With the efforts to form a new government here faltering over the weekend because Fine Gael and Fianna Fail could not reach a compromise on water charges, the country needed a little light relief. Thankfully we had the Sinn Fein ard fheis (annual party convention) to provide a few hollow laughs.
The two are not unconnected. Everyone knows that some form of water charging has to be introduced here. And everyone knows that a national utility like Irish Water is essential if our leaking, polluting water services are to be modernized.
But instead of facing up to reality, Sinn Fein is still pushing out its populist line cynically designed to maximize support among voters who don't want to pay for anything.
In his address to the Sinn Fein convention last weekend, Gerry Adams had a message for the Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. "You promised in your manifesto to abolish Irish Water and to scrap water charges. Water charges must go. Irish Water must go," Adams roared, to loud applause.
In normal times we could ignore this kind of guff from Sinn Fein. But these are not normal times.
The country still does not have a government and after two weeks of direct negotiations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, water has become the make or break issue. That's not a surprise because it was always the most difficult issue to be tackled between the two sides, even though it's far from being the most important problem facing the country. By the time you read this they may have reached a compromise, but at the time of writing it does not look good.
Without an agreement, Fianna Fail will not be able to support a minority Fine Gael-led government over the next two or three years. If an agreement can be reached, they will abstain in the next vote for Enda Kenny as taoiseach, allowing him to get a majority in the Dail with the support of independents. That could happen this week but at the moment Fianna Fail is refusing to compromise.
The main problem is that Fianna Fail has been spooked by Sinn Fein. Although initially in favor of water charges, Fianna Fail switched positions to avoid being outflanked by the Shinners on the issue. Now they can't compromise sufficiently to make a deal because they know Sinn Fein is waiting to jump all over them if they do.
The sickening thing about this is that before water became such a contentious issue Sinn Fein was also in favor of introducing charges to pay for upgrading the collapsing system. That was before they lost a Dail seat they were expecting to win in west Dublin, losing out to a far left candidate who made opposing water charges the center of his campaign. The result was a rapid about turn in the Sinn Fein position.
That, in turn, forced Fianna Fail to reconsider its position, even though in 2010 it was the late Brian Lenihan, then the Fianna Fail minister for finance, who announced the beginning of water charges as part of the austerity program to deal with the crash.
Mind you, even if the crash had never happened charging for water was always going to be necessary, both to rebuild water services here and to encourage water conservation.
Much of our water infrastructure was put in place by the British more than a century ago and we have spent so little on it since independence that it is now in serious need of upgrading, with major problems in fresh water supply and in waste water disposal.
Over 48 percent of the fresh water in the system here is lost through leaking pipes, many of which have been in the ground since Victorian times, before it ever reaches the taps in our homes. The level of leakage in the south is almost double the level in Northern Ireland which underlines how poor investment here has been.
Ironically in a country famous for rain, water supply in Ireland is unreliable and quality is poor. Dozens of towns, both inland and on the sea, do not have adequate waste water treatment plants and pollute rivers, lakes and coastal waters.
Across Europe, there has been agreement for years that such pollution is unacceptable and that metering and charging must be introduced to encourage people not to waste water. In 2000 the EU adopted the Water Framework Directive aimed at conserving water by getting everyone to pay for fresh water and also laying down standards for how waste water was to be treated.
Ireland -- where water services have been provided by 34 local councils around the country with little coordination between them -- dragged its feet and pleaded for more time. When they could not put it off any longer and were facing EU fines for non-compliance, the last Fianna Fail government made a start. They told the Dail that consumers would have to pay for water, after a basic allowance had been exceeded, and that the money would be used to help fund major investment in fresh water supply and waste water treatment.
To drive efficiency across the country and deal with the problem on a national level, the last (and still acting) government created a new utility called Irish Water and set about putting meters outside every home in the country. But the way this was done enraged consumers here, with huge amounts of money spent on setting up the new utility and installing the meters before any money was spent on fixing the leaking system.
Left wing parties seized on this and a campaign of non-payment of water charges began, developing into protest marches around the country. Sinn Fein and, to their shame, Fianna Fail jumped on the non-payment bandwagon in the run up to the last election.
In spite of this mess, over 60 percent of consumers have paid their water bills. They have been willing to face up to the reality we face even if many of our politicians are unable to do so.
And if the whole Irish Water structure is now to be dismantled and water charges abandoned, at least for the life time of the next government, which is what Fianna Fail wants, these people are going to feel very angry. They will feel that, once again, it is the law-abiding, middle-income taxpayers who have been hit while people who contribute little to society get away with not paying.
If rumors about a compromise which involves allowing many people to avoid paying for water are true, then they will have a right to be angry.
Sinn Fein has glibly opposed water charges on the basis that "water is a human right" and that people have already paid for it anyway through general taxation. Both are inaccurate and Sinn Fein knows that. The idea that "water is a human right" is nice in theory, but in practice treated water costs money to produce and that has to be funded. So if someone decides not to pay, someone else will has to pick up the bill.
It is true that we used to pay for water at one time through the old "rates" (local taxes). But these were abandoned by a Fianna Fail government back in the 1970s as an election gimmick and the cost was transferred to central government which raised sales taxes and motor taxes to compensate.
Central government was supposed to give back enough funding to local councils for local services, including water. The trouble is that over the years the money was used to finance many other things that voters wanted rather than updating water services.
So although Sinn Fein and left wing deputies in the Dail shout about double taxation -- "we've already paid for water” -- the reality is that the money that should have gone into water was used for schools, the health service and so on over the years. And we now have to deal with the consequences of that under-investment in water over many decades.
Sinn Fein doesn’t want to discuss this, of course, because it does not suit their narrative here which is aimed solely at winning votes rather than solving the problem.
One of the main reasons for setting up Irish Water as an independent authority is that it can borrow the €15 billion needed for investment in water infrastructure on the markets and fund repayments on that through water charges. Doing it that way means the state does not have the huge cost involved on its books and so can continue to meet its deficit reduction target, a vital factor in our economic recovery and in the very low interest rates we now pay in the money markets.
Every other country in Europe has water charges. Water charges are common in the U.S. and are much higher than the reduced rate that has been implemented here.
But here in Ireland the moaners are behaving like this is the most unjust outrage every perpetrated on the Irish people. And leading the moan fest is Sinn Fein.
Last weekend, Adams said on TV that his party is ready to talk to the bigger parties about forming a government, if they can agree "to do business." Sorry Gerry, but that's a conversation for the grown-ups.