We all need to accept we must pay more, not less... and ensure, as an environmental policy, that those who use pay, writes Gerard Howlin

The definition of Fine Gael is that they do the right thing. Never mind that you don’t believe it; that is how they self-identify.

They are not Fianna Fáil, so the first proof, as they see it, is self-evident. They are the visceral opposite of Sinn Féin in every respect. You might be so rude as to point to slippage from those standards. But that’s the sort you are, begrudging, disrespectful.

Truth be told, you are probably the type that hasn’t paid your water charges either. But then isn’t that what separates those who do the right thing from those who don’t?

If Fine Gael give in to Fianna Fáil over Irish Water, there won’t be the width of a smuggled cigarette paper between them and Sinn Féin on water charges. Not the very latest Sinn Féin policy on water, you understand. But it will be effectively indistinguishable from its previous policy before it was dumped after that party’s humiliation in the Dublin South West by-election on October 10, 2014. Then former Socialist Party MEP, Paul Murphy, campaigning as an Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, wiped Sinn Féin’s eye by taking a seat they and others supposed was theirs. Sinn Féin promptly shifted gear into outright opposition to Irish Water, so as to never be confounded by the Anti-Austerity Alliance again.

Only two parties have consistent, logical policies on water charges. They are the Greens and the Socialist Party-cum-Anti-Austerity Alliance. The Greens, the only Irish party ever to have its parliamentary representation wiped out and return, have a consistent ‘polluter-pays/pro-water charges’ approach. Through thick and thin, they have stuck with that principle. It chimes with their councillors’ refusal to support reductions in property charges by local authorities. User charges are essential environmental, and good economics. A crucial, if rapidly receding, lesson of the crash is that we must widen the tax base permanently.

The political pivot on which swings the eventual outcome of talks to facilitate government formation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that Dublin South West by-election result. Then, a very small party, with a single TD in Joe Higgins, moved the entire political dialogue on water sharply left. It’s an underappreciated achievement. It discombobulated Sinn Féin in a way it never fully recovered its poise from thereafter. The recent general election result, disappointing in its own terms for Sinn Féin, is not just empirical evidence of delivery not matching the modest end of its own expectations, it laid bare an unresolved, possibly insoluble conundrum. How does it neutralise the opposition of middle Ireland towards it politically, while watering its radical roots in the most deprived, disadvantaged communities. Its see-saw on water, its seat gains in the election which failed to deliver what it had hoped for, and the emergence of a still small but, vigorous political competition to its left, lay bare that conundrum.

Still, Sinn Féin has the virtues of extraordinary patience, tenacity, and discipline. Nearly all its advances in the south disappointed expectations at the time. Yet, with the exception of the 2002 general election, every step forward was followed by another, and it is a much bigger party today. It is this larger Sinn Féin that Fianna Fáil is watching through its rear-view mirror as it talks to Fine Gael about water.

Correctly, one reason Fianna Fáil will not vacate opposition is so as to not leave that opportunity to Sinn Féin alone. But the narrow focus on a Sinn Féin-phobic perspective only partially understands how Fianna Fáil arrived at where it is now. Its direct competition with Sinn Féin is real, but limited. It matters in Dublin, especially where it has regained an impressive but very shallowly rooted six seats.

Those who returned in greatest numbers to support Fianna Fáil were overwhelmingly older and rural. Its urban base remains precarious. It is this wider working-class urban vote, only some of whom vote Sinn Féin, but who once voted Fianna Fáil in large numbers, that is at issue. More than any specific electoral consideration is the sense that broken promises are the new arsenic in Irish politics.

Having somehow hoisted themselves onto an anti-water charge bandwagon, reversal isn’t an option for Fianna Fáil. If Fine Gael cave, it might not be a necessity either.

Enabling this conversation, where both big parties seemingly agree that water charges are desirable, but to one degree or another are prepared to suspend them, is the chronic weakness and political mismanagement of Fine Gael. Clearly some in the party want to stand up for themselves — to be seen to stand for something — but at the cost of causing an election? That is the litmus test now, of its own self-identification as a party of people prepared to do the right thing. Or is it? Abutting that character test is the practical political consequence of heading into another election under Enda Kenny. They simply do not want to do that.

Other small parties are lost in the fog rolling in over the political issue of water. People Before Profit signing up, without Anti-Austerity Alliance, for the Right2Change platform with Sinn Féin and several trade unions which are, at best, equivocal on the abolition of Irish Water, by definition fails any respectable revolutionary standard of credibility on water charges. The Social Democrats, in so far I can understand their position — and I admit to having difficulty understanding it at all — seems to pin their hopes for ongoing investment in hypothecated savings derived from better engineering because, as their TD Stephen Donnelly correctly says, the charge as is is too small to justify itself.

Of course it is. It is ridiculously low. And it is a joke, because a biblical 40 days after the Dublin South West by-election, Alan Kelly stood up in the Dáil to announce that the connection between water usage and water charges would be sundered. A central point of the change was thus abolished. Instead, a €100 per household was strewn around the countryside. We need a water charge that reflects usage.

We all need, over time, to accept we must pay more, not less. This is to both widen the tax base and ensure that, as an environmental policy, those who use pay.

In the context of yesterday’s revelations that people dependent on the public health system are waiting months, even years, for diagnostic tests, water charges are a small, but essential, part of a fundamentally different approach to tax. Hollowing out the tax base from the bottom, of which abolishing water charges is a symptom, ultimately leaves those on lowest incomes most vulnerable. It is a question of doing the right thing, you see, for the right reasons.


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