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Eamon Ryan: Ireland should hold a referendum on the public ownership of water

We put a stop to this juggernaut before it’s too late.

Eamon Ryan TD and leader of the Green Party

THE IDEA OF holding a referendum on the public ownership of water has quickly caught on. It has the backing of a majority of Seanad Éireann and most of the parties represented in the Dáil. It is supported by various environmental groups and trade unions including SIPTU. In fact, Fine Gael seem to be the only political party wishing the idea would go away.

Constitutional amendments have already been introduced in other European countries where similar fears existed about the possible privatisation of water. A recently released study​ identified at least 180 cases of remunicipalisation internationally following the experience of what privatisation brings. We should learn from those examples and put a stop to this juggernaut before it’s too late.

Perhaps the Government are against the referendum not because it isn’t a good idea, but because they want water off the political agenda. It is surely their nightmare that we embark on a referendum campaign which stretches well towards the next general election and keeps water in the public mind.

Ministers and backbenchers are saying that they have no plan to privatise water services, and that they never would. But it is worth noting that the report the Government commissioned on Irish Water from Price Waterhouse Coopers said:

“PwC suggest, that once Irish Water is well established as a self funding utility the Government and Regulators may wish to assess international experience of the introduction of competition in water and sewerage services to identify whether Ireland could benefit from competitive markets in the water sector at a later date. With this in mind, PwC recommend that, when undertaking the detailed design of the new organisational structure for Irish Water, the possibility of future retail competition should be taken into account.”

At the seminar on the water referendum that the Green Party hosted today, the President of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor made a good point. He said that regardless of what the politicians say, and he believes that there is no underlying desire from politicians to privatise Irish Water – the real risk lies in the company becoming insolvent in the near future. If that were to happen, there might be no option other than to privatise the company.

But rather than agreeing to a referendum, the Government may present us with a ‘double lock’ measure, an amendment to the current legislation that would require a two-thirds majority of the Dáil before any future sale. While it sounds like it would be secure, the legislation itself could later be changed with a simple majority of 50%+1. This, therefore, provides no certainty whatsoever. Any future Government could introduce different legislation and guillotine it in the same way they did with the original Irish Water legislation. Only a constitutional amendment locks public ownership in for good, so that no government can overturn the people’s wishes.

The Government are also questioning why we should treat our water supply in a different way to our other basic utilities. For a start, water is a unique resource, vital for all life, and it is a human right. And while we do need to significantly increase investment in upgrading our infrastructure, water is not like telecoms or energy, where market forces can help to improve the service we receive. The technology of water provision isn’t about to change dramatically – it is a natural monopoly, with a high cost base and a delicate relationship with its consumers. A private company is answerable to its shareholders, not us, and we need to keep it under democratic rather than corporate control.

It is no small thing to propose a change in our Constitution, and there needs to be real thought put into the wording we would use. I believe that it should be kept simple, and we have recommended a new Article 10.4 along the following lines:

“The State shall treat drinking water as an essential resource and in the interests of the common good the State shall not provide for the privatisation or commercialisation of water services for the people.” 

If the people agreed to this or similar wording, it would be a dramatic statement of intent about our own ownership of this resource. It would also send a clear signal about the economic model we want to apply, and make it clear that our water supply is not a commodity product subject to normal market rules. Our water does not come free, and we need to manage this scarce resource wisely, but a referendum guarantees that water is always in public ownership, and is managed in the public’s interest.

Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party.

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About the author:

Eamon Ryan  / TD and leader of the Green Party

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