Like paying to have your rubbish collected, Irish Water is another stealth charge, the genesis of which goes back to the decision to abolish household rates...
Our capacity for making a mess of things seems positively labyrinthine. Those with long memories will recall that a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, almost bankrupted the country back in 1977.
Ireland had been through four tortuous years of government under a Fine Gael/Labour coalition, led by Liam Cosgrave. Those were difficult times in Ireland, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland spilling over into the South in all sorts of different ways. In addition, there was a huge amount of industrial unrest. Strikes were commonplace, with buses, banks and the postal service all shutting down completely. Regular petrol shortages added to the drama. And a rotten cadre of pious sleeveens held sway in Dáil Éireann.
One of them was the Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave himself, who – having said nothing to his government colleagues – crossed the floor of the house to vote down a bill introduced by his own Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney, that would have made contraception legal in Ireland. As a result, we had to wait until the 1990s to be able to buy a condom here. It was sickening.
Meanwhile, given a fig leaf by the existence of the Provos and a bunch of other even more disreputable paramilitary groups, the cops felt free to engage in all sorts of criminality: a team of crack thugs within the Gardaí were dubbed the Heavy Gang, as they went way beyond any lawful remit in their efforts to crush political dissent.
It should have been easy for Fianna Fáil to take that lot out. And yet Jack Lynch decided to buy votes with the most extraordinary election manifesto in the history of the State. Lynch promised to abolish vehicle registration tax, costing the exchequer millions. And, in an act of opportunistic political vandalism, he also abolished household rates.
The electorate fell for it and voted Fianna Fáil in with a large majority. It wasn’t long before the country was plunged into a horrendous financial crisis. A period of fierce political turmoil followed, with Charlie Haughey ousting Lynch as leader of Fianna Fáil in 1979. In 1981, the Dáil was dissolved and Haughey lost the subsequent election. Garret Fitzgerald’s incoming Fine Gael/Labour government lasted less than a year. When that coalition fell, Haughey formed a government that held power for nine months. Another election followed and Garret Fitzgerald was back...
Underlying all of this political upheaval was a fundamental conundrum. Where is the money supposed to come from, to pay for all of the services provided – however badly in many respects – by local authorities, including overseeing the planning process; building local authority houses; maintaining public parks and libraries; repairing the paths and the roads; providing public lighting; organising bin collections; and ensuring that there is clean, drinkable water for every household in the city?
All of these services had been paid for, to one degree or another, by revenue raised through rates.
This is not to say that people didn’t have a lot to complain about. The value being delivered by the State and local authorities alike was abysmal. Indolence and waste were endemic in the civil service and semi-State bodies in Ireland at the end of the 1970s. And the public were generally treated with contempt. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs, as it was known, was so badly run that people frequently had to wait for a year before they could even hope to get a phone installed. And it was more or less the same, across the complete range of public services. No one seemed to give a monkey’s.
Specifically where council workers were concerned, we were famous for scenarios where ten guys would stand around a hole in the road looking in, while one guy did the digging. The country was in a shocking mess and something needed to be done. However, getting rid of rates was not that thing...
This is not to say that rates are a panacea. They can be abused by a bullying local authority, who happily lump the cost of all their excesses and mistakes onto citizens and businesses alike. Ask anyone running a business in any of our major cities at the moment: very few people believe that they are getting value for the money they pay in rates.
But, of course, this is in part at least because Local Government has been starved of resources.
Meanwhile, we have been subjected to a demoralising, incremental introduction of stealth taxes, which amount to rates by any other name. Except that the basis for so many of them is hopelessly badly thought-out and inherently unfair.
The property tax is a case in point. It is patently stupid and unjust to base a tax on the notional market value of a property. For a start, it is not a meaningful, objective measure. What is a house really worth? The only accurate measure is what someone is willing to pay for it, if and when it is put up for sale. Otherwise the market fluctuates; personal considerations come into play, including how practical it would be for any home owner to up sticks and move on; and then there is the level of debt: if you have a mortgage of 300k on a house worth 300k, then in a doomsday scenario, the house is effectively worth nothing. But you are still required to pay tax, as if it is worth €300k to you. It is a badly flawed mechanism. But this is what our political geniuses and their advisers in the public service came up with.
And guess what? They also decided to charge us for having our bins collected. Well, the fiasco of Irish water is just another variation on the same theme.
There is no perfect system for raising the money necessary to pay for public services. There are certain core principles: those who have the most should make by far the biggest contribution; the machinery has to be fair – and has to be seen to be fair; people who are disadvantaged or out of work should be supported and protected to the greatest extent possible, whether through the social welfare system or exemptions from having to pay for services and utilities.
But broadly speaking, if you want your rubbish collected and the roads kept in good shape and clean water on tap, then a direct payment to the local authority is the simplest and most straightforward method of ensuring that these services can be provided. Rates, at least, are paid for according to an objective measure (the size of a house or apartment).
Successive governments have lacked the bottle to really get to grips with the situation. And so we end up with Irish Water.
A lot of smart people believe that we have to pay for water if we want people to value it. In many parts of the world it is a very scarce commodity. If we played our cards right then we could become a global supplier. Much of this is true: if we put the proper infrastructure in place, we could sell water to the world. However, the way in which Irish Water was introduced was indefensible on every level.
From the outset, it stank of opportunism of the worst kind. Everyone knows that the original plan was to get it ready for privatisation.
The disgraceful bonus arrangements agreed with staff, where extra would be paid for unsatisfactory performance, were out of the same mould: this was a set-up where the citizens would pay through the nose to support a new privileged elite in the style they wanted to become accustomed to.
Let’s accept that there is an argument for a national water authority. The point is that in a time of widespread penury, the onus was, and is, on the Government and everyone else involved in putting this behemoth in place to approach it in a lean, mean, efficient and effective way that would deliver water in the most economic form possible for Irish citizens. Instead what we got was the worst kind of inner circle cronyism.
That is why people are so mad: the whole thing stinks of a cosseted elite being paid fat salaries that are ripped from the pockets of the people. But there is something else too. Right now in Ireland, there is a feeling that the State is creeping inexorably into every aspect of what we do and how we live. We are citizens of a society that is obsessed with control. Surveillance is increasing. And that creeping trend has been taken to a new, more insidious level with the idea that water – which is the stuff of life – is just another pay as you go resource.
I have never wasted water. You won’t find any sprinklers where I live. Nor would I have a ten minute shower where three minutes will do. But I really find it uncomfortable being reminded every time I turn on the tap that the State is watching and counting.
In some ways, it feels like the final, bureaucratic intrusion into our private world, a slow drip form of torture, in that it gets into your head and turns you into something that you never were and never want to be: a fucking clock-watcher.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get over it. We all have to agree on mechanisms where we can collectively square the circle of paying for our public services. I certainly have no problem with that. But there are better and fairer ways of managing it. That’s where we need to go with this debate now...
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