Now that the weekend’s flag-waving and cheers have subsided, it is time to face reality — or whatever high-sugar confection passes for reality among Leinster House politicians intent on squaring the circle to try to form a government.
In a world where many of the foreign economies we depend on are, at best, tip-toeing towards growth, where we are married to a stuttering euro, where Germany blocks ECB plans for economic stimulus, and where our biggest trading partner may quit the EU and pull up the drawbridge, causing us all sorts of problems, in a world where our ever more expensive health service has become a living monument to dysfunction, politicians have chosen our decrepit, underfunded, porous water service as their line-in-the-sand issue.
Fianna Fáil insist they could not support an administration that won’t make concessions on a barely viable water utility. That they have convinced the electorate that this position is based on principle rather than the crass populism that might restore their party’s fortunes is a reminder of why they were the dominant force in Irish politics for so long. It is hard to believe, though, that they have convinced themselves of the integrity of that position but they have made it their Alamo. Leopard, spots etc. It is brainwashing on a par with the suggestion that the imposition of water charges is anti-democratic. Fine Gael seem prepared to join in this long- fingering but they know there is only one way to fix our leaking, polluting infrastructure and that it will cost hundreds of millions each year for many years. But yet they concede, swapping principle for a chance of power.
A few facts. South of the border, there are 856 water-treatment plants, north of it there are 24. Losses to leakage stand at 49% in the Republic, 28% in the North. Until 2013, our services fell under the remit of 34 local authorities and operating costs, whether relative to population or kilometres of network, are almost double those in the North. And the most sobering figure of all — Irish Water suggest capital spending of around €700m a year is needed and will be needed for several decades if the system is to be made fit for purpose.
Such vital work cannot be deferred again and the money will have to be found somewhere. Cuts will be imposed and already-strained services will be diminished. Taxes, probably PAYE and the property tax, will be increased putting the burden, once again, four-square on the squeezed middle. The constituency represented by the most strident anti-water charge deputies will dodge their responsibilities, benefitting from the shameful cowardice and lack of principle so evident in the talks aimed at establishing an administration that seems destined to be short-lived.
The establishment of Irish Water was one of the most embarrassing failures of public management in the history of this State but even that fiasco pales compared to the blind man’s bluff playing out between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. And we wonder why our bright, well educated, perceptive, young people find the prospect of a life in Melbourne, Edinburgh, or Seattle so attractive.
We will, it seems, never learn.
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