Concessions on water charges: Privatisation assurances not enough

Today’s conciliatory and humiliating Government announcements on Irish Water may be the defining moment for this Government. 

Get it right, or at least convince enough people that they have got it right, and they might begin to believe that they can face the next election with some optimism. Get it wrong and this secondary issue will cast a shadow over everything they have — or might yet — achieve.

Despite a resurgent economy, and even if that recovery is not evenly spread across the country, today’s package is probably a decisive throw of the dice for a Government paying a very heavy price for giving far less attention than was required to the practical details of this entirely justifiable charge. The consequences of this carelessness were exacerbated when the issue became the focus for anger generated over years of challenged living standards while vast sums were paid to cover bondholders’ losses incurred because of their unwise investments in Irish banks. The backstory is almost threadbare but the legacy issues remain unresolved and a source of great bitterness.

Despite all that, and despite the anger felt by people who feel taken for granted and short changed over the last few years, the greatest disappointment must be that the entire project, one that should have epitomised an Ireland that had turned the corner, one that had left grubby cronyism behind and was capable of remaking itself in a way that would avoid repeating the calamities of the past was utterly and shamelessly botched at a political level.

Yesterday’s announcement that Irish Water staff will not be paid any bonuses for 2013 or 2014 and that the quango’s entire pay structure is to be reviewed hardly represents the kind of response needed either. It suggests that the gravy train is delayed rather than cancelled and that, when the storm blows over, normal service will resume. If that is the case then the point of so much of the anger of recent weeks has been utterly missed by the Government.

There is also the possibility that charges might be reduced to the point that they would not generate the income needed to restore our water infrastructure. This would turn farce into tragedy; the Government would be damaged but not have the resources needed to secure this country’s water supplies. Boil notices and rationing — beach closures as well — might become more common. Those who expressed their opposition to water charges in a way that barely concealed a threat would shout loudest in their condemnation. This would be the ideal scenario for them as they equate chaos with opportunity.

One thing is clear. This episode shows that politicians bow to pressure and can be made to do things that they do not wish to do, that they can change their mind if the wind shifts. Because of this Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s initial wave-of-the-hand dismissal of the proposal to change the Constitution to secure Irish Water in State ownership is simply not good enough. Let’s see democracy rather than politics decide on this issue. Let’s have that vote to put ownership of our water company beyond the reach of desperate politicians.


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