Water charges: Cynicism from all sides as talks go on

AS THOSE hoary old dinosaurs of the Irish political theatre, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, continue to play at Civil War politics, while at the same time inching imperceptibly towards a facile minority government, the ship of State continues to drift aimlessly without a firm hand on the tiller. 

Meanwhile, there is a growing feeling that in the Trinity College negotiations, a long-drawn-out bid to cobble together some kind of deal, they are making it up as they go along.

Take, for instance, the belated intervention by Jobs Minister Richard Bruton and his pledge that Fine Gael would “defend to the hilt” people who have paid water charges, adding that there could be no question of people being left at a loss if a decision was made at some time in the future to abolish water charges. That goes diametrically against the official line up to now, which held that compliant people who paid Irish Water their bills on demand would not get as much as a red cent back. In other words, tough luck.

No doubt Mr Bruton has finally woken up to the realisation that if water charges were scrapped in such circumstances, it would be a kick in the teeth to those people who abided by the law and paid their charges. What would it say about the introduction of any further unpopular government measures? With such a backdrop, any government would run the risk of being deeply unstable.

Another danger that arises from the inability thus far to form a new administration is that we could yet pay a high price over the ambition of one man, namely Enda Kenny, who wants to go down in history as the first Fine Gael taoiseach to lead the party into successive governments — even if the second turns out to be a minority one.

There can be no justification for pursuing his naked ambition at any cost. And, like it or not, the present mess is already far too high a price to pay.

At the same time it has to be said of the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, that he is playing a game of old fashioned politics by calling for a commission to be set up on Irish Water, a ploy which simply kicks the can down the road and achieves little else. Indeed, going into the general election, his party’s position on the water crisis was one of profound cynicism.

After all, it should not be forgotten that whereas it promised when going into the recent election to suspend water charges for five years, Fianna Fáil was the original architects of charges now embroiled in controversy.

How they were implemented is a different issue. The charges have brought tens of thousands onto the streets, and the blame for this lies squarely at Fine Gael’s door. As for Sinn Féin, its approach to this crisis has been utterly opportunistic and cynical, especially since party leaders initially said they would pay their water charges.

It is totally misleading to describe the election as a referendum on water charges. While the majority of TDs returned to the Dáil oppose them, every candidate also went to the polls on a raft of other issues such as the inadequacy of Ireland’s health service and recurring hospital queues.

Besides unemployment, other issues include the ongoing shortage of housing and the plight of homeless people. Evicted families invariably end up in cars or in totally inappropriate hotel accommodation when they are forced to move out of properties perhaps sold by State-owned Nama at a knockdown price to so-called vulture investors.

Out-of-control crime was another key issue, a scenario closely intertwined with the absence of gardaí on the beat in rural areas, where Garda stations and services such as local post offices and some banks were also axed, not to mention closure of pubs due to lack of business in areas denuded of people.

Against this somewhat depressing backdrop, the public at large was highly suspicious about why the defeated Fine Gael/Labour coalition had stubbornly refused to hold a referendum vesting ownership of water in the people of Ireland. Was it because it would be difficult to privatise other resources such as minerals if water was in public ownership?

Before it becomes a lame-duck government, hanging on to power at the behest of a handful of Independents and at the will of a power-hungry Fianna Fáil, it is time Fine Gael came clean on its refusal to stage a water referendum.

Fresh light would inevitably be shed on that and other shadowy decisions if the party were to lose the next election — which may have to be called any day now.


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