One problem more than any other has exercised the minds of Irish cabinet ministers recently – what to do about Irish Water.
Many believe the company, which has yet to send out bills for water charges, could cost the Fine Gael-Labour coalition the next election in 2016.
If anyone was in any doubt about how unpopular water charges are, they got their answer when tens of thousands of people marched through Dublin this month to show their opposition.
On the same day, two anti-austerity candidates won by-elections to the Irish parliament; one a member of the Trotskyite hard-left Socialist Party.
Another protest march is due on Saturday, 1 November.
It seems many people have had more than enough of the tax rises and public spending cutbacks associated with austerity and are reluctant to pay more at a time when they are told the economy has turned a corner.
Irish Water was conceived as part of the EU-IMF (International Monetary Fund) troika bailout, which ended late last year. But, Ireland has a history of opposition to water charges. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition government has said the charges are necessary because it costs roughly 1 billion euros (£790m) a year to supply water out of general taxation.
But up to 40% of that supply is subject to leakage because of poor pipes and lack of investment in infrastructure over the years.
The government believes that problem can only be solved by creating Irish Water, which came into effect on 1 October, and getting it to generate enough income to remedy the problem.
More importantly, the government believes it will keep those costs off the state’s balance sheets at a time when it is trying to reduce its sky-high debts.
But the public has not been convinced.
Many wonder why people living on a relatively wet island surrounded by water, with over-ground reservoirs, should have to pay for something that until now has been free.
Then there are the criticisms that Irish Water is grossly over-staffed, because under the Croke Park industrial relations agreement public sector workers cannot be sacked.
Most annoying of all is the criticism that the company operates a bonus culture that benefits even those not deemed to be doing their job adequately. The critics believe all that is reflected in the amounts people will have to pay. Eventually, the vast majority of houses will be metered but at the moment only a third of homes have been.
From the new year, those without meters will pay an annual rate of 176 euros (£140) for a household with one adult – or 278 euros (£220) for a home with two adults. That means 102 euros (£81) for every extra adult in a home. Children under 18 will be given a free allowance of 21,000 litres.
Customers who live in areas where the water is unfit for human consumption will not pay any water supply charge, once a boil-water notice has been in place for at least 24 hours. Boyle in County Roscommon, where actor-comedian Chris O’Dowd grew up, is one such place. But people there will continue to be charged for waste water services.
Those who own a second property, like a holiday home, will also pay a charge of 125 euros (£99) on their non-primary residence.
Irish Water has also asked for national insurance numbers to verify that those claiming an allowance for children can get it, but the company’s critics see that as an invasion of privacy. The company estimates the cost of filling the average kettle is 96 cents. Flushing the toilet ten times a day will cost about 130 euros (£103) and about 75 euros (£59) for a shower over a year.
With water charges seen as another tax on something that until now has been free, many suspect, despite government denials, Irish Water will eventually be privatised. Then there is local opposition to engineers installing meters.
The company has had to go to the courts to get restraining orders on some people opposed to the implementation of water meters. So few people have returned their Irish Water forms that the company may have to delay collecting money. Those who don’t pay will have their supply reduced to a trickle, but anti-austerity campaigners have urged people to defy the company in a mass-protest. Talk of panic may be overstated but the government is clearly worried and the issue has been discussed at cabinet level.
There has been much discussion about changing Irish Water’s board, possibly its senior management, and of delaying the introduction water meters so that there will be a flat charge for at least a year. But there is an official insistence that water charges are here to stay. The tens of thousands of people expected to march on 1 November have a very different view.
With a general election due within the next two years, government politicians know how it deals with Irish Water between now and polling day could well sink its chances of re-election.
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