Austerity has a breaking point and this week it has finally arrived. On Monday we learned that just 200,000 homes have signed up to the beleaguered semi-state body Irish Water.
Official tallies put the number at 500,000, but sources within the authority have confirmed to the press the real figures are much lower. What is certain is that at least one million Irish households have failed to register, a startlingly high number.
The low take-up has set alarm bells ringing in government because the two main parties fear that the introduction of the charges is becoming a barrier to a second term in office.
In an illustration of how tone deaf the government has been on the issue, this week it emerged that senior managers of the company will be in line for bonuses of up to nine percent, worth around $12,000 a year, even if it’s determined that their performance needs to improve.
But not only that, it appears that 27 senior staff will be awarded a $12,000 annual car allowance and health insurance worth up to $3,400 a year. These are unfortunate perks when you consider how unpopular the utility was certain to be from the outset.
If there’s one thing Ireland isn’t short of, it’s water. For the average punter attaching a meter to record and charge for it is a bit like charging to breathe the air. It was already an offensive proposition before the high-flying corporate perks of working for the floundering utility were made known.
But behind all the current shadow play, this debacle is also a reminder of just how much of Ireland’s laws and regulations are mandated in Europe. The latest charges are a timely reminder that Ireland – which represents less than one percent of Europe’s population – has taken on a massive 43 percent of the net cost of the European banking crisis across all 27-member states.
That’s a whopping €41 billion out of an overall €96.2 billion. The cost of our bank bailout was €8,956 for every person in the country, compared to the modest European Union average of €191.
The money to pay it off has to come from somewhere, so why not tax the rain?
Giving that history, the Irish government should have anticipated that it would come to a boiling point. That they did not – that they have been taken by surprise by the vehemence and size of the public protests – says everything you need to know about how out of touch their polices are with public opinion.
But it’s the disconnect, the tale of two Irelands, that will ultimately sink this enterprise. The higher up you are on their corporate crony ladder, the more you’ll take home as ordinary punters struggle to fill a kettle for their tea. Raise your hand if you’d like a $12,000 bonus, no matter how you performed on your job.
So watch now as the government runs from under the collapsing shadow of this unloved company, all the while assuring us they had no control over its excesses.
But if the government is not in control of it, who is? This semi-state body was actually created by Fine Gael and the Labor Party and then animated faster than Mary Shelly gave life to Frankenstein.
They won’t be able to reconfigure the spectacular pay packets because the creature has already been brought to life and any attempt to do so now would risk lawsuits. Instead they’re reduced to telling us “I didn’t know” and “I didn’t anticipate” and looking around for handy scapegoats.
But it’s the sheer disconnect between the grandees and groundlings that will haunt the government on Election Day. The disconnect that says it’s austerity for you and an all expenses holiday on the Coast Del Packet for me.
Irish taxpayers have been burdened with the staggering cost of the banking collapse and the endless repayments to Europe. They have been told to tighten their belts as they watch their betters jet off to the sun on eye-popping bonuses. How long did the government think that could go on without an uproar?
Faced with the low take up, the government has been forced to extend the registration period. It was originally due to end on October 31, Halloween appropriately enough, because the government's chattering teeth and knocking knees have already led to it taking fright. The new deadline is November 29.