GERARD HOWLIN: Waste trickles through as no end in sight to water charges fiasco

It is not about learning from mistakes. It is not about cultural change. It is about public humiliation, writes Gerard Howlin

WHAT are you going to do with yours?

The water charges refund, I mean. Some €170m will be dispersed among those of us who paid.

Everyone gets to keep Alan Kelly’s water conservation grant of €100. I assume you spent yours.

The money we are told will come from current expenditure this year.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, who has the job of giving it back, has lots to spend, it seems. To put it in context, at €200,000 per house, he is giving away the equivalent of 850 social houses. If you know a way of building them for less, then it’s more.

It is a case of stepping over the homeless sleeping in the doorway on your way to the pub. But it’s what we want, it seems. Now we are going to get it.

This is the reflux of the State’s incapacity to launch a major infrastructure project, have a public body win public esteem, and implement a charge to pay for it. The wider cost, far greater than the cost of substandard water and sewage infrastructure, will now unfold. The State, far from being something citizens identify with, is at best a whipping boy and at worst an alien construct.

If the public saw themselves as the State, we would see modest investment in water and bin charges as value for money. The issue at Irish Water wasn’t waste. It was, from the board on down through senior management, a fatal lack of realisation that public support had to be garnered. The choice of a prominent local authority official to lead the project was a major mistake. Culturally, nowhere is official contempt for the elected and the populous more ingrained than among local authority officials. They are least impinged by effective accountability, to elected politicians across the public service.

The danger, and it is a real one, is that Irish Water in retrospect becomes the high water mark of the Irish State’s capacity to construct and deliver a major public major service organisation.

The tragedy and, indeed the scandal, is that it was very nearly a great achievement. A majority did pay but were betrayed by a combination of a failure of nerve and opportunism.

Sinn Féin, which prior to the Dublin South West by-election that elected Paul Murphy, was softening on water charges, then immediately hardened. Fianna Fáil immediately caved in. Fine Gael which lost 26 seats in the general election, was determined to close the issue down. The underlying issue, now, is where to for a State with such limited traction with its people and who, in turn, have such little affinity with it.

Whether your particular nuance is “fairness” as preferred by Fianna Fáil, “equality” chosen by Sinn Féin or “opportunity” the new word for Fine Gael, you need a State to deliver.

When next you sit astride a toilet to ease yourself, think on that. It is metaphor and fact that we have constructed a state where there is no effective responsibility for even the most basic of functions. By notionally visiting everything on the State in ways that are devoid of personal cost, we have created something bound to fail again but to fail worse every time.

Nonsense, usually from the soft left about a supposed nihilist left, misses the point by a mile. The further left has no affinity with the State, and makes no bones about it. Its object is to opportunistically use issues as they arise tactically, to strategically up-end an entire system they say is completely inequitable. For them, the vox populi is the cadre leading the crowd. This is the flexible genius of terms like community and working class. They are both completely porous but ultimately totally controlled in their meaning. You are in, but only if I say you are in.

The failure of the State to win affinity, despite considerable achievements is ultimately the failure of varieties of nationalism espoused by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and social democracy once nominally residing in Labour, but now diminished and dispersed. Political failure is abetted by refusal of the public service to take responsibility for administration. Reimbursing water charges is a symbolic moment. It’s when the State formally becomes a communal pissoir, with nobody responsible for emptying.

The enfeeblement and degradation of the state are carried like crown jewels from the chamber pot to the court room by the astonishing decision to delegate the constitutional responsibility of government to appoint a chief justice, to an unelected committee. Yes, a nominal responsibility resides still with the elected representatives of the people. But having set up a committee of the unelected, they won’t dare reach outside of it.

That follows on the effective abdication of constitutional responsibility for the appointment of the judiciary as a whole. In severing to a single nominal thread the link between politics and judicial appointments, legitimacy itself is strained. It is the conspicuous stupidity of judges themselves that has abetted this agenda.

They have as little regard for government ministers, as some county managers have for county councillors. Finally, too long accustomed to denigration, national politicians put their hands up and say it’s true: We can’t be trusted. The vox populi can only be trusted to the cadre.

This is the downward spiral of confidence, and of legitimacy, that the political abandonment of water charges comes from and leads on to. More layers of the unelected are interjected, power is accumulated around regulators, and the bulk of the administrative state remains beyond the reach of real accountability. We speak of change but have no real interest. Instead, and as sport, we substitute outrage. We leave failing systems intact because we prefer scapegoats. This is a society that ostensibly has changed completely, but preserves intact a command, control and punish model so completely, that public accountability is now effectively a parliamentary committee, operating as a Magdalene laundry. It is not about learning from mistakes. It is certainly not about cultural change. It is about public humiliation. We know from past experience that didn’t make any of us better, it just made us cuter. The old tropes are the new ropes.

The failure of Irish Water, the arrogance of its leadership, the opportunism of its opponents and the political cowardice of its one-time proponents are of a kind. Blame is foisted on an unquestionably feral political opposition. But their mandate is to destruct. The real and deeper blame lies with those who though elected to enhance fairness, equality and opportunity, have so little self-belief, they hand over the levers for action they are entrusted with. Increasingly trapped in impotency, they create cage fights in parliamentary committees, where witnesses are ritualistically humiliated by people who have no self-respect and increasingly less standing.

Yesterday’s government decision was a day of impotence. As a country, we cannot now even empty the pot of the product we put into it.


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