herald

Thursday 14 December 2017

Andrew Lynch: Water charges have become the issue that refuses to die

People show their support against charges during a water charges demonstration in Dublin at the weekend
People show their support against charges during a water charges demonstration in Dublin at the weekend

Today is the official deadline for registering your details with Irish Water.

If you still haven't got around to it by midnight, however, the Government doesn't want you to worry.

"It's not a drop-dead date," Environment Minister Alan Kelly (below) reassured us last week. "You can register on February 3, February 4, February 10."

The desperation of Kelly's appeal is impossible to miss. All the indications are that when tonight's deadline has passed, almost half of Ireland's 1.5 million households set to be billed will still be thumbing their noses at the new utility.

This is worrying news for the Government because it urgently needs to kill off the water charges issue before the general election in roughly a year's time.

Right now, the battle is finely balanced. The anti-Irish Water brigade has suffered some PR disasters recently, mostly thanks to a small thuggish element.

Watching one of your key organisers yell "You little midget parasite!" at President Higgins is bad enough, but allowing that organiser to continue in his role is one sure way of alienating middle Ireland for good.

march

Even so, this movement is very far from being a busted flush. It mustered 15,000 people for a march through Dublin city centre on Saturday afternoon and has more public shows of strength in the pipeline.

More importantly, Right2Water has prompted talks between Sinn Fein, left-wing parties, independent TDs and trade unions about creating a common policy platform at the next election - when their shared opposition to Irish Water could prove to be a trump card.

The Government, meanwhile, can only sit and hope. Alan Kelly made a significant climbdown last November by cutting the water charge.

That dampened the street protests for a while - but there still remains a huge chunk of people who say they are prepared to break the law rather than pay.

Of course, we Irish are notorious for leaving taxes and charges until the last possible minute. It may be that in the weeks ahead, Irish Water's registration figure will inch up to a more respectable level.

Ministers point out that the property tax also got off to a rocky start but has now achieved an impressive compliance rate of 95pc.

The truth is that nobody knows for sure. Everything is building up to April when the first Irish Water bills will be opened.

Enda Kenny cannot force people to pay, no more than Paul Murphy can force them not to - in the end it must be a decision that every individual household takes for itself.

But if even a few hundred thousand of those bills are dumped in the bin, Kenny's coalition will be not waving but drowning.

humiliate

The issue could dominate 2015 just like 2014, as Irish Water decides whether to use a debt collection agency or start taking hold-outs to court.

It might even humiliate the Government into an early general election, where water charges would lead every debate - and that is a fight Fine Gael and Labour simply cannot win.

Today's deadline is another small milestone in the long and tragic saga of Irish Water.

There will be many more.

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