencies undermine the party’s expressions of having learned the lessons of the past and show it is still willing to abandon prudence in favour of political expedience.

But when the polls are rewarding them for such shameless opportunism, on one level it is hard to argue.

Yet, many parts of this country are still paying the cost for previous crimes committed by Fianna Fáil governments, and such horrors must not be allowed to slip from the memories.

The bottom line is that when it comes to Fianna Fáil’s stance on water charges: Populist? Yes. Credible? No.

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