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Thursday 14 December 2017

Irish Water now a monster that's out of Enda's control

Enda Kenny can't say he wasn't warned. The alarm bells should have started ringing last January when Irish Water was exposed as a pampered, over-staffed, free-spending quango that treats its customers with contempt.

Instead, the Government is only now waking up to how much damage this could cause them - which is a bit like turning off your taps after the bathroom has already been flooded.

At Fine Gael's parliamentary party on Wednesday night, backbencher Anthony Lawlor expressed himself in rather unparliamentary language.

His usage of the word "gobsh***s" reportedly shocked some TDs so much that the remark was later withdrawn.

In fact, Lawlor's concerns are fully shared by most of his colleagues in both Fine Gael and Labour.

TDs were supposed to have a hotline to Irish Water so that they could raise any local problems, but instead they have been fobbed off with an email address that sends back bland holding responses.

A handful of deputies have even been desperate enough to try contacting the new semi-state company via Twitter - with the highly appropriate hashtag of 'shambles'.

During its set-up phase, Irish Water famously blew €50m of taxpayers' money on consultancy fees.

So why is it failing to carry out such a basic function as communicating with the public's elected representatives?

creator

The truth is slowly dawning on Government Buildings - just like Dr Frankenstein, they have built a dangerous monster that is out of control and threatening to destroy its creator.

Even with the meters now running, Irish Water apparently still needs to have basic information dragged out of it.

This week it has been busy sowing confusion over the fundamental issue of whether landlords or tenants are ultimately responsible for bills on rented properties.

As a result, Wicklow County Council has already been threatening some residents with eviction - exactly the sort of behaviour that has made this issue a PR disaster right from the start.

For Enda Kenny, last Saturday's massive protest march was the equivalent of having a bucket of cold water thrown in his face.

Whether 50,000 or 100,000 people took to the streets of Dublin, it clearly represents a small army of outraged citizens who are determined to put Irish Water out of business.

On the same day, Fine Gael and Labour's humiliating defeat in the Dublin South West by-election proved that voters upset by water charges can also make their voices heard through the ballot box.

Officially, the tax credits for water bills announced by Michael Noonan in Tuesday's budget were planned all along and have nothing to do with last weekend's events.

In the real world, this looks like a panicky damage limitation exercise that is already starting to unravel.

As the Department of Finance has been forced to admit, 200,000 low-income and unemployed families are excluded from the new reliefs - which has left officials scrambling to come up with a fairer formula and allowed anti-water charge campaigners to score yet another publicity victory.

payments

There is also a serious question mark over how much the Taoiseach knows about events at Irish Water HQ.

He recently told the Dail that no bonuses have been paid to its staff, but a letter from parent company Ervia yesterday detailed €5.1m in top-up payments to 940 employees.

Of course, Irish Water hates the word 'bonus' and would much prefer to describe these payments as 'performance-related awards' - a perfect example of the attitude that has made them such a popular and respected organisation.

Everything now hinges on how many people take the ultimate step of throwing their first bills in the bin next January.

The only certainty right now is that water charges have become the number one threat to this Government's chances of a political recovery - and Enda Kenny looks like a man trying to mop up the Irish Sea with a box of Kleenex.

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