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Sunday 20 August 2017

Water fiasco has become a clear danger to Enda

Waterboarding, as most people know, is a particularly sadistic form of torture that involves pouring H2O over prisoners' faces to create the sensation of drowning.

Right now, Enda Kenny's government must be getting a good idea of how that feels.

The public's rising anger over Irish Water has become a clear and present danger to Fine Gael and Labour's chances of re-election - which is why they are cobbling together some kind of lifeboat to stay afloat.

Today, the Economic Management Council will hold one of its most crucial meetings yet. Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin all know that this is their very last chance to get on top of the issue.

postpone

The smart money suggests they will postpone Irish Water's first metered bills, introducing a flat charge instead for a couple of years until all houses have been installed with meters.

Will this work? As a short-term measure, it might just dampen down the fears of large households who cannot turn on a tap these days without feeling instantly poorer.

However, it does nothing to solve the basic problem - a growing number of people have become so infuriated by Irish Water that they are determined to sink it one way or another.

Next Saturday, the government will receive another not-so-gentle reminder. The Right2Water campaign is planning a series of over 50 protests around the country, with 14 scheduled for Dublin alone.

There is every chance that the combined turnout will be even greater than the 50-100,000 who marched through the capital on October 11 - allowing the protesters to claim that the tide is flowing rapidly in their direction.

In an ideal world, of course, the EMC would admit defeat and drop the idea of water charges completely. Unfortunately, it is far too late for that.

Not only would ditching Irish Water leave a gaping €800 million hole in our national balance sheet - the humiliation would also strip this government of whatever moral authority it has left.

Leo Varadkar admitted yesterday that the communications battle over water charges "has not yet been won". This made him sound a bit like the Emperor of Japan who declared in his surrender statement at the end of World War II: "The situation has developed, not necessarily to our advantage." Whether ministers realise it or not, Irish Water has now replaced the HSE as our most detested public institution - and a day rarely passes now without the gaffe-prone semi-state generating even more negative headlines.

So far we have had bitter rows over Irish Water's consultancy fees, gold-plated bonuses, call-out charges, data protection breaches and communication breakdowns. This week the sensitive issue of PPS numbers has broken out again.

Disturbingly, staff in the Department of Social Protection are expressing concerns over the legal basis for asking customers to provide such personal information - partly because they are fearful of what might happen if the company is ever privatised.

All of these individual controversies are important, but they should not be allowed to obscure the big picture. Fundamentally, the government made a massive mistake by assuming that water charges would just be the property tax Mark II.

They believed that after a certain amount of moaning and groaning, we would learn to live with yet another bill just as we accepted the smoking ban and paying for plastic bags.

The truth is turning out to be very different.

Even many of us who support the principle of paying for water are outraged at the bullying, wasteful and incompetent way it has been introduced.

crazy

This, in turn, is producing some really crazy responses, such as a gun being pulled on an Irish Water worker trying to install a meter and a customer charged 20 cent for a pint of tap water in a Dublin bar.

Alex White conceded yesterday that the government "tried to bite off too much too quickly". Maybe so, but there is no way that they can just spit it out now. In early 2015, there looks certain to be some sort of bill and some sort of boycott - and the big question then will be whether or not the hold-out brigade is too big for Irish Water to handle.

The stakes for today's EMC meeting could hardly be any higher. Enda Kenny and his colleagues must hammer out a compromise that will turn public opinion around - or else the Irish Water fiasco is set to carry on torturing them until they run out of breath.

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