Government gives in to pressure on water referendum bill

The Government is set to cave into pressure from the Opposition and accept a Dáil bill that will pave the way for a referendum on the public ownership of water services.

Independents4Change TD Joan Collins, as of last night, had received the backing of at least 94 TDs, after Fianna Fáil at a party meeting also agreed to support her bill.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney is set to reveal this evening that the Government will accept the bill, but refer it to a committee for more scrutiny over technical issues.

Government figures say there is already legislation to ensure that any future move to take Irish Water out of public ownership would require a plebiscite, a public vote but one that does not bind a government.

Fianna Fáil held its weekly frontbench meeting yesterday at which it was agreed to support Ms Collins’ bill, which will come before the Dáil this evening.

The move took government figures by surprise, who considered the matter covered between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil by the confidence and supply agreement.

This states that both sides, for the Government support deal, agree that “Irish Water will be retained as a single national utility in public ownership”.

Government sources say that a referendum on public ownership will cost €20m and the idea of a referendum was never agreed as part of the confidence and supply agreement.

The Cabinet took no position on Ms Collin’s bill yesterday at their weekly meeting, but it was agreed that Mr Coveney would discuss the issue with other parties.

Ms Collins last night said she had the support of TDs with Sinn Féin (23), PBP/AAA (6), Independents4-Change (4), Labour (7), the Social Democrats (2), the Green Party (2).

A number of other Independents will also support it, including Stephen Donnelly, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Seamus Healy. Fianna Fáil’s support brings the number of TDs to 94.

Ms Collins said pressure had been put on TDs from the Right2Water campaign, who had issued some 50,000 emails to politicians among others in recent weeks.

“This is coming from a huge grassroots movement and proves you can make changes,” she said.

Mr Coveney’s department says the bill could proceed to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Local Government within weeks.

The acceptance of the bill and effectively an agreement to have a referendum on keeping water services in public ownership will raise questions about what other issues the minority Fine Gael-led government is willing to agree to put to a vote.

There is already pressure for Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion to put to a referendum.

Fianna Fáil says there were a number of issues in the bill that must be addressed, including how private wells and group water schemes would be treated under any changes.

Housing spokesman Barry Cowen said: “We’ve always been open to strengthening the existing legislation. It means we are prepared to scrutinise and investigate a referendum rather than give fuel to the fire of our opponents.”

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