GERARD HOWLIN: The bigger picture on water charges is the collapse of establishment politics

Most Fine Gael TDs are out of their comfort zones in attempting empathy with the unwashed, suggests Gerard Howlin

STICK with me honey, and you’ll be farting through silk” was the lure of Robert Mitchum for an unnamed actress. History doesn’t record if she filtered her flatulence through that fine fabric.

But listening to trade union leader Brendan Ogle this week, I thought Ireland had found a new Robert Mitchum in the swagger department. It is astonishing to stand back and look at the phenomenon of Right2Water. It’s pure Hollywood; make-believe. But in the movies you can be anyone you want. Even water is a human right, not an expensive commodity.

The movies are all about fantasy. You can be as tall and as good-looking as you want. Sitting in the dark cinema, wimps can be heroes and the terminally timid be emboldened. I have a grudging regard for Ogle. He is clear, unflinching and usually on the opposite side of virtually every issue. The thing about complete disagreement is, there is nothing to fall out about.

Left political activist and Maynooth geographer Rory Hearne was on Marian Finucane’s show last Sunday mixing it with socialist-in-internal-exile Pat Rabbitte and telling us of water, “fundamentally this is about a human right”. Well indeed. Behind that sparring is a bigger picture. What the gathering protest about water charges is about is a continuing evisceration and hollowing out of so-called traditional establishment politics and simultaneously an exponential expansion of the independent and left space. Within that independent and left space, in turn, is a fetid, internecine competition for advantage. The whole political scene is churning with a rapidity that most commentary has failed to keep pace with it.

Fine Gael in government is between the cross-hairs of a very badly-executed manoeuvre called Irish Water. True, the botched job wouldn’t be as bad if it were not the moment when the camel’s back felt the lash of proverbial straw. But that’s politics. It is about timing. And there is a hinterland of privilege around Fine Gael that was always eventually going to make it smell of smugness, amidst austerity. Most upstanding Fine Gael TDs are simply out of their comfort zone attempting empathy with the unwashed.

If Fine Gael is straining to reassure its embarrassingly large treasure of backbench TDs that Irish Water notwithstanding, they still have a political future, Fianna Fáil’s predicament may be worse. The sight of some of its less savvy soldiers trying to clamber up on the anti-water charge wagon was pathetic. They had no-self-awareness of how completely opportunistic and unconvincing they looked. The alternative of course was worse. Do nothing, sit it out, and continue on trapped by a past that years later is far from over, and won’t go away.

The long-term issue for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is not the gyrations of either party in opinion polls, it is that together, they may be lucky to scrape together a majority in the next Dáil. Just as Fianna Fáil, once credibly posed as the Republican Party and held the rising tide of Sinn Féin at bay for nearly a generation, once too Labour was the mudguard that separated us from the splatter of the far left. But no longer. Its apostasy in government, against the anger it falsely fermented when in opposition, will not be forgiven. Joan Burton may succeed in raising morale within the party, but it will be a major achievement for Labour to get above 10% in the next election. Much of its parliamentary party, like that of Fine Gael, will be permanently retired from politics.

The so-called revolution of the 2011 general election is increasingly looking like foreplay. If the historic political structure was shaken, it survived. The mistake, and it was a catastrophic one by Fine Gael, was that essentially politics could go on as before. Enda Kenny could, but for a want of insight or imagination have led a profound political change that would have reshaped the political outlook for at least a generation. His chance has now passed. The power of initiative won’t come back to him. Ultimately he is a man far more ambitious simply to be there, than to change the political paradigm.

The fact that the government he leads is in disarray and in retreat on a question as fundamental as a user charge for a utility service, is proof of that. The different democracy we might have had, would have been one where responsibility would be fundamentally inculcated by example. It would have started with a government that in radically reforming politics, would have successfully delivered a different debate. The nonsense now about Irish Water making mistakes, is untrue. Irish Water isn’t a mistake, because it is fully a continuum with a past that in government Fine Gael and Labour refuse to challenge. Now that past is catching up, and it’s eating their political future.

There are those of us out there, who fundamentally believe in the principle of paying for utilities, including water. It is an appalling nonsense to pretend that we are paying for water, or very much at all in our taxes, in a country that is running a deficit of €20bn and has accumulated a store of debt of €220bn. What we pay for is the interest on loans, we plan in an act of unequalled social squalor, to bequeath to the next generation. The lack of needed investment in water is well exampled by the fact that of 2,450km of water mains in Dublin, between 1997 and 2013 only 110km were replaced. This is rusting, corroding politics presiding over a leaking unfit-for-purpose water infrastructure that we will leave on top of our debts.

Irish Water is now a totem for public anger. It is essentially an unreformed, overpriced and arrogant public service monopoly. As a veteran of CIÉ and ESB Brendan Ogle is intimately familiar and expert with the model. Those organisations have farted through silk for decades. He, with extraordinary chutzpah, manned the barricades in their defence for years, and never I suspect received the appreciation he deserves from those he troubled himself for. Last week, when the Dáil was not sitting, fare increases were introduced on public transport. I am a public transport user and a beneficiary of the public subsidies pumped into services that could in-part be provided more efficiently by the private sector — but aren’t. In 2013, every time I took a bus journey the taxpayer effectively put 57c in my pocket by way of subsidy.

The ironic, unintended consequence of Irish Water is that it has inadvertently exposed in plain sight, not what is extraordinary about the delivery of public services, but what is nearer the norm. This is the unreformed politics that the government is tethered to. Water charges are required and are the right idea. Irish Water, however, is an example of how unreformed politics cannot deliver on new ideas. Pity is, it could have been different.

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