MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Arrogance, hubris, and vanity — a short, unfiltered history of Irish Water

Saying the troika made them do it just won’t wash — this may yet become Kenny’s Waterloo, writes Michael Clifford

AS THEY marched through the wind and the rain on Saturday, water was on everybody’s lips, but these protests are about much more.

The advent of water charges, through the vehicle of Irish Water, now represents a bonfire of the current government’s vanities. All the latent anger, all the roads not taken, all the missed opportunities, not to mention the impunity enjoyed by some, have arrived on the doors of government in the form of resistance to water charges.

And for the most part, Enda Kenny and his colleagues have absolutely nobody but themselves to blame. Here are a few of the sticks being added to the fire:

RUSHED LEGISLATION

The legislation to set up Irish Water was rushed through the Dáil in four hours last December. The provisions to allow Irish Water possession of the PPS numbers of citizens was not even included in the primary legislation. That was slipped into a Social Welfare Bill, which went largely unnoticed. That is how parliament is conducting its business, acting as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the executive. In 2011, we were promised a “democratic revolution” by Enda Kenny. The pledge was not just baloney, but contemptuous of the electorate. The shoddy, rushed legislation to set up Irish Water was a disaster waiting to happen.

COMMUNICATION

Since assuming office, the Government had little to do but follow the plan drawn up by its predecessor, and overseen by the Troika. Communication consisted of shrugging shoulders, saying they had no choice, and pointing angry fingers at Fianna Fáil.

This is the first big hurdle to be jumped since the troika left, and Kenny’s Coalition has been found to be highly incompetent. On Friday, a debate on water charges took place on the Late, Late Show.

Irish Water was represented. The protest was represented by two TDs. And batting for the Government was — one Mr Andrew Doyle, a backbench TD who is not a member of the government.

That the line minister Alan Kelly, or even one of his senior colleagues, refused to emerge from the bunker to participate on this forum beggars belief.

Where, over the last few months, were the TV films, billboards, impassioned speeches, interviews making a case for a fair and efficient approach to consuming treatable water?

Ironically, the politician making the most cogent case for the concept of water charges is Pat Rabbitte, who was recently notified that his services were no longer required in government.

VISION

The only vision outlined since the comic democratic revolution has been Kenny’s pledge to make Ireland “the best small country to do business in”. Nothing on reshaping society, fairness or respect for energy and resources.

The advent of water charges was framed in the old “the troika made me do it” waffle.

A clear vision setting out the requirement to respect water as a resource, and plan properly to ensure access to proper treatable water was nowhere to be seen.

THE QUANGO

How did they not see this one coming? A bonfire of the quangos was one of the whopper ideas this Government pledged on assuming office. Suspicion was rife that many of these quangos were merely there to facilitate cronyism, and throw business the way of the “right people”.

There was no bonfire. Staff in the plethora of qangos were redeployed. Little was saved. Then, along comes a bright, shining new quango, straight out of the bubble years, set up to reach directly into the pockets of the citizens. Nobody wondered how this entity would be regarded in the current environment. Nobody in the inner sanctum shouted stop. All they did was set up a signpost, pointing at the departed Troika, and told the mugs to suck it up.

PRIVATISATION/PPS NUMBERS

Fears that Irish Water was set up as a vehicle for future privatisation have been prominent. That the reality may differ is irrelevant. What matters is the perception.

The focus of most anger among the general populace throughout the recession has been the lumping of banker and bondholder debts onto citizens. Now, in the guise of Irish Water, some see a future where the kindred spirits of bankers will turn a buck on the back of the citizens’ need for water. Nothing was more likely to inflame anger than the possibility of corporate gravy being made from another charge foisted on the public.

ALLOWANCES

Which cohort has been hit hardest the recession? Youth unemployment is over 25%. The Jobseeker’s Allowance for those under 25 has been reduced. The bulk of those forced to emigrate are from the same cohort. As a result of greater unemployment, and the consequent increased third-level education participation, many young men and women are living at home. What allowance was made for this cohort, arguably those who have borne the greatest brunt of government policies? Zero. As the young are not noted for voting, they were expected to suck this one up too.

CHARGING

Throughout the recession, each new tax and charge imposed on the public has been largely accepted and collected. The Government thought this would follow suit, despite the different method of payment. The regressive USC is taken at source. The property tax is collected by the all-powerful Revenue Commissioners. No thought was given to the fact that citizens would be expected to sign up and cough up, directly from their own pockets all on their ownio.

OPPOSITION

One feature informing the Government’s global approach to water charges has been arrogance, an assumption that the public would just lie down and do as they are told. The same arrogance has been a hallmark of the government approach to the opposition, and particularly the disparate group of left-leaning independents and small parties.

This group has opposed every austerity measure, usually with a threat that the latest measure would prompt the public to rise up. Each time, they were proved wrong. And lost in its own hubris, the Government thought it was going to be more of the same.

The original member of that left-wing group, Joe Higgins, was first elected to the Dáil on the back of a campaign against water charges in west Dublin nearly 20 years ago. That campaign led to the cancellation of the attempt to impose water charges nationally.

Enda Kenny, Brendan Howlin, Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton were all in the cabinet back then. How could their vanities have been so blind?


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