Are first waves of an upcoming election campaign lapping against the shore?

If you listen carefully, you can almost hear the first waves of an upcoming election campaign lapping against the shore.

Despite the Apple tax controversy; Nama; and the lover’s quarrels between Fine Gael and a certain Waterford minister, the amount of money in voters’ pockets remains the water mark for any politicians’ success or failure.

It is why Finance Minister Michael Noonan blamed Fianna Fáil on Monday for his decision to row back on USC cuts, why Housing Minister Simon Coveney yesterday hinted at new deals for first-time property buyers, and why water charges are back in the headlines.

On Monday, in what was the most brazen attempt at a U-turn since, well, the last one, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin explained without batting an eyelid that his party is now seeking the complete abolition of water charges, having moved on from the idea of a lengthy suspension of the fees.

Rejecting any suggestion the clear U-turn was anything of the kind, he said his party has always been in favour of removing water charges and that all he is doing is reiterating its pre-election position. Not, notably, the position in the confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael — that future infrastructure improvement costs can come from general taxation and other avenues.

The policy switch is officially based on still unpublished legal advice.

However, in reality, the latest strategic step from the soldiers of destiny is more to do with putting clear water between it and Fine Gael on a deeply unpopular issue while opening itself up to increased support from those currently backing rival opposition parties.

The first stage already appears to have been secured, with Housing Minister Simon Coveney taking the bait by warning Ireland is “obliged” to impose the charges under EU law and Labour’s former environment minister Alan Kelly “challenging” Fianna Fáil to publish their own “flawed” advice.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael-Labour sounds eerily like a battle Mr Martin has won before. But, given the complex nature of the water charges issue, it remains to be seen whether the public will be won over that easily.

Responding to Mr Martin’s comments Sinn Féin, AAA-PBP and the wider Right2Water group have all given the impression of being more than skeptical of why Fianna Fáil is suddenly thumbing for a lift on the road to Damascus.

Acutely aware that their own support base is at stake, they have made it perfectly clear there is still a yawning gap between the parties.

Ahead of the Saturday’s national water charge protest, Right2Water official Brendan Ogle said that while “winning people around to your argument” is never a bad thing, he is “not sure” if Mr Martin’s party would be welcome at the march.

Similarly, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan was brought out to publish a synopsis of her party’s own legal advice on scrapping water charges, while People before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett said Mr Martin’s party “clearly cannot be trusted”.

With the Independents4Change opposition grouping yesterday seeking a Dáil debate next month on banning the privatisation of water services now that Fianna Fáil has come on board — simultaneously testing the party’s new-found abolitionist approach while reminding the public of leftist parties’ long-held views — the first waves of a future election are already lapping public shores.

Apple, Nama and government stability is currently the centre of political attention, but how Fianna Fáil plays the water charges issue may ultimately decide who sinks or swims in the months to come.


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