Irish Water's credibility has truly dried up

  Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Eurostat's hammer blow to the project has ministers reciting lines like their two-times tables

 ‘Eurostat does not oppose the Government’s aims – but it merely had to prod Irish Water for the whole fiasco to fall apart’

‘Eurostat does not oppose the Government’s aims – but it merely had to prod Irish Water for the whole fiasco to fall apart’


The Government has been caught out - Irish Water has failed the Eurostat test - devastating news for the members of the Cabinet. In deep, deep trouble, the Government responds with a mixture of guile, panic and outright denial.

For the past year, the Irish Water story has been presented overwhelmingly as one of loudmouth, know-nothing malcontents versus a responsible establishment. Yes, we were told, there are some teething problems with Irish Water, but the basic plan is sound.

Those who opposed the "new funding model" were a "sinister fringe". According to the Taoiseach, the opposition to his plans came from people who "don't want to pay for anything".

And, of course, the Tanaiste revealed - and this really is Ms Burton's level - that protesters have "expensive phones".

The image they sought to create was of a competent, responsible Government, unfairly hassled by ignorant people.

Last week, Eurostat comprehensively tore apart the whole Irish Water project.

It's important to stress that Eurostat doesn't oppose the Government's aims, it's not on the side of the protesters - it has no problem with water charges and privatisation. This was an objective appraisal, by a technocratic tool of the EU. It wasn't looking for faults - it would have been happy to give the project a positive review, if at all possible.

It merely had to prod Irish Water for the shambles to fall apart.

Irish Water was since 2009 a Fine Gael pet project that ticked several boxes. The water tax would produce a revenue stream in the short term. The nominally "independent" company would be state-funded, to fix the leaks at our expense. And in due course it would tick the box marked 'Privatisation', and the public water supply would be sold to a private gambler.

Creating a database of customers, complete with PPS numbers, would have made it a desirable product for sale to those with the millions to buy such public assets.

It was the kind of project that gives good little right wingers wet dreams.

The hundreds of thousands of people who opposed the water tax - who campaigned, who demonstrated on the streets, who refused to pay - had various reasons for their opposition, but had no doubt about the damage Irish Water would do.

They saw a double-tax mechanism, part of the array of austerity measures, which would take a public asset, repair it at our expense, doll it up and eventually sell it to a consortium of the usual suspects. And the opposition to Irish Water held firm, despite threats, bribes and insults.

The protests forced the Government to cap the charges, and forced a retreat on PPS numbers. They even promised not to privatise - we didn't believe them, but they were forced to make the gesture.

Finally, courtesy of the fascinating mind of Minister Alan Kelly, the Government came up with a bribe - a €100 "conservation grant", just for registering with Irish Water. The name was a sham, there was no mechanism for conserving water. If you opened your taps and left them running 24/7, you'd still get the €100. All they wanted was to bulk up the numbers they could claim were registering.

In all the farcical stuff that's gone on, has there been a more gratuitous misuse of public money?

The only way Eurostat could approve Irish Water was if the fix was in, if Eurostat had been got at by someone high in the EU. "Ah, lads, Enda and Joan have followed ECB orders, and it's only fair to help them preserve an image of competence in the run-up to the election."

But Irish Water is such a disaster that a fix wasn't feasible. The Eurostat review shows an "independent" company that's wholly controlled by the Government, poorly organised, and a drain on the public finances with a make-it-up-as-you-go-along business plan.

The political dilemma this creates is the politicians' problem. The fact that they've squandered hundreds of millions of euros is ours. They've tied the State into expensive contracts - and the result is a fiasco that will drain the public purse for years, to no good purpose.

The government response to the Eurostat rejection seemed rehearsed. Those who spoke used similar phraseology. Michael Noonan was, as you might expect, best at diverting attention from the disaster.

He drawled that to pass the Eurostat test Irish Water needs 50pc of its revenue to come from selling its product, and that figure is already 48pc, so it's well on its way.

That's nonsense.

The revenue sources - state and commercial - is one aspect of the report. The entire structure was slated by Eurostat. Irish Water couldn't have been shoddier if a crack squad from the last Fianna Fail government put it together.

Another minister, Paudie Coffey - who sounded about half a decibel below panic level - said the Eurostat report was "marginal". More nonsense. He kept repeating little phrases - "cards on the table", "prudent governance", "there is no alternative" - like a school kid reciting times tables.

Is this a thing now, in public life? It's most noticeable with Enda Kenny, who memorises slabs of prose and uses them to waffle his way through interviews and Dail appearances, regurgitating his rehearsed points regardless of the question he's asked.

Last week we had the extraordinary sight of the CEO of a bank explaining that he wasn't to blame for serious overcharging that shattered many lives. And that's not to mention those who lost their homes because of the overcharging.

And on the front of his script, to ensure he presented himself to best effect, was the scribbled reminder that he should appear "serious, controlled, no smile".

Is public life entirely in the hands of robots, who can't function without rehearsed scripts and stage directions?

Listening to ministers parroting one another suggests it is.

(By the way, Alan Kelly said the Government is "working through the CSO to challenge" Eurostat. This suggests ministers will seek to influence Eurostat using the Central Statistics Office as a front. Can someone from the CSO please point out that politicians have no business "working through" a body that cannot properly function without unquestionable independence?)

Where does it all go from here?

Kenny and Burton won't back down. It would hurt their image, with an election coming up.

On the other hand, to get Irish Water past Eurostat they'd have to reorganise the company's workforce and its funding. They'd have to cut out the bribes.

They'd have to greatly increase the numbers of people willing to pay.

They'd have to dismantle what Eurostat calls their "exceptional" control of the company.

They'd have to immediately dismantle the alleged safeguards against privatisation - which would be easily done, but would expose their longer term aims.

Someone in the ECB might decide it's simpler to have a quiet chat with Eurostat.

Everyone involved in creating this mess, from Phil Hogan to Alan Kelly, from Enda Kenny and Joan Burton to the Irish Water executives - plus the top civil servants and the rest of the cabinet, who waved all this through - they're all on a cushy number. Bloated salaries and obscene pensions.

We, who are insulted and sneered at as the ones who "don't want to pay for anything", will of course end up paying for bloody everything.

In the months to come, these people will tell us we have to vote for them. Because, unlike those wild left wingers on the independent benches, they are serious, competent and responsible people.

Original article Irish Independent