The solution to charging for water is to create a commission while the the parties hope the questions of whether those who paid will be refunded goes away, writes Michael Clifford
THERE are known unknowns about the water mess. There are things we know, such as that the whole thing has precious little to do with developing a 21st century water and wastewater infrastructure.
We also know that only 8% of those questioned in an exit poll on the day of the election said that water was a major determinant in their vote.
We know there are known unknowns. These are best exemplified by the line in the confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which reads: “We affirm that those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who have not.”
This line has the appearance of something dreamed up by Bertie Ahern, but it is actually attributable to those who have succeeded him, who are inadvertently paying tribute to his style of politics.
On the anniversary of the Rising, it is apt that politics today does not involve treating all equally before the law, as the Rising’s leaders might have had it, but ensuring that nobody is treated less favourably than others, which is a double negative rather than a simple positive, perfectly in tune with the prevailing political culture.
However, we do know there are some things we do not know. We do not know how the minority government — or its defacto leader Micheál Martin — are going to fudge their way through the commitment given.
Treating nobody less favourably than anybody else can only herald one of two outcomes. Either those who have paid their bills will be refunded, or those who have not will be pursued until they do.
This non-favourable treatment of one sector over another is particularly important to Mr Martin.
The vote for Fianna Fáil in the last election would have included large swathes from both sides of the “pay/don’t pay” divide.
Fianna Fáil only changed its principle on charging for water when an election loomed and somebody spotted a few votes floating past to the left. Many, if not most, of its voters and activists are among the 60% who did pay.
Mr Martin’s position on water in the government formation was based on a requirement for political cover from the other opposition parties, but he can’t be seen to be forgetting those who have obeyed the law.
Or, as he might put it himself, he can’t be seen to be “less favourable” to the financial or moral considerations of his voters than to his own immediate political imperatives.
Enda Kenny is in a similar bind. Most if not all of Fine Gael’s vote came from those who paid. But in order to get back into power, he had to cede ground on water. He can’t be seen to be grabbing a piece of personal history, paid for out of the pockets of those who voted for him.
The commission to be set up to determine the future of charging for water will rule on which of the two options — pursuit or refund — is preferred. Any such ruling will be debated by the Oireachtas committee which will be set up to deliberate on the outcome of the commission’s findings.
What we do know, the only thing that is really a known known, is that anybody on that committee who opposed water charges will not opt to pursue those who didn’t pay.
In any event, pursuit of non-payers would be costly and largely futile. The law as it stands provides for the power of attachment orders when bills are in excess of €500. No domestic user has reached that threshold. Pursuit would be confined to letters threatening damnation and appeals to the better nature of householders.
That leaves the realistic option to be the refunding of charges to those who paid. How will such an arrangement take place? Nobody thought it possible that the mess which was made with the introduction of charges could ever be repeated this side of a new millennium. Yet here we are, staring down the barrel of a horrendous administrative nightmare of collating all those who paid and somehow refunding the money.
One outcome is that the great refund might ensure that the hundreds of jobs which will be lost — many of them in Mr Martin’s constituency — as a result of the abolition of charges, might get another year’s work through the refunding of charges.
A more immediate issue, one that we really don’t know we don’t know, is wherefore charges in the here and now? For those who haven’t paid, it’s a straightforward matter of as you were.
For those who have paid, it’s a question of whether to throw good money after bad. Should the latest bill be paid, or any others that arrive between now and the scheduled suspension before the next billing period of July 1?
Micheál “we’ve been consistent on this” Martin says that citizens are obliged to keep coughing up. “People should uphold the law,” he said, with a straight face, after he signed off on an agreement to dismantle the law he wants others to uphold.
What of those who take him at his word, and not as an expedient politician saying anything that will get him to the next base? Are they guaranteed that if they fork out for a dying charge, they will definitely receive a refund?
There may be such souls in this great little country, and they must be commended for their faith and sense of civic duty and their belief that the new politics being practiced is primarily concerned with the national interest.
In the meantime, Messrs Martin and Kenny continue to channel their inner Rumsfelds, plodding along down the road where it is hoped the water problem will simple dissipate into the clouds.
When that does happen, be assured of one thing. It will be quickly followed by the establishment of a commission of investigation into how the commission into water charging made its findings to the Oireachtas committee on the commission into water charging.
Only then will we really know how much we don’t know about the known unknowns of charging for water in 2016.
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