Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the tag “irish water”

What Price Irish Water?

A week of turmoil and anger. A week that started with the viral sensation of a letter from Donna Hartnett in the Irish Independent. A mother who asked what are we doing to our children? Farming them out at the break of dawn for child minding just to allow parents to work to make ends meet. She had had enough she said. She could not longer do it and whatever more taxes were applied by the government, they would have to go unpaid. She spoke for many. Many who have tried and struggled. Many who have put the shoulder to the wheel and sacrificed during the recession. Many who have now reached the end of that line.

Unfortunately the week ended with protests that were verging on violent and unsavoury but if you have sense you should join the dots. To the outsider this must appear crazy. Ireland is almost out the gap. It has come through worse and terrible convulsions in the last few years. Yet, now at the eleventh hour when there are signs of growth it seems control is being lost. It’s the little things that cause the big changes. Irish Water has become a catalyst for something bigger and sadly too many are so trapped within a bubble they cannot see it.

This is not the first time politicians have faced abuse. Ask members of the last government. However, the vast majority of people unequivocally abhor such actions. This time a lot of middle Ireland is saying ‘That’s terrible and wrong BUT…..’ It is that ‘but’ that should set alarm bells going off in government. Some suggest that such actions will force people to back away from support of the anti water charges campaign. In the normal course of events that would be true, but we are not in Kansas anymore. There are many people who do not support the far left groups, from farmers to professional types but who are extremely opposed to Irish Water. They were never at ease with such bedfellows but it won’t change their position. Why? Go back and read the Donna Hartnett letter.

I have met many people who tell me they would pay water charges. They can afford it. They would pay a tax for it. They will not, however, pay Irish Water. Yes there are those who will say they won’t pay at all but the emphasis here must be on that middle ground. It is suggested a ‘modest charge’ of €4 per week will be acceptable. It may be accepted by TD’s and the Dail but I am not convinced that people will pay the bill when it comes through the door. It’s not just about the charge anymore, it’s about the whole culture and organisation of Irish Water. You don’t give money to anyone you don’t trust and the people, be they right wing or left wing, do not think Irish Water is fit for purpose.

Two months ago Enda Kenny could have stepped in. If he had been decisive then and said that Irish Water was getting out of control and the government was going to sort it out, people might have listened. If he had called the Board together with the Cabinet and agreed a fixed 18 month charge there and then while reforming the body people might have respected him and felt the government was acting in their interest. Instead he vacillated. There is an effort to share blame. There are no figures available now that were not available two months ago. No negotiations taking place over the course of weeks that could not have been done in a day if people were decisive. The problem is that no one wanted to be responsible for taking the decision as that might cost them their job. Now, two months too late the government is getting around to their big announcement. The problem is the people may have moved on. You don’t pay for something that there is a good chance you won’t have to pay for.

Recent protests have been compared to the early 1980s. They are not the same. Back then the majority of people who voted were part of large political parties with a very definite hold. In 1981 93% of the vote went to FF/FG/Labour. In 1982 it was 95%. Today the broad mass of voters has no home. They are unsure of direction, devoid of political hope and are disorganised. Even with Sinn Fein added to them the main parties struggle toward 75%. This is a very different melting pot. A large vacuum still exists in Irish Politics since the collapse of Fianna Fail. The danger is not who gets into government next, it’s what happens to them. Some people fear Sinn Fein coming to power. I don’t. They are just another political party. Some will like them, some will hate them. They will be voted in and out like everyone else. However, we are incubating the seeds of a people who trust nobody and may respect no government at all. Even if SF and People before Profit form a government they may end up in a state where they cannot get backing for anything. This is what happens if the middle ground becomes utterly disillusioned and feels nobody listens at all. This is the kind of vacuum someone steps into and capitalises on, most probably someone we don’t even know yet. Irish Water is middle Ireland’s moment. This is their test to see who is listening. Right now the Government has two options. Abandon charges until Irish Water is reformed and a system built that people trust or push ahead with a charge. The question is, is that charge worth it? It will be a massive political risk and what exactly is the benefit?

This government should be selling its message from the budget and instead it finds itself in the quagmire. It is there because they seem incapable of reading a situation. They must accept that this one issue is pushing them toward a precipice more than any other. Why? Why is it so important that we risk all politics for years to come for the sake of this standing charge for 18 months? It doesn’t even raise a lot of money. The government needs to move on and consign this debate to history fast. The middle ground will then return to listening to other arguments about other taxes and spending issues. They will not listen on Irish Water. You have got to ‘know when to walk away and know when to run.’

Irish Water just isn’t worth the price it will cost this country politically.

