ALISON O'CONNOR: Government must act swiftly to turn back tide over Irish Water

OUR establishment politicians are now held so low in the public’s estimation that voters appear to favour a party led by a man who has been mired in rape and child abuse controversies and has outstanding questions to answer on both.

How low can you go? That seems to be the current motto for the Fine Gael/Labour Government as it lurches deeper and deeper into crisis. We are not (yet) in the realms of the last days of Brian Cowen’s government, yet we are in extraordinary political territory. It feels as if this Government may possibly be gone beyond the tipping point; that they are held in such derision by the large sections of the population they could find it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to rescue the situation.

We saw last Sunday in the latest Millward Brown poll how Sinn Féin is the now most popular party in the State. Support for that party was at 26%, four percentage points ahead of Fine Gael at 22%. Support for Gerry Adams’ party was up four percentage points since the last such poll for the Sunday Independent in September, despite the Maíria Cahill controversy.

The history books will not treat this government kindly if, after fighting the good fight and getting us out of the grips of the troika they now turn around and squander our hard work with utter stupidity and cronyism.

For there to be any hope of Fine Gael and Labour getting themselves out of this current difficulty relating to Irish Water – the latest in a long line of controversies – they will have to act with uncharacteristic firmness, with political deftness, and transparently. In other words unlike themselves.

The situation has gotten so bad with this daily water torture that you daren’t admit anymore in polite company that you think paying for this natural resource is a good and admirable idea. It has been so badly mismanaged that by making such a statement you appear foolish. We have passed beyond the point of there appearing to be any legitimacy to the argument for water conservation, or for making the link between the supply risk, particularly in Dublin; or how the plan is to fix the leaks that currently flood the national water system.

My point being that it will take some exceptional things to happen for people to come around to the notion of paying for water, even those who would have been pre-disposed to doing so prior to all this current water related lunacy. Irish Water has been at fault here, but really if there is to be an apportioning of blame it would go 70:30 against the Government.

There has been much talk from the politicians in recent weeks of the need for clarity on how much people are going to end up paying for water. But the more they talk the less clear the situation has become. It is better now that they wait on giving details until they have finalised the revised water plan, with no more mess ups.

On the charges, they will need to set a maximum fee and probably do so until 2018, or it will make the election campaign a disaster for the Government even before it begins.

Under the present circumstances there is no winning for the politicians on the issue of handing over PPS numbers to Irish Water. People have dug their heels in, and it is more trouble than it is worth to insist on it now. Why not operate a trust system for the moment – where people are relied on to be truthful when filling in their form. In time it should become clear if people are being dishonest and a number of them will no doubt be just that. At that point Irish Water can highlight exactly why it needs PPS numbers and point out the advantage in handing it over, rather than allowing their neighbour to screw the system.

It’s worth noting, for instance, that Tánaiste Joan Burton’s Department of Social Protection received almost 25,000 calls or other forms of correspondence in 2012 regarding welfare fraud.

Some €669 million was saved in that department with the introduction of a range of control issues to address the fraudulent claims and errors. Obviously going about it this way is not the ideal manner for Irish Water to conduct its business, but extraordinary measures are needed in these extraordinary times. The Government could also do with introducing some flexibility on the idea of only the “first fix” being free when you find a leak on your property, and it goes without saying that a way will have to be found so that no bonus is paid to any Irish Water employees in 2014. However, if I was to make an exception to this it would be to pay a bonus to the Irish Water spokeswoman Elizabeth Arnett who has done an exceptional job in really tough circumstances.

Tánaiste Joan Burton has described the establishment of Irish Water as the biggest infrastructural project since rural electrification. How then did we see people like Junior Minister Paudie Coffey’s driver, a former Fine Gael councillor, being appointed to the board which is overseeing this incredibly important venture?

The Government is now to appoint a new board which is to be in place by the end of November. Environment Minister Alan Kelly has said he is looking for “people of calibre and experience” to apply for the positions on the new board.

This is just the kind of guff that ministers always come out with, except this time it must not just be true, but be seen to be true. There cannot be the slightest hint that the people appointed to this board are anything but the brightest and the best without even a whiff of cronyism. In fact people who are eminently suited should not be considered if they have political connections. This seems silly, but it is necessary.

On the issue of a referendum to ensure Irish Water stays in public ownership this really could be a step too far in that it would be such a naked acknowledgement that our politicians are untrustworthy. A referendum campaign itself could prove immensely damaging to Irish Water and the Government. The idea of strengthening the law regarding the status of Irish Water via legislation is preferable.

In a separate, but related issue, it is time the Economic Management Council was disbanded. The council – now comprising of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin, did a very good job when we needed it to do so. It’s time has now passed. There may have been some argument for keeping it in place but the past year of political incompetence, and the central role of the Taoiseach in that, means that it would be preferable now for important matters to be discussed by the entire Cabinet. Perhaps it is being optimistic to think that collectively they would make better decisions but it is worth trying.

At this point anything is worth trying.

There is no winning for the politicians on handing over of PPS numbers to Irish Water

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