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Sink or swim time fast approaching for Enda and Co

As any swimming instructor will tell you, the rule for somebody in danger of drowning is not to panic.

This is also good advice for Enda Kenny (below) as he tries to prevent the Irish Water crisis from dragging the Government under.

The Coalition still has one last chance to unveil a package of emergency measures, but it had better be watertight, or the waves will close over their heads for good.

If the Taoiseach had any remaining doubts over how much trouble he is in, last weekend's events must have been the equivalent of a cold shower.

The protest marches on Saturday were almost big enough to fill Croke Park twice over.

Sunday then brought a devastating opinion poll that showed Fine Gael and Labour with only 29pc of support between them.

So how does the Government dig itself out of this mess? The first step is to swallow a large portion of humble pie.

As late as Saturday evening, Enda Kenny was displaying a tin ear by threatening the protesters with huge tax rises.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly took a much more sensible approach yesterday when he and Irish Water CEO John Tierney both publicly apologised for the screw-ups of recent months.

This was a crucial moment, since many feel that their intelligence has been insulted. A little more respect from now on would not go amiss.

Next, the Government must put its money where its mouth is. It is crazy that with the meters already running, households are still confused over how much their bills might be.


Introducing a flat charge for two years would not only provide us with some badly-needed certainty, it would conveniently postpone our first metered payments until after the general election.

Flat charges should result in flat salaries. After so many shocking revelations about Irish Water's bonus culture, the Government has to impose a completely new pay structure that will eliminate any sneaky wage increases.

The money saved might just be a drop in the ocean, but symbolically it would help to turn the tide of public opinion.

Privatisation is another dangerous bogeyman that the Government has to kill off. Rightly or wrongly, many people are fearful that Irish Water is being fattened up for sale to the highest bidder in a few years' time.

Alan Kelly can resolve this fairly simply if he tightens up the law or holds a referendum to ensure that the new company will remain in public hands.

Finally, the Government might give serious consideration to a real game-changer.

It could put the Revenue Commissioners in charge of making sure that water bills are paid, giving them the power to deduct it from wage packets or social welfare if necessary.

This would be heavy-handed, but it worked to defeat the property tax protests, simply because most of us are scared of the taxman and will do anything to avoid a fight with him.

Even if the Government introduces every single one of these measures, there is no guarantee of victory. The 150,000 or so people who marched on Saturday made it clear that nothing less than a complete abolition of water charges will satisfy them.

According to Sunday's opinion poll, 25pc of the population are determined not to stump up - a boycott that would be more than big enough to put the whole project in grave doubt.

The Government still thinks it has a trump card. It believes that when Irish Water's first bills finally arrive in early 2015, we will be pleasantly surprised by just how modest they are.


That, however, fails to appreciate the public's pent-up fury at all the waste, arrogance and incompetence that has been swirling around Irish Water.

As a result, many voters have apparently decided that five cent would be too much to pay for this new service, which leads to the ultimate question of how many will have the courage of their convictions.

Right now, the only certainty is that this is a battle the Government cannot afford to lose.

When the Economic Management Council unveils its emergency package (most likely next week), it will be a real sink or swim moment for Enda Kenny.

If it fails to impress, a few bubbles on the surface may soon be the only remaining trace of his Government.