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How safe is the government after its water charges u-turn?

Analysis: Yesterday was all about providing “clarity and certainty”. But will it be enough to save the coalition?

Joan Burton and Enda Kenny will be hoping everything calms down now
Joan Burton and Enda Kenny will be hoping everything calms down now
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

OF ALL THE crises to hit this government in 2014 the water charges controversy was the one that endangered it the most. The question now is whether it’s over or is there more trouble ahead?

In recent days gleeful Fianna Fáil TDs had privately begun comparing the current state of affairs to the last administration’s final days. The stakes were not as high – the country is not on the brink of running out of money – but the sense that the government had lost complete control of the situation was eerily familiar.

For months nervous government backbenchers got it in the ear from constituents who are weary of austerity and can’t take any more taxes and charges. Several deputies admitted to hearing complaints from people who had never once contacted them before.

At Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary party meetings, TDs articulated their concerns angrily and repeatedly, knowing well that this was an issue that put their seats in huge danger.

Irish Water - Alan Kelly. Pictured Min Alan Kelly at a press conference yesterday Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

‘Omnishambles’

People were confused about how much they’d have to pay, wondering what exactly it was they were paying for, and they were fed-up of the ‘jobs for the boys bonus culture’ that seemed to inhabit the new utility.

The water charges debacle had so many elements to it. From Irish Water’s botched set up to bonuses to communications failures to data breaches to widespread public confusion and anger.

It had become the very definition of an ‘omnishambles’  - the word used by The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker to describe a hapless minister.

In the famous episode of the political satire, Tucker tells the unfortunate politician: “You’re a f***ing omnishambles, that’s what you are. You’re like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you f*** up.”

Source: Brizdyn/YouTube

The same is true of Irish Water. From its very inception, via a rushed Dáil debate last December, through to the various foul-ups throughout 2014, the semi-state utility could not escape the public’s widely held view that it was a shambolic entity. From bean to cup, it f***ed up.

Changing that perception will not be easy and will require more than has been done in recent weeks. But the cancellation of bonuses for the time being and the planned changes to the board will help.

Controversy over?

Yesterday’s announcement was about, in the government’s words, providing “certainty and clarity” to consumers who had been left utterly confused by the previous pricing structure and genuinely worried about their ability to pay.

Water Charges - We Wont Pay Campaign. Paul Murphy and Joe Higgins still aren't paying Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

For those who are at the very end of their tether the fact they will have to pay less than they thought will not be particularly reassuring. But the government has removed the fear element of people’s water supply potentially being cut off or reduced to a trickle.

Will that embolden those who have continued to call for a boycott? Perhaps so, because many questions remain about what exactly will happen to those who don’t pay.

Their bills will be subject to penalties, but how will the money be tracked down?

The courts will most likely be used by Irish Water as a last resort, but that could be a long and drawn out process and if thousands refuse to pay then thousands of summonses may clog up the system.

If the government is adopting a ‘carrot and stick’ approach then the carrot was certainly on display yesterday, there is less certainty about the stick and how effective it will be.

Watch this space

Politically speaking whether this works for the government and saves it from electoral wipeout will not be known until the next general election, but the reaction to the new measures will to a large extent dictate how soon that election will be.

What sort of reception will the announcement receive when TDs go back to their constituencies this weekend? What sort of turnout will there be at the next Right2Water protest in Dublin on 10 December? What will the opinion polls say?

Even after all that perhaps the real proof of the effectiveness of yesterday’s announcement will be in how many people sign up for Irish Water and pay their bills.

So far around 800,000 households have registered with the utility, less than half of the around 1.8 million homes in the country.

Those who are profoundly opposed to the charges will not be swayed by yesterday’s changes, but the test will be whether they grow or shrink in numbers in the coming weeks and months.

Confirmed: Here’s how much you’ll be paying for water – and what happens if you don’t

‘Like Del Boy trying to sell discounted goods’: Socialist TDs are not impressed by water charge concessions

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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