26 March 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The pending reality of water charges is being brought forcefully home to the public of Co Monaghan at the present time.

Their inevitability is visible on our streets as work proceeds with the installation of the meters that will tally usage ahead of the issuing of the first bills by Irish Water in the April-June period.

The extension of the deadline for registration in order to avail of the Government’s €100 water conservation grant has also been announced this week by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly.

This magnanimous-seeming but ultimately pragmatic move may or may not be intended to operate in tandem with the installation of the meters as a sort of carrot and stick approach to maximise compliance with the new tariff and mitigate in the public mind its unpopular and contentious elements.

But any such intent has been effectively undone by two other pronouncements that show both the Government and Irish Water still labouring under an astonishing disregard for the legitimacy of at least some of the high feelings still current amongst those who have chosen to actively protest and oppose the introduction of charges.

It emerged in a radio interview on Wednesday with Irish Water’s Head of Communications Elizabeth Arnett that the new utility would be issuing a first wave of bills to more than 1.7 million households in a sort of carpet-bombing exercise undertaken in the full acknowledgement that a significant proportion of them would be incorrectly estimated or issued to households that were not in fact customers.

If there is anything that will provoke the most quiescent citizen to anger and animosity it is receiving a demand for money they do not owe, or for more money than they are entitled to pay. If the protest movement was in any danger of losing momentum as the reality of the charges dawned and people were given another generous opportunity to become compliant with them, it now has, thanks to Irish Water, a potent adrenalin rush of righteous indignation to call on that will see opposition intensify rather than abate once the billing process commences.

Irish Water has sought to justify this move by stating that it has to operate on the basis of incomplete information, and has no option but to send default bills to the many people who have not registered or made their non-liability for the charges clear.

It’s a naïve, carry on regardless approach that could have dangerously provocative consequences – and the wastage of time and effort it will entail does not speak reassuringly of the competence of a utility in whose hands the improvement of the seriously deficient conservation record of public water supply in this country has been placed.

The candid admission of a blanket billing approach follows hot on the heels of the news that proposals are being considered by the Government to enable Irish Water to directly deduct payments from the wages or social welfare entitlements of non-compliant customers.

While the fact was understandably backgrounded in the somewhat desperate attempts by the Government to undo its initial mishandling of the water charges issue, Irish Water would already appear to have the power if it so chooses to use attachment orders to compel compliance.

This power now seems likely to be strengthened in new proposals that Minister Kelly is expected to shortly unveil – which could also include fines for those who do not pay, landlords being required to deduct unpaid charges from the deposits of their tenants, and properties prevented from being sold until outstanding water charge debt is discharged.

How much the seeping of this information into the media at the start of this week was a studied riposte by Government sources to last weekend’s major Dublin protest is hard to accurately calculate.

But its effect will surely be to harden the resistance of the anti-charge activists and, like the scattergun billing approach to be adopted by Irish Water, polarise and entrench further the contrasting stances on an issue which, if it had been sensitively and carefully handled at its inception, would have presented a difficult but manageable sell to the majority of the Irish public.

We have remarked editorially before that there is a developed appreciation in this country that potable water is not some ubiquitous and inexhaustible resource. Most people not already habituated to paying for water by membership of rural schemes would have borne with at least grudging equanimity a reasonable level of expense. This however would be conditional on that expense being accompanied by the guarantee that the new utility would respond effectively to complaints and emergencies – and act expediently to improve the quality of this country’s variable water supply infrastructure, thus ensuring that the scandalous level of waste was rendered a thing of the past.

Instead the issue was handled with an almost absurd level of confusion, and subsequent attempts by the Government to undo the initial mess have been undermined by the growing evidence that Irish Water is not yet functioning competently in the discharge of its implicit responsibilities to the public to be better than the local authorities were at guaranteeing continuity and quality of water supply.

Some of this week’s developments will reinforce in the minds of even those who have refrained from participation in the protest movements the impression that where water is concerned, it is a question of take and no give, like it or lump it, sink or swim.

Instead of consigning this issue to the past once the billing process was up and running, the attitudes being adopted by both the Government and the new utility seem almost designed to ensure that water is a more contentious issue than ever by the time the next General Election hoves into view.

Given the way the issue has contributed to raising the level of the tide of political malcontentment that has been mounting steadily in this country since austerity took hold, there is a very real possibility that the future political stability of this country could be washed away in the resultant flood.

That would be a high price to pay. It is neither to the Government or the utility’s credit that, at a time when general acceptance of the new charges should be beginning to take hold, even the most reasonably minded members of the public are being further provoked into dissent.

We are entering muddy waters, indeed!

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