The days when water charges and the management of Ireland’s deteriorating water infrastructure were the most lethally combustible political issue for Government and opposition alike are past.
But politicians still tip-toe around the issue with a good deal of trepidation because they know it hasn’t entirely gone away. Four years after protests against water charges filled the streets, intense political and institutional wrangling continues. Meanwhile, at the level of actual service provision, night-time restrictions on supply were introduced in Dublin last night.
But after years of political wars over water, there are signs that a quiet political consensus may be emerging.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil arrived at an uneasy truce on the issue when agreeing the current confidence-and-supply arrangements, kicking water into an all-party committee. That agreed to dump universal water charges but retain Irish Water. But several fundamental questions about how the State should manage, pay for and organise water services remain to be answered.
At a time when capital investment in water services is increasing, direct employment in water services should be increasing
Yesterday’s revelation that the Government intends to establish Irish Water as a stand-alone commercial utility shows that it now wants to put some answers in place.
The Government memo for last week’s decision makes clear that a significant transfer of workers from local authorities – more than 3,000 of them – to Irish Water is on the cards in the coming years, as the company assumes direct responsibility for the provision of water services. There will also be a number of redundancies, it is expected, though they are to be voluntary. Sources who have been briefed on the issue say there could be up to a thousand such redundancies.
“At a time when capital investment in water services is increasing, direct employment in water services should be increasing,” says Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin.
The Cabinet also agreed last week that the company would exit from under the supervision of Ervia, the State company created to house Irish Water in the company of experienced and successful utility Bord Gáis Networks.
Everyone agrees the water infrastructure in much of the country – especially Dublin – needs to be overhauled
But now the Government wants Irish Water to stand on its own two feet, so over the next five years Irish Water will prepare for independence. It is not clear what will become of Ervia.
Sources said yesterday that Ervia had not been informed of this Government decision last week. The Minister wrote to the company yesterday, a spokeswoman confirmed.
The political context is complicated by efforts of opposition TDs to pass a Dáil vote on holding a referendum that would enshrine the public ownership of water in the Constitution. The Government is opposed to this – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described it as "impossible" and "absurd" – and official sources point to the implications for private sources and group water schemes. But Dáil arithmetic rules, and the Bill passed its first vote. Further advice from the Attorney General is overdue.
Despite this fractured picture, some consensus may be emerging. Everyone agrees the water infrastructure in much of the country – especially Dublin – needs to be overhauled. And the parties appear to be trundling towards some kind of agreement on what might deliver that: an independent, publicly owned utility, funded principally by the exchequer.
Given guarantees about its public status, Sinn Féin could probably live with the thrust of the Government's proposal. So could Fianna Fáil. Joan Collins, the Independents for Change TD who proposed the referendum Bill, says she "wouldn't have a problem" with an independent entity "under public ownership and management".
Even Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party and one of the Dáil's few advocates of water charges, sees progress. He points out that charges for excessive use are due to be introduced next year.
“I think the drought has changed the public mood,” he says. Slowly and cautiously, the political mood over water is changing too.