FERGUS FINLAY: Despite hopeful budget, it’s likely a watery grave for the Government

DEAR TAOISEACH, Do you know the old joke about the cruise ship magician whose act was always being ruined by the clever parrot?

Every time the magician did a trick, the parrot would squawk “it’s up his sleeve”, or “it’s behind his back”.

Eventually, as you might imagine, the magician got sick of the parrot, and wanted to kill it.

But then, one evening, just as the magician was about to make one of the passengers ‘disappear’, the ship hit a rock and sank in seconds.

The magician woke up floating on driftwood in the middle of the ocean, with, of all things, the parrot staring at him from the other end of the plank.

“OK,” said the parrot, “I give up. What did you do with the ship?”

It’s beginning to look as if that’s the question they’ll be asking you. What did you do with the government?

History may well record — in the not too distant future, either — that this was a successful and patriotic government. It took office at a time of hopelessness. There was a sense of national degradation. Our sovereignty had been abandoned, the economy was in freefall, we couldn’t pay our way, and the people felt as if they had been betrayed.

At the end of one term, the impossible has been achieved. The economy is looking strong, the Troika is gone, we’ve got our independence back, and jobs are being created in their thousands.

And if all the evidence is to be believed, you will be turfed out of office at the first available opportunity.

That’s some trick.

I’m saying all that because, to be frank with you, Taoiseach, it’s pretty tough being a government supporter these days. And you may have noticed that there’s a rapidly dwindling number of us.

Over the last couple of weeks, you achieved what I would have thought impossible: the first hopeful budget in years — a budget that had a lot of good things in it for a lot of people — and you saw your ratings go down even further.

You signalled a positive turn on the tough economic journey, and made the people of Ireland angrier than they have ever been. Five years of tough, hard austerity, and no protests.

Suddenly, just as things are starting to go better, hundreds of thousands of angry people are on the streets.

There’s only one reason. With respect, Taoiseach, you and your government have made a complete dog’s dinner out of charging for water.

However much people like me might argue about the correctness of the principle, it has come to be universally seen as a tax too far. And, along the way, it has become a case history of how not to do something. I heard Pat Rabbitte, on the radio at the weekend, defending the idea of a single national water utility. He did it well, with conviction, passion, and facts.

The only problem is that it looks less and less like a public utility every day. It looks like it was set up as a commercial operation — not even an efficient one — and as if the people who run it are interested primarily in their own pay and conditions.

But that’s only part of the story. The setting-up of Irish Water has offended people in every conceivable way.

Nobody has a clue how much water will cost us. Nobody believes it’s protected from privatisation. Nobody understands why it was necessary to overload the staffing structure.

Nobody understands why Irish Water, alone of all the utilities, has to have our PPS numbers.

And thousands of people are utterly opposed to the principle that they should have to pay more for the most basic requirement of life — at a time when there is no guarantee of its quality, and when so much of it is being wasted through a grossly inadequate infrastructure.

You have to listen to the people, Taoiseach. Even more, you have to make it clear that you have listened.

I’m guessing the entire subject will be top of your government agenda today.

If you don’t make hard decisions today that show you have been listening, then the least you need to do is to stand up in the Dáil and say that you, and your government, have got it wrong.

You’ve got to say that you understand why so many people are angry, and you’ve got to commit to a fresh start for Irish Water.

There can be no more little condescending lectures, like the one Minister for Finance Michael Noonan gave last week, about how, if electricity was free, we’d never turn off the immersion.

When I heard that ráiméis, it struck me that you really are out of touch.

It’s adults to whom you’re talking, angry, frustrated adults, not naughty children.

What adults expect is that charges be fair, reasonable, and affordable.

Despite the variety of complicated mechanisms announced in the budget, nobody believes that has been achieved. If we believe what we’re told (and that’s harder every day), the average family will be asked to pay €5 a week for their water.

That mightn’t sound much for some people, but I know families who would buckle under that strain. The charges have to be linked, clearly and transparently, to ability to pay.

There’s a campaign now for a constitutional amendment to ensure that water can never be privatised. At first, I thought that was unnecessary, but I’ve changed my mind. Our Constitution needs to be amended to ensure that the water on which people depend, and the public utilities necessary to produce, distribute and protect that water, can never be sold into private hands without the people giving their permission.

The notion of people being forced to hand over their PPS numbers needs to be done away with — and so does the bonus structure within Irish Water.

Public utility workers and managers must be paid according to public pay norms — the idea that someone should get extra if the water is cleaner, or if the bills are paid on time, is just absurd.

In short, Taoiseach, as I said already, I believe you have to ensure that Irish Water starts over. If that takes revisiting the legislation, so be it.

If it takes a decision that it will be two or three years before the leaks have been stopped (or enough of them, at least) and the dangerous water removed from the system, so be it.

Unless you want to go down in history as a government that achieved important national objectives, and then got flung out on its ear, you really need to listen to the people.

And they need to know you’ve been listening.

Right now, all they’re seeing is an arrogant, ‘we know best’ government.

That has to stop. Or you’ll sadly make the sort of history you don’t want to make.

Taoiseach, you and your government have made a complete dog’s dinner out of charging for water

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