November 2016        

Joe O’Toole told the truth

Alan Hanlon

Joe O’Toole, ex-president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, was originally appointed chairperson of the expert commission set up to inquire into Irish Water. In an interview with the Examiner last July he attacked left-wing politicians, saying that he supported water charges and the principle of “the polluter pays.” He suggested that the water tax could be bundled with other levies, such as the property tax, and all collected by the Revenue Commissioners.
     In an interview with the Irish Times (9 July 2016) following his resignation from the expert group he was more explicit about his views. “I learned a long time ago, if you can reduce a principle to pounds, shillings and pence then it’s not a principle. This is a matter of money—and money and principle are two separate issues.”
     It’s clear from these statements what the thinking is in the political establishment. They simply cannot understand the idea of having principles about anything. O’Toole had to go because he was too honest about the expert group’s mandate: delay, buy time, come up with a formula to get the water tax through by stealth.
     Back in 2009 the Central Bank under Patrick Honohan was even more explicit. In a pre-budget submission to the minister for finance Honohan wanted the introduction of a property tax, water charges, and a carbon tax. He wanted the state to increase its tax base without upsetting labour market costs—in other words, making sure that employers’ profits were not affected; but workers’ take-home pay would be by these stealth taxes.
     As far as the water tax was concerned, Honohan said the “user pays” principle had to be ingrained in Irish society. This is again a classic statement of the core values of the neo-liberals: everything has a price; there is no society, only buyers and sellers in the market. Water, which is fundamental to life, is nothing more than a commodity in this world view.
     Joe O’Toole was replaced by Kevin Duffy, former chairman of the Labour Court. As if this job was not onerous enough, Duffy will also head the Public Sector Pay Commission (another hobby-horse of Honohan’s in 2009). He wanted pay cuts in the public sector.
     The expert group comprises people such as Dr Xavier Leflaive, environmental director of the OECD; Peter Peacock, chairperson of the Customer Forum for Water Scotland; Brendan O’Mahony, chairperson of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes; Gritta Nottleman, a consultant with Waternet, a water company in the Netherlands; Andrew Kelly, founder of Envecon, an IT services company; and Sarah Hendry, a specialist in water and environmental law. There is no-one from Right2Water, from trade unions, community groups, or any opponent of the privatisation agenda.
     The fact is that there is no shortage of water in Ireland. Just think of last year, with farmers and townspeople complaining about too much water. The yellow press, dominated by a small clique with a vested interest in privatisation, never acknowledges the work of local authorities, such as Waterford City Council (before it was abolished), in addressing problems such as leaks and providing clean, drinkable water to citizens for well over a hundred years.
     In areas where there are “don’t drink” notices, when are the polluters found and prosecuted? Rarely, if ever.
     If the Government was serious about water, the building regulations would be changed so that every new house or extension would have to have water-saving measures built in to the structure.
     Ireland has so much water it could even be exporting water to those countries with a shortage. The present government, supported by Fianna Fáil, will never go down that route—not when there is the potential prize of forcing the citizens of Ireland to pay for their own water.
     The Government, as part of its propaganda war to break down the opposition to privatisation, has claimed that the EU Commission says there is no alternative. The yellow press has been happy to repeat this nonsense. They make no mention of Slovenia, a country with an abundance of water, like Ireland. Like Ireland, it is a member of the EU, OECD, and UN. Following a petition of 55,000 the National Assembly secured a two-thirds majority last July to enshrine the right to drinking water in the constitution in order to prevent the privatisation of water resources.
     One of the sponsors of the motion stated: “Water is a common good that mustn’t be exploited for profit.”
     The unelected EU Commission is not threatening Slovenia. In Ireland it has a comprador government willing to do its bidding in the interests of a small class of capitalists.

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