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Friday 9 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Irish Water fudge shows Government in full election mode

Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly's blunderbuss style has earned him the sardonic nickname of AK47. When it comes to Irish Water, however, the normally trigger-happy Environment Minister is about to call a ceasefire.

This week he is pushing through legislation that will postpone the confrontation with water charge holdouts for at least another year, confirming that the Government now has both eyes firmly fixed on winning a second term.

Kelly's climbdown may be cynical, but on a political level it makes total sense. According to Irish Water yesterday, 1.32 million households had registered their details with the new state utility.

Since Irish people are well-known for leaving things to the last minute, some of the remaining 400,000 may well have signed up before the deadline of midnight.

Registration, however, does not cost a red cent. When it comes to the far more relevant question of how many people have actually paid their first bills, Irish Water goes all coy.

According to the company's political opponents, this secrecy can mean only one thing - a silent mass boycott has already begun and will ultimately doom the whole enterprise to a watery grave.

Whatever the truth, Alan Kelly has decided to take no chances. The amendments to his innocently titled Environmental Miscellaneous Provisions Bill being rushed through today will eventually allow Irish Water to deduct money from the salaries and social welfare payments of customers who refuse to stump up.

Crucially, however, this cannot happen until 15 months after the bills go out - pushing us well past the general election that must be held before next April.

In other words, the Government is looking for a time-out.

When Irish Water was first designed by Big Phil Hogan, refuseniks were warned their H2O would be cut to a trickle. Hogan's hardline approach also raised the prospect of some very dirty protesters being taken to court or even winding up behind bars.

All that, however, was before Irish Water suffered a series of PR disasters that made it our most hated new national institution since the HSE. The Government was forced to make some humiliating U-turns, replacing metered bills with a flat charge of €60 for one-adult households and €160 for everyone else.

A company that was supposed to generate serious amounts of money will now barely take in enough to wash its face. Addressing the Greek crisis in Brussels last week, Enda Kenny declared that Ireland had reduced its debt without putting up income tax, VAT or PRSI.

It would be nice to know which country the Taoiseach thinks he has been governing since 2011.

Water charges may be relatively small compared with some of the other recent raids on our wallets, but they have managed to create more public anger than all other tax hikes put together.

Now that Alan Kelly is booting the ball into touch, however, Irish Water's enemies have their own problems. While the Non-Payment Network led by left-wing TDs such as Richard Boyd Barrett and Ruth Coppinger are holding yet another protest outside Leinster House today, some steam has clearly gone out of the campaign.

modest

Last year's monster marches made it look like a great national movement - this year's more modest rallies have largely been a case of rounding up the usual suspects.

Kelly's move will also fuel speculation that the Government is clearing its decks in order to call an early general election. With Aer Lingus about to be sold and a public sector pay deal concluded, there is precious little left on the Coalition's to-do list.

Tanaiste Joan Burton is now lobbying for a €5 increase in child benefit as part of next October's Budget, which would do nothing to reduce inequality but might well be an effective vote-winner.

Alan Kelly has kicked the Irish Water can so far down the road that his shoes must be destroyed. If the Government is re-elected, however, AK47 will finally have to show just how good a shot he really is.

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