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Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

Irish Water is in a mess. We all know that. The Government is struggling to deal with the crisis and the fact that they cannot seem to get everyone into a room and come to a decision is not helping. There is to be a decision this week, then its next week, the amounts vary, the idea of a referendum continues to be talked about. Understandably the government want to get it right, but the fact is that they will eventually have to take a bit of a hit and hope approach anyway and the public are less likely to agree with it each day that passes.
The longer it goes on, the more people talk. Public representatives are no different. Last week on the ‘Late Debate’ on RTE radio, Senator John Whelan made a stunning accusation. He suggested that the Government had been misled by Bord Gais about Irish Water. The suggestion was that TDs had voted for it but had been ‘sold a pup’. This accusation has pretty serious implications. Understandably RTE distanced itself from the comments.
In the aftermath a few questions arise. Public representatives may say things under pressure but what if this is a commonly held belief in the corridors of power? That would cause a major issue. If people in the government parties believe they were outwitted by Bord Gais then how could the ordinary person be expected to trust the new Irish Water body?

There is of course a simple possible explanation: that Senator Whelan spoke out of turn with no evidence whatsoever to back him up and is a lone voice in his belief or wildly mistaken. If this is the case then the government could be expected to deal with it by giving him a ticking off and immediately expressing their trust in Bord Gais in all their dealings with the government.
I asked this of the Labour party twitter account but got no response. Joanna Tuffy is a TD who bravely engages and discusses issues and she should be noted and respected for that. I asked her if she felt the government was misled and would she express full confidence in Bord Gais and all its dealings with government. She did not feel she had enough information to answer the question however and ‘I don’t know’ was as far as we could get.

I emailed the Government Press Office last Thursday asking them to clarify the matter and whether they agreed the government was misled or whether they would express full confidence in all Bord Gais dealings with the government. I received no reply. I emailed them again last Friday and they have still failed to respond.

I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer asking if he would distance himself from the accusation that the government was misled and if he would express confidence in Bord Gais dealings with government. He too failed to respond. Later that evening in an interview the Minister said that he would not ‘necessarily go down the line of saying that anyone was misled, because I wouldn’t think that’s appropriate.’ That is hardly the ringing endorsement that one might expect. Surely a minister should be saying that the Government was not misled in any way shape or form? The language hinted at some kind of doubt and that the wording of the accusation was just inappropriate rather than plainly wrong.
I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer putting this to him and again asking him to say categorically that the Government was not misled and that they had full confidence in Bord Gais and all their dealings. Still I was met with silence. How hard can it be to say you trust the people you are working with on the biggest project the government has before it?

I also contacted Senator John Whelan and asked him if he would wish to retract the comment or say he stands over it. Unsurprisingly after two emails I still got no response there either. After a while if you keep ignoring something then perhaps it will go away and people will doubt it ever happened. If no one asks the question then you don’t have to answer and once it’s not asked ‘live on air’ we will be fine.
So I experienced what it is like to become the invisible man. There are no answers. I wouldn’t mind but all I wanted them to do was fully back their own project and team in simple terms. Makes you wonder….

Update: After I posted this blog earlier a twitter friend Anne-Marie (@thecailinrua) asked Senator When for his thoughts on the blog. He responded with the following ‘I think Delores O’Riordain was recruited by Govt to get #water off front pages and @jonnyfallon should write a blog about that.’

We both asked him for a straight answer to which he responded ‘last week alone I was on midlands 103, RTE news and Late debate and answered all questions put to me as I always do’

I responded by reminding him that the questions in my email remained unanswered and asked ‘Do you stand over the allegation that Bord Gais misled the govt? yes or No?’

As things stand I have not got a response

Update 21/11/2014:As the government announced its revised Water Charges scheme Government TD’s and Senators hit Social Media in an effort to sell it. This prompted another opportunity to ask John Whelan about this. I asked him ‘Yes or No did Bord Gais mislead the government on Irish Water?’ He replied “Yes – I said we were sold a pup and today it is being put right by @AlanKellyLabour as any reasonable person would agree”

So it is now quite clear that John Whelan stands over his assertion. Despite repeated attempts and opportunities the Minister and the Government press office have still not replies to questions and this can only be taken at this stage as an acknowledgement that Whelan has a point or at least some support in his view. No Government source has been willing to express complete confidence in Bord Gais and their dealings with the Government on this issue.

I contacted Bord Gais (Ervia) about this and asked them for their view. Their response focussed mostly on the work they were attempting to do and how they hoped to gain the trust of the public. The first paragraph vageuly alluded to the question of who misled who. I include their response in full below. However, the Irish people are left in a most unsatisfactory position. Clearly some issue has arisen between Bord Gais and The government at a senior level. Some breach of trust must have happened as no side seem to be in a position to deny this. It is startling that an organisation that is now so dependent on gaining trust starts its life with doubt hanging over the very agreement it was based upon.

Bord Gais Statement:
Bord Gais put in a proposal to government in late 2011/early 2012. Detailed project plans and budget were agreed with the government subsequently and since then, the company has worked closely with the Government to meet milestones and deliver to a challenging timeline.

