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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 25 April, 2019
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This endless talk of water charges is tiring. Here are 10 things we should focus on instead

Of all the things urgently, dangerously and unfairly wrong with this country, Irish Water isn’t even in the top 10, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

TALKS BETWEEN FINE Gael and Fianna Fáil on the formation of a minority FG-led coalition “facilitated” by FF appear to have boiled down (sorry) to the single issue of Irish Water. For those of us not on the Angry Left and for those of us not politically-spooked by the Angry Left, the focus on Irish Water seems cynical and irrelevant.

Of all the things urgently, dangerously and unfairly wrong with this country, Irish Water isn’t even in the top 10.

Yes, Irish Water has been a complete and utter disaster. Some €3 billion in money we don’t have, flushed down the Suwannee, but here’s the thing: regardless of whether Fianna Fáil secures a kick-the-water-can-down-the-road suspension of water charges or not, whether it will be through a utility bill or through direct taxation, we are still going to have to pay for water.

Yes, Irish Water has mobilised the greatest mass resistance movement in the history of the state. Yes, Irish Water has spread a panic through Irish politics since Paul Murphy took a seat in the 2014 Dublin South-West by-election – a seat Sinn Fein thought was theirs – and caused Sinn Fein, outflanked on the left, to change its policy on Irish Water.

And now Fianna Fáil – the apex predators of Irish political cynicism, outflanked on the left by Sinn Féin and themselves the ultimate architects of Irish Water – is using it as a phoney stick with which to pretend to beat Fine Gael.

The truth, of course, is that Fianna Fáil is hoping to get their pound of flesh before they agree to “facilitate” (their preferred word) Fine Gael until such time as Fianna Fáil sees an opportunity to pounce and cause a fresh election. The arrangement will likely be, to quote Independent TD Michael Lookit Fitzmaurice, “A chicken watched over by a fox”.

There are far more important and more pressing problems than Irish Water in this country, problems we should demand our politicians address immediately.
In no particular order, then, here are 10 things we, as a state, should be tackling as a matter of considerably greater urgency than Irish Water:

1. Homelessness and housing

In February, 912 Irish families (including 1,820 children) were living in emergency accommodation. Dublin has been by far the worst-affected, with 790 families without homes. On average, one family becomes homeless in Ireland every day. With spiralling rents, a lack of social housing and rent supplement frozen since 2013, is it any wonder so many are falling between the cracks?

2. Mental health

It seems “ring-fencing” – when it comes to spending on mental health – doesn’t mean what you thought it meant. In 2011, the Fine Gael Labour coalition committed to “ring-fence” €35 million for mental health services. With roughly 500 suicides recorded every year, the phrase “suicide epidemic” hardly seems an exaggeration but it’s now emerged that €12 million of that funding has been transferred to other areas within the HSE.

3. Health

In a country where getting life-saving cancer treatment can depend on whether or not you have private health insurance, is Irish Water really the most pressing matter to discuss in government formation talks?

4. A living wage

With soup kitchens reporting that they are supplying meals now to people actually in jobs, we need to have a serious conversation about introducing a living wage in this country. If someone in a job would be better off on social welfare, surely the answer is not to lower welfare but to raise wages.

5. Crime

With unarmed gardaí facing heavily-armed criminals, with Dublin’s North Inner City in terror at the ongoing gangland feud and with swathes of rural Ireland frightened to go to sleep at night, crime is something which should pre-occupy the minds of all TDs.

I guarantee you, though, that if you cold-called most of our otherwise pre-occupied TDs about crime, you’d be very lucky to get a more coherent answer than that offered by the Republican candidate on The West Wing, whose policy on crime was “Crime, huh? Boy, I don’t know.”

6. Child welfare

We had a referendum to enshrine children’s rights in the constitution recently, but Traveller children today have an infant mortality four times that of the general population. Statistically, they wouldn’t be much worse off in a 1940s mother-and-baby home. This and every other year, over 3,000 children will report that they have suffered sexual abuse. Large numbers of these children never access therapeutic services. We are failing kids who have already been brutally mistreated and who are in desperate need of help.

7. Rape crisis funding

According to the now 14-year-old Sexual Violence in Ireland report, one third of Irish citizens will experience sexual violence. Of that, one in 10 reports it. From there, we have a 1-2% conviction rate. That in itself is shocking. What is shocking too is that funding for rape crisis centres has been cut by approximately €1 million since 2008. In terms of government funding, that’s peanuts but it has cruelly hit people most desperately in need of counselling and support.

8. Direct provision

We are warehousing over 4,700 asylum seekers in direct provision, 1,791 of them children. We cram families into single rooms, hundreds of people into close proximity, adults living on €19 a week. Some 60% of applicants have been in this limbo for over three years, some waiting seven years. This is a recipe for horrors.

9. The Eighth Amendment

With what’s left of the Labour Party in intensive care, Sinn Féin proudly declaring itself a “pro-life party” (as any of us with a lick of sense knew all along) and Fine Gael actually a more socially-liberal party than Fianna Fáil these days, it doesn’t seem too likely we’ll see a referendum to repeal the Eighth any time soon.

Ah well. It’s not like 12 Irish women a day are forced to travel – if they can afford to travel – abroad for a termination, is it?

10. Dáil reform

No, seriously. Dáil reform. Not the makey-uppy pretend Dáil reform that TDs mouth as a matter of lip-service but actual, proper reform, reform which leaves us with a Dáil where no government – regardless of its majority – can ever again ram through half-assed, ill-thought-through, barely-debated legislation. (Irish Water, anyone?) Don’t hold your breath.

A decade, two or three from now, a future Taoiseach will stand in the Dáil and apologise for one or more of these scandals. Real tears will be shed and we’ll all vow, like Father Dougal, “As I said the last time, it won’t happen again”.

You may well argue with some of my suggestions above but – regardless of what our politicians pretend – a maximum annual bill of €260 per household for drinkable water and a flushing toilet is really not the single most important concern facing Ireland today.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.    

Read: Alan Kelly says those who paid their water charges are about to be made “fools of”

Read: Minister says if water charges are scrapped, people who paid should get their money back

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