GERARD HOWLIN: We need a politics to tell us frankly we cannot flush if we do not pay

Water charges are not a single panacea for anything. But they are the single litmus test that we singularly failed

Paying directly for water changes behaviour and by setting an example in one area, it points to better policy in others, writes Gerard Howlin

JUST as controversy about the strategic communications unit moves temporarily into the wings, though not off-stage, another looms. Water has replaced snow as the crux, but that’s less photogenic.

Don’t expect to see Leo peering down unflushed toilets, or arriving at the homes of the hard-pressed with Uisce Éireann-branded buckets of water to sluice, what thitherto was floating on the surface.

It may be eye-catching, but it won’t be uploaded on Twitter. Stage-managed messages from the National Emergency Coordination Group wither as your predicament increases.

Irish water are conspicuously on their own with this bad news. If you get a bad smell, it is not in your imagination.

As I was writing yesterday, homes on the Redshire Road in Murntown, Co Wexford, were still without water after days. That’s just my personal network.

Bad news still abounds in Wexford days after the Beast melted elsewhere. In parts of Dublin, reduced pressure at night means no water at all day or night.

One weather event was a tipping point for a creaking, cracking-up water infrastructure.

There is no headroom. There has been too little investment. There are 2,700km of pipes in Dublin alone, and the average age is 80 years.

Because we don’t have a standalone commercial utility, which has sufficient income independent of government to borrow off-balance sheet, what will be done must be paid directly by the exchequer.

Leaving aside the argument about whether enough will now be invested, there is the fact that whatever is, comes at the opportunity cost of public spending forgone elsewhere.

We need a politics to tell us frankly we cannot flush if we do not pay

Think housing, think schools, think health and now you start to get the picture. That’s the cost, the real cost of passing up on water charges.

Yes, we will pay through direct taxation. The difference is that ultimately we will pay, for much longer, and in many more ways.

A recently published study in the Journal of British Social Psychology entitled ‘How Trust and Emotions Influence Policy Acceptance: The Case of the Irish Water Charges’ came with obvious conclusions.

On water charges, emotions were the strongest direct and indirect effect on acceptance or the lack of it. The perceived costs and benefits had little influence either. Emotions influenced perceived costs and benefits. Public anger became public policy.

If you are sitting astride what cannot be flushed away, become a parody of fools who chanted “From rivers to sea, water should be free”, but now only drink bottled water you paid for from plastic lasting centuries after you gulped what commercial companies have profited from bottling, weep. In Dante’s Inferno, the smell was the signifier of hell.

A little hell might be salutatory now. It may even be deserved. If you paid your water charge, and are in those circumstances, you deserve sympathy. An enormous injury has been done to you.

Paying directly for water, which must be paid for anyhow, is not just a remedy for needs that are as necessary but must now be shortchanged.

Paying directly is more. It is an investment in economic competitiveness because it enables investment more deeply across the board in essential needs.

Paying directly does more. It changes behaviour and by setting an example in one area, it points to better policy in others.

We need a politics to tell us frankly we cannot flush if we do not pay

We have a single example in charging for plastic bags but never followed on. People running taps in cold weather, watering their lawn in a heatwave, charging the public purse for the cost of washing their car with water treated at public expense in public treatment plants are locusts.

They are privatising by the litre, what is provided for first at great expense in money, and secondly in inadequate services for the weakest and most vulnerable. Water charges are not a single panacea for anything. But they are the single litmus test that we singularly failed.

We are spending €5.5bn on water to 2021. Some 24% of that is on infrastructure, 35% is on wastewater and drinking water capacity. The rest is on treatment. It’s only a start and a prelude to a bigger picture. Up to 50% of all drinking water lost through leakage. 70% of our sewer network is leaking.

Raw untreated sewage is pumped into rivers and the sea at 44 locations. All this is in a country whose policy is premised on the view that our Irish effluent is perfumed. From rivers to the sea, water should be free. Indeed...

On Tuesday last week, just as the Beast was about to arrive and people spoke of little else, I was at Druid’s production of John B. Keane’s Sive in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.

A fantastic Tommy Tiernan as the unscrupulous matchmaker, Thomasheen Seán Rua, extolled the virtues of the lecherous old Seán Dóta. Sive, the sought-for young girl, would enjoy the luxury afforded by his farm of 20 milch cows. It extended to wallpaper in every room and a pot under every bed.

So within a week, that became an Irish definition of luxury again. We think we are too sophisticated now for Keane. But he had us off to a tee.

That study I mentioned above had another conclusion. It said that trust in government is a crucial indirect factor for policy acceptance and is important for communication strategies.

That’s the link between the story of the snow and story of water. One makes pretty pictures. The other can’t be photographed.

It is why the story of the strategic communications unit isn’t going away and should not be allowed to. A lack of trust was the basis of a disastrous policy decision on water. It is rooted in the economic crash.

It was doubled down on by the fact that although 45% of all the TDs we sent to the Dáil in 2011 were elected for the first time, that unprecedented upheaval delivered seamless continuity in public policy, not the change let alone the democratic revolution opportunistically promised.

We need a politics to tell us frankly we cannot flush if we do not pay

PEOPLE certainly bore hardship before the prospect of water charges loomed. But they had also heard one lecture too many from some whose credibility was shot. Now while the consequences continue to unfold, because history hasn’t been learnt from, the same mistakes are repeated.

That is the problem with the mindset behind the strategic communications unit. Because it completely misdiagnosed the problem, the remedy isn’t working. It is more than the “distraction” Leo Varadkar said it is. It is an attempt to substitute communications for credibility.

The latter requires straight talking not as self-referential praise on selected subjects, but as an independent, credible source of public information. We need a politics that tells us frankly that we can’t flush if we won’t pay.

The publically paid-for homemade Government movies in the snow storm have conspicuously melted away with the snow itself. Today’s drama isn’t photogenic, but if it is your problem, you want a quick fix today, and you may be interested in thinking again about a policy that needs to change radically for the future.

Water charges are not a single panacea for anything. But they are the single litmus test that we singularly failed

More on this topic

Book reveals former finance minister opposed water meters but was overruled by Enda KennyBook reveals former finance minister opposed water meters but was overruled by Enda Kenny

Government accused of delaying potential referendum on public ownership of waterGovernment accused of delaying potential referendum on public ownership of water

Water referendum must 'not be rushed', says Eoghan Murphy Water referendum must 'not be rushed', says Eoghan Murphy

C&AG remit may cover water - Vote neededC&AG remit may cover water - Vote needed


Lifestyle

Sunday Lunch costs €45 per person and includes several set courses but with a choice of mains.Restaurant Review: Bastible Restaurant, Dublin

It never ceases to stop me in my tracks when I hear my husband intone to our children one of the oft overused phrases from my stockpile of, “Can you just not?” categories.Lindsay Woods: If my children feel I’m doing it wrong then I must be doing it right

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness — John Keats had it right about autumn.Eyes on the pies: Eight apple tarts put to the taste test

Simone Rocha invited ieStyle into her London studio for an exclusive look behind the scenes as she put the finishing touches to her acclaimed collection for Fashion Week. Rachel Marie Walsh reportsBeing Simone Rocha: An exclusive look behind the scenes

More From The Irish Examiner