FERGUS FINLAY: Setting up of Irish Water is a model for how to get things totally wrong

There is no reason to believe that we can’t afford to put charging on hold until we get the structures of Irish Water right, writes Fergus Finlay

I got my last Irish Water bill in February, and it was paid by direct debit. €65.54 it was, for a quarter. So I’ve paid €260 in the last year — that’s correct, I suppose, because there are four adults living in my house. I don’t understand why the bill for each quarter is slightly different, but it does add up to the right round number.

And of course, along the way, the good people in the Department of Social Protection gave me €100 for my troubles, and for my vast contribution to the conservation of water. But have I been conserving water? Not consciously, if I’m being honest.

According to the Irish Water website my house has used 113,179 litres of water in the 10 months for which metering is recorded. That’s 25,000 gallons, give or take, or 2,500 gallons a month. I’ve no way of knowing if that’s high, low, or average. If my calculations are correct, (not counting the conservation grant), I’ve been charged just over a cent for every gallon we’ve used. Of course, if I’d used three times as much, I’d be paying the same total.

It’s not very much, when you think about it – especially when I could think of any number of ways to reduce that bill if it was actually a charge per gallon. Irish Water don’t actually tell you that you’re paying a cent a gallon – they give you enough information to work that out for yourself, provided you can remember the log-in details you used when you registered in the first place.

It’s hard to see anything unfair, or illogical, or inefficient about any of this. If you accept the principle that water is a scarce national resource, that needs to be managed and paid for, and if you accept that it makes more sense for one company to do it, and if you go on to accept that we have no choice but to make a large investment in water in the future, then there’s nothing about Irish Water, as a concept, that doesn’t make sense. Assuming a reasonable ability to pay, a cent a gallon isn’t a lot, especially when you can manage the number of gallons you use.

In much less sophisticated times in Ireland, we established national companies to bring electricity to every home in the country, to ensure that every home in Ireland had a telephone line, to manage the supply of natural gas to homes and businesses throughout Ireland. We have a national company that’s responsible for the road building programme, for developing indigenous industry, for marketing Irish food produce abroad, for attracting tourists to Ireland.

There’s a longer list than that. None of these companies were easy to set up, and few of them worked efficiently at first (if you’re as old as I am, for example, you might remember that it took several years to get from applying for a phone in your house to actually hearing that dial tone for the first time. And that was back in the days when most phone numbers had no more than three or four digits).

Setting up of Irish Water is a model for how to get things totally wrong

We’ve privatised a couple of them along the way — and they were bad decisions that we all paid a price for (in inadequate broadband, for example). Some of our utilities now come with a much heavier price — the cost of a TV/internet/phone bundle, for example, is a considerable multiple of what we pay for water.

But I still remember looking at that Irish Water email when it arrived in February, telling me that €65.54 was about to be deducted from my bank account, and wondering what kind of an eejit I was. More to the point, I wondered what kind of eejits they were.

The bill arrived eight days before the general election. On the assumption that most of those who registered with Irish Water did so as the deadline approached, an awful lot of people would have got that same email in the middle of February, reminding them pretty starkly about one of the key issues on which the election was being fought.

The stupidity of that. But what would you expect? Irish Water has been surrounded by crass stupidity since the day it was established. In years to come, the creation and set-up of Irish Water will be written about endlessly. University libraries will be stuffed full of PhD theses about all the horrendous mistakes that were made along the way. It will — it already has — become a model for how not to do it.

So it’s not the principles involved in water. It’s the how, and the when, that matter. The fact that Irish Water has become a public policy fiasco is down to political failure and nothing else.

And now, it seems, Irish Water has become the main sticking point in deciding whether or not a government can be formed. If one believes what one reads in the media, Fine Gael, the party that established Irish Water in such catastrophic circumstances, has made it now an issue of principle.

Stupidity on top of stupidity. If there is any one thing in Ireland that needs a fresh start, that needs to address its issues from an entirely clean slate, it’s Irish Water. If the outgoing government doesn’t recognise that, and isn’t prepared to fix it, they should be turfed out of office for incompetence.

An agreement on this issue now wouldn’t just give an essential national utility a fresh start, it would mean that a new government would be able to begin its life without the mess it created hanging over its head. If they’re worried about losing face, that’s just daft. In a couple of year’s time, no one will remember that Fine Gael were forced into a sensible arrangement that re-established a national water utility on a sensible basis where people could afford to pay their water bills and were properly encouraged to conserve water.

If money is the issue, this government is sitting on a pile of bank shares that will, at some time in the near future, be sold on the open market and will generate several billion for the Exchequer. There is no reason to believe that we can’t afford to put charging on hold until we get the structures right.

With every day that passes, the challenges that face an incoming government get greater. And with every day that passes whatever shred of goodwill exists for a new government is being dissipated. At the same time, nobody believes that a general election will make more than a marginal difference. It will certainly end one or two careers, just as the last one did. But there will still be a need to form a government from a highly disparate collection of politicians.

So, it wouldn’t just be stupid, it would be downright irresponsible, to insist that water charges and the commercial enterprise that is Irish Water remain in their present form. A government that is clinging by its fingertips to a greatly reduced mandate simply doesn’t have the right to insist that its past mistakes be accepted by everyone else as a point of principle.

READ MORE: €100 water grant set to be axed


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