It hasn’t gone away you know. While not enjoying the spotlight it hogged at the tail end of last year, Irish Water remains a constant presence in the Irish political landscape. Protests have continued around the country, and several incidents have propelled the issue to the front pages in the last few months. The recent release of payment figures and the news that the company has failed a key market test are merely the latest indications that, although it has struggled on this far, Irish Water is ultimately doomed.
1. No one is paying.
The official figures suggest that only 43% of people have paid their first bills for water, which were sent out in April. Out of 1.5m households, 675,000 have paid up. Having planned to take in €66.8m during its first three months, Irish Water has instead collected €30.5 million – 46% of the expected total. Of course, these are the official figures – do take them with a pinch of salt.
2. The stick hasn’t worked.
In recent months, the Department of the Environment, with responsibility for water charges, has stepped up its efforts to force people to pay. The introduction of the civil debt legislation will, according to Minister Alan Kelly, “significantly reform the way all civil debt is treated in Ireland and move it away from what is a currently excessively bureaucratic procedure.” In practice this means a few concrete changes in the process of recovering money from non-payers.
Firstly, under the proposed bill, creditors may apply to the courts for an order enabling either attachment of earnings or deductions from social welfare payments for the payment of civil debt, meaning they’ll try to take it out of your wages or benefits.
Secondly, the liability for a water charge will transfer to the owner of a property wherever a tenant’s details have not been given to Irish Water, and if a tenant doesn’t pay the charges, a landlord can keep their deposit. This leaves tenants at the mercy of landlords who don’t want to pay two bills, or need another excuse to withhold a deposit. This is also a concerted targeting of working class people on lower incomes – renters and those on social welfare – who are recognised as being at the heart of the non-payment movement. Still, these scare tactics haven’t worked.
3. The carrot hasn’t worked.
The so-called ‘Conservation Grant’ is an annual payment of €100 to households who have registered with Irish Water. It is little more than a bribe, an attempt to sweeten the deal for those who were considering not paying. Bad as that is already, no one thought to tie the grant to payment of bills, only to registration. So people who registered – including many who weren’t liable for a bill in the first place, and many who were registered against their will – but don’t pay will still receive their €100. This blatant (and expensive) handout has failed to convince people they ought to pay. Rather, it has merely shown how incompetent and condescending this government is.
4. The balance sheet manipulation hasn’t worked.
The setting up of Irish Water as a separate entity from the state was justified by the government as it would allow the company to raise money on the international markets and it would keep the initial state investment off the national balance sheet. With strict controls still in place post-bailout, the government has limited wiggle room when it comes to investment, so if there was to be any flexibility in upcoming budgets, Irish Water would have to stay off the government’s spreadsheets.
For all this to work, Irish Water had to pass the Market Corporation Test posed by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, which would decide if the company was sufficiently independent from the government to be counted as a real company. As of Tuesday morning, we know that Irish Water failed this test and the money spent on it must count towards the annual deficit and national debt. Though no reasons have yet been given for the failure, it’s widely assumed that the Conservation Grant, the final desperate sop to potential customers, ruled out any chance of Irish Water being understood as separate from the state. Failing this test has fatally undermined the official justification for Irish Water’s existence.
5. Siteserv has become common knowledge.
Writing about the corruption and cronyism surrounding Irish Water last year, the details of the purchase of Siteserv by Maltese billionaire Denis O’Brien were far from well known. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of TD Catherine Murphy, the shady dealings that resulted in a €100m gift from the state to O’Brien have been exposed to far greater scrutiny. Murphy’s work in the Dáil, and the reactions of both the government and O’Brien, have made it clear to people that Irish Water has been rigged from the beginning to line the pockets of a wealthy elite.
6. Alan Kelly is a liability.
Whether illegitimately dishing out over €1.5m in grants to towns in his own constituency, or saying “the state builds libraries, yet people pay to take books out” in an effort to get people to pay water charges (while also campaigning against library fees), Alan Kelly, Minister for the Environment, has been a controversial figure at the heart of the Irish Water saga.
Kelly’s youthful prominence within the Labour party and his gusto in going along with Fine Gael’s plans – “probably one of the best governments in the history of the State” – has made him a perfect fall guy when things go wrong, and things have gone very wrong indeed since he took the poisoned Irish Water chalice out of Phil Hogan’s hands in last July. There has probably never been a politician who has become so widely derided, so utterly disliked, in such a short space of time. However, with a nickname like ‘Big Balls’ Kelly, he’s probably well able to take the heat. Whether his party can survive the same pressure is another question altogether.
7. It’s about to become an election promise.
“Irish Water, I believe, should be abolished.” No, not some radical anarchist or hardcore trade union pinko, but Barry Cowen – brother of (and parliamentary successor to) former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. In keeping with Fianna Fáil’s long-term strategy of saying whatever it needs to say in order to get votes, and with an election no more than eight months away, Cowen’s views are probably widely held within the party. Seasoned politicos like these know not to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly when they can forget all about keeping their promises should they end up with any power.
Outside of the centre-right, the likes of Sinn Fein, the independents, and the new Social Democrats are all likely to make abolition a central part of their campaigns. Pearse Doherty, Paul Murphy and Joe Higgins have all made renewed statements in the last 24 hours arguing the case for wrapping up the Irish Water debacle. If anyone except the government parties advocates anything other than ‘abolish Irish Water’ over the next few months, it will come as quite a surprise.