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Brendan Howlin says biggest political regret is handling of water charges

The party is still struggling in the polls at around 4%.

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Labour leader Brendan Howlin (Niall Carson/PA)

Labour leader Brendan Howlin (Niall Carson/PA)

Labour leader Brendan Howlin (Niall Carson/PA)

Labour leader Brendan Howlin says his biggest political regret was how his party handled the water charges while in government.

The controversial austerity measure was introduced in 2014, brought in under the Fine Gael-Labour government, when Mr Howlin was the minister for public expenditure, and saw Irish Water – the then-new utility company – begin to send out the first of 1.5 million bills to households around the country in April 2015.

The government said the charges were necessary and introduced as part of the plan to pay back the financial bailout Ireland received in 2010.

What followed was months of protests, arrests, and the eventual decimation of the Labour Party, which saw its representation in parliament fall from 37 to seven.

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Protesters during anti-water charges march in Dublin (Caroline Quinn/PA)

Protesters during anti-water charges march in Dublin (Caroline Quinn/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

Protesters during anti-water charges march in Dublin (Caroline Quinn/PA)

Speaking on Thursday in the midst of the 2020 General Election campaign, Mr Howlin, who has served in the Dail since 1987 and held a number of ministries, says his major regret would be his party’s handling of the issue.

“To pick an issue, is we were forced to rush the whole Irish Water issue, Irish Water as single utility was a good idea, but trying to do it in five years was wrong,” he said.

“I would’ve wished it to be a much longer period.”

Another regret he said was: “We had our rows with Fine Gael quietly, we didn’t have them openly because we were trying to build confidence in Ireland, so sometimes it looked as though we were aquiescent, but we had flaming rows.”

On his own manifesto, Mr Howlin states that his party has been “seared” and “burned before” by the aftermath of its time in government, and his party’s role in “forming the recovery” from the recession, and on reflection of its past, will not be making promises it cannot keep this time around.

He added that other parties’ promises of tax cuts are a “con job”, and that people “don’t want an extra fiver if they have to climb over someone in a doorway to spend it”.

The party, which is still struggling in the polls at around 4%, says it has attempted to bring back the traditional Labour voters that may have left the party in 2016, but Mr Howlin admits it is a “slow process”.

“We went into government in the worst of times, and promises were made that we couldn’t keep in government, and people felt let down by that, our core people, because people expect the very best of us,” he said.

“I’ve spent the last four years reconnecting with those people, people who had fallen out with us, and that’s why this manifesto is so different, and I’m scandalised by the promises of the three big parties.

“We want to end the waste of public money, like with the Children’s Hospital, rural broadband – state projects that are sink holes.

“People don’t believe politicians anymore, and is anyone surprised?”

Once a major left leaning contender in Irish politics, Mr Howlin says the reason his party is now behind Sinn Fein in the polls is because the republican party has never been in government.

“The bottom line is, they’ve never been in government, and you can see across Europe that making decisions in government is damaging to popularity and populist parties are doing well across Europe,” he said.

“After the last two elections there were more people who wanted to stay out of government than go into government, which is very odd.

“If you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then you’re a lobbyist, or a commentator, not a politician.

“The Labour Party is a party of dooers.”

Mr Howlin says he optimistic about his party’s chances on February 8, with 31 candidates and “the best manifesto we’ve ever produced” – which he rejects is “not comprehensive” as some critics described it, but “focused” with plans to freeze rents and build 80,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years.

PA