Obviously we cannot speak on behalf of the government. For our part, we welcome yesterday’s government announcement, which provides greater clarity and certainly to the public. The challenge that Irish Water faces in transforming water services in this country is considerable. In addition, the timeline set for the utility’s establishment was very challenging, and Ervia CEO Michael McNicholas has acknowledged this in interviews since yesterday’s announcement. He acknowledged that Irish Water had not yet won public trust and confidence, and apologised for that. We have made considerable progress in many areas since our establishment. For example by next summer, boil water notices will be down from over 20,000 to just 5,000; 12,000 people in Roscommon will soon have clean drinking water; and major waste water treatment projects are now in construction in locations including Youghal, Carrigtwohill, Clifden, Bunclody, Killybegs, Clonakilty and Waterford. We acknowledge we have not achieved all we need to achieve, and we are fully focused on winning the confidence of the public and making vital improvements to our water infrastructure.

Striking a balance on political interference

We have a habit of complaining about political interference. That is understandable really. Politicians often make a mess of things and abuse situations when they interfere. The Cahill plan to save Aer Lingus in the early nineties worked because it made the politicians back off and leave the running of the company to the people in the industry. We have had situations of phone tapping, we had a Minister for Justice and Communications that was determined to try and destroy RTE as he perceived them as biased. We had health boards that were run at the behest of politicians. We still have grave doubts over the locations of primary care centres after alleged political interference last year. One only has to mention the word ‘planning’ to make the whole nation heave a sigh and shake their head ruefully. The list of examples is and endless stream which helps convince us that political interference is never a good thing.

Is that really the case though? I am convinced that there is a balance to be struck. The problem is that a bad politician will act in their own self interest and abuse a situation. At the same time we will suffer if good politicians become convinced that they should always steer clear. In the late ’90s it became fashionable to set up ‘independent bodies’. No matter where you looked there was another independent body springing up. The purpose of these was to create distance. Ministers were not to be held accountable and blamed for decisions, strikes, problems and activities. The Minister would simply become a conduit to ‘raise the matter’ with the appropriate people. The best example of this was the HSE, particularly under the stewardship of Minister Harney. It all seemed a good way to do business. I often thought it was the perfect example of the Bertie Ahern leadership style, where compromise and distance replaced decisiveness and speed. Procedures became more important than results.

Now, the next step was of course the appointment of people to the boards. In an ideal world the idea of a minister making such appointments makes a lot of sense. The Minister should have a voice they can trust at the table. A person who will help to ensure that the elected governments views and objectives are always kept in mind. The reality was different. Instead of it being a job it became a reward. People were not appointed to one board they were appointed to several. No longer did these individuals see their role as somehow bringing something to the board or aiding in government plans, it was instead their reward for previous work done. Therefore getting something out of it was the main objective rather than seeing it as a new role where they had to prove themselves. On the other hand, Ministers gave out these roles and then quite happily distanced themselves from everything. If decisions were taken they did not want to know. After all you can’t be blamed for something you were never told about.

We certainly do not know all the story as regards the banking crisis. However, all the evidence so far points in one direction. It was what I call the ‘golf club syndrome’. All the lads knew each other. Each one thought the other was a great guy. It allowed for groupthink to penetrate. If we all keep saying it it must be true. If there’s a rumour of an issue in a bank then we don’t haul them in or look for information. Instead, the Minister asked the Department Secretary over lunch, to talk to the Central Bank. The Central Bank has a chat with the Regulator when he pops in. The Regulator picks up the phone to the Banks CEO and asks if everything is OK. The CEO says it is. The message is relayed back and everyone is happy. Next item will be the banks invitation to a golf classic or a conference. Take them at their word. Don’t interfere; these guys know what they are doing.

Charities and boards go wild on payments, retirement packages and top ups but nobody sees a reason to mention it at the time. Worse, no politician sees a reason for them to be questioning such things as guardians of the tax payer. They don’t want to know. The less you know the less you can be blamed for.

Irish Water is the latest in this line with its raft of consultants and its laughing yoga. Minister Hogan told everyone that he doesn’t ‘micro mange’. Of course not. The best escape any minister can have is to ‘know nothing of this matter’ and to be ‘appalled when it was brought to my attention’. Not once did anyone think that in such a vital project that Ministers needed to interfere a bit by asking questions, demanding reports and ensuring satisfactory answers.

It is quite clear that there are politicians who abuse their power and that will never change. We must simply guard against it. Always question their motives and ask them for answers. It should not be a reason for politicians to back away from decisions and responsibility. When they do we can see that other people are equally capable of abusing a situation, and they carry on using public money with absolutely no concept of public accountability. Such people also lack any kind of judgment when it comes to public opinion and seem completely disconnected from the lives of everyday people. Perhaps before taking up any such role we should ask an individual to spend 6 months on the dole just to let them understand why value for money is important.

In any event we must strive for a balance. Where politicians abuse their power we must ensure it is reported and uncovered. We must also demand that politicians stop abdicating their responsibility as protectors of the public and start demanding answers and actions rather than throwing their hands in the air and sighing with the rest of us helpless sods.

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