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Thursday 17 August 2017

Andrew Lynch: Irish Water's first bills will be a 'sink or swim' moment

Anti water charge protestors pictured on O'Connell street
Anti water charge protestors pictured on O'Connell street

Irish Water is "a hungry beast", Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger said on RTE yesterday.

As Saturday's Right2Water protest march in Dublin city centre showed, Ruth and her comrades are still hell-bent on starving this beast to death.

It may have been the biggest controversy in Irish politics for more than a year now, but Irish Water's toughest battle still lies ahead - with the first bills due to land on doormats in just over one week's time.

The figures show that this fight could still go either way. Around 990,000 customers from an estimated base of 1.5 million have registered with Irish Water, while another 247,000 householders are exempt from charges for one reason or another.

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That leaves roughly 260,000 holdouts - more than enough to give the Government a massive headache if they stick to their guns and refuse to cough up.

Apart from anything else, Saturday's march was an important morale boost for a campaign that desperately needed it. Right2Water has had a fairly disastrous last few months, mostly thanks to the thuggish behaviour of its more extreme members.

Trapping Tanaiste Joan Burton in her car and calling President Michael D Higgins a "midget parasite", were nasty own goals that alienated Middle Ireland, suggesting the movement might be past its high water mark.

Last Saturday, however, Right2Water looked like anything but a busted flush. True, there was the usual childish dispute over turnout with organisers claiming 80,000 and gardai suggesting it was less than half that.

Even if you accept the lower figure, this is no mean feat - and should encourage anyone thinking of not paying their bill to conclude that at least there is safety in numbers.

The weekend also added to Irish Water's steady trickle of bad news stories.

It emerged that Siteserv, which is in charge of installing water meters, has clashed with the state utility over who should pick up a multi-million euro bill for delays caused by local protesters.

Meanwhile, we also learned that no minutes were kept from a series of high-level Irish Water meetings in 2012 between the then Environment Minister Phil Hogan and Bord Gais chairperson Rose Hynes.

These may be minor issues compared to the scandals over consultancy fees and PPS numbers that dogged Irish Water throughout 2014 - but they all add up to give the HSE a serious rival for the position of 'most hated public institution in Ireland'.

The Government clearly believes it has done all it can. Alan Kelly, Hogan's successor at the Department of the Environment, announced u-turns before Christmas that gave Ireland the cheapest water charges in Europe.

His climbdown may well have taken some of the wind out of Right2Water's sails, but certainly not enough to sink it for good.

Kelly also made a concession that could turn out to be politically crucial. Under the new regime Irish Water customers who throw their bills in the bin will not face any penalties until mid-2016, taking us past the date of the next general election.

Postponing the crisis instead of facing it head on might be a cowardly move, but you will not find a single Fine Gael or Labour TD in Leinster House likely to complain.

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At least both sides agree about one thing. This political struggle is about much more than just water. Right2Water's leaders want to use it as a springboard for their own version of Syriza, which is why so many Greek flags were flying on O'Connell Street last Saturday.

For their part, the Government knows that giving up on Irish Water is out of the question. Enda Kenny might as well write out his letter of resignation at the same time.

However, they could easily win this battle and still lose the war - because water charges have already cost them a lot of votes that may have disappeared down the drain for good.

If Irish Water is indeed a "hungry beast", as Ruth Coppinger suggests, soon it will be feeding time at the zoo. The Irish people must then decide whether or not they are willing to let the poor animal live.

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