Fine Gael is like a dog with a bone when it comes to Irish Water, that failed semi-state company, ahem, utility.
I did predict in previous articles that this particular issue would just run and run and for good reasons. When Fianna Fail collapsed under the weight of the bank scandal, the Blueshirts made alluring advances to the voting public calmly suggesting that we were not at fault and had nothing to worry about. But Fine Gael always like to present themselves as having, 'the smack of firm Government.' They confuse State bullying with ruling.
So when we fell for their weasel words and they got into power, on went the boxing gloves. As Phil Hogan put it, "They came after us." When the water charges were finally put on the table they came after a long string of other multiple charges designed to give the banks a soft landing. Many people simply didn't have the money by then and Fine Gael's answer to that was fines and/or jail and water cut off. How's that for firm Government and all so that we could pay off the gambling debts of private banks.
But the public fought back. We refused to sign the Irish Water contract in large numbers, formed street groups to hunt away the water meter installers, marched en-masse in the cities and tore up the bills as they came in the letterbox. Unable to deal with this mass protest, Fine Gael softened slightly and offered a €100 water grant, (in 2015), to anyone who signed on the dotted line. This week we read that people are still getting that grant, (bribe). They diverted the €90m of annual road tax to fund Irish Water in the meantime and this was after pouring nearly one billion of taxpayers money into it.
Have no doubt that the water issue brought down Fine Gael's majority Government last time out and has left them in the embarrassing position of having to depend on the goodwill of Fianna Fail to cling to power now. And yet elements in the Blueshirts still want to (double), charge for water. But the committee tasked with looking into it has decided that charges should be scrapped and incredibly, those that did pay their water bills in the past should be reimbursed fully. Some in Fine Gael were secretly relieved by all of this and would dearly love to leave the water debacle behind them. But that is not how "Firm Government," works. First little Leo came out, (arf, arf.), and said the polluter must pay and therefore water charges must stay. Enda Kenny insisted Fine Gael will not facilitate any laws to scrap all domestic water charges – which the party says would be illegal. Simon Coveney too has referred to this alleged illegality by explaining that under EU law we all must pay up and this is the advice from the Attorney General.
However, all of the other parties have got their own advice from independent senior consul and it appears that opinions differ on this so-called illegality. It hinges on the fact that at the time this EU law was introduced, water charges had not been established in Ireland and the law states that if you have always charged for water then this must continue. As Sinn Fein's Eoin O'Broin explained, "Scotland has no domestic water charges and they are fully compliant with EU law, Northern Ireland has no domestic water charges and they are fully compliant with EU law. So, as long as we meet the environmental objective contained in EU legislation, which Sinn Féin believes we can, then the issue of charges is irrelevant."
As if to remind us that water is hardly a precious commodity on this sodden island, a weather advisory was issued shortly afterwards. "Severe downpours: The weekend weather forecast isn't particularly good," was the summary in the Journal. Undaunted by so much water, Fine Gael then said everyone should be treated equally and submitted that those who have not paid to date should be pursued. This was on the very day the Oireachtas committee looking at water has listed a number of options in relation to the refund of water charges. So let's see if we can understand this. On the one hand Fine Gael supports refunding everyone who did pay while simultaneously trying to force those who didn't to now pay up. That then is their idea of, "Everyone being treated equally." Certainly it is now evident that their bullying, blustering, bluffing manoeuvres over the last five years have failed miserably and the party is in an embarrassing retreat on water. What concerns me is that look like they are more worried about losing face than running the country.
So even at this 11th hour they have switched their venom to excessive usage, probably in a weak effort to save some face. To me they look like the frustrated schoolyard bully determined to hit somebody. Under the heading, "Water wasters to be fined after six months warning," the Indo has the full details this morning. Hopelessly clinging to some vestige of charges for anybody they can find, they have in fact opened up another can of worms. Less than half of homes have a water meter so how can they know who is wasting and who isn't? As the Indo puts it, "The first question the European Commission, (not to mention the courts), will presumably ask is: without a system of water meters, how can the polluter be made to pay? Are the advances in district metering technology really sufficient to determine if a household is wasting water?"
Indeed! And then there is the knotty question of what constitutes excessive use when we have not defined what is normal or acceptable use? But it gets even more complicated than that. As things stand, the biggest waster is Irish Water themselves. A massive forty-seven per cent of all the water they purify is lost to the earth in the piping network before it even gets to us. There are reports from some homes that water leaks have appeared at the newly installed meters too. And then there is the really difficult cases of leaks in homes the owners know nothing about. Recently a neighbor's ceiling simply collapsed due to a leak they didn't know was there after a new bathroom installation upstairs. To compound that particular issue, the real problems began when they had their walls insulated, as suggested at the time by Government. It seems the water leaked into this fresh insulation material making it more heavy over the years until the sheer weight of it brought down the ceiling. Who is at fault here?
As stated here many times before, we Irish have always paid for water but have done so indirectly. It was built in to the general rates of taxation and then allocated to the local authorities for the provision of a water service. This was not done well in some areas and the piping network was ignored for years. But since the crash of 2008 we have seen a dizzy amount of new taxes, fines and added costs applied to all of us while services were starved of funding. I contend that Fine Gael took this austerity one step too far with the establishment of Irish Water, hence the farce we have today. Informed commentators as well have pointed to the prospect of Irish Water being sold for a one-off gain and Fine Gael's refusal to copper-fasten its ownership in the Constitution only laid bare their true intentions for us all to see. As a result they have seen their own support base dwindle and they are now at the mercy of Michael Martin who can call an election any time he chooses. Everyone, including half his own party wants Enda to go, the health service lurches from one crisis to the next, the skeletal remains of nearly eight hundred children were found in a septic tank in the grounds of an old convent, the buses nurses and teachers are all close to a national strike and Fine Gael's answer to all of this is to charge for water wastage.
They really are drowning in their own shit!
PS. Having re-read this posted article I felt that in the interests of balance and fair play I should include the other side of the story as published today in the Indo.
Have a look at that and decide which account you believe.