A senior Fianna Fáil figure has effectively ruled out a refund for people who have paid their water bills despite the fact charges now look set to be suspended for the foreseeable future, writes Juno McEnroe of the Irish Examiner.
Party negotiator Michael McGrath poured doubt on paid bills being rescinded and went as far as suggesting that such an action could be illegal.
The issue of withdrawing and then refunding water bill payments is a contentious issue for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as they near completion of a minority government deal.
TDs within Fine Gael are particularly nervous about the reaction after the party told their voters in the general election that charges would remain and to pay them. Enda Kenny’s TDs are facing a backlash this weekend from people who paid.
Irish Water say 61% of customers have paid bills so far, which equates to 928,000 households.
Households with two or more adults pay €260, but can get a €100 supplement.
Fianna Fáil negotiator Michael McGrath said papers on a deal were still being exchanged by both parties but that Fine Gael had accepted in principle that charges would be suspended.
The Cork South Central believes negotiation teams are close to getting a deal “over the line” and that a Government could be “formed by next week”.
Asked if the deal would see people who had paid their water charges refunded their money, Mr McGrath signalled that such a measure could be difficult and possibly even illegal.
“Any water bills that were issued had a valid legal basis and remain due. If you wanted to retrospectively rescind bills, is that legally possible? I’m not sure it is.
"Then does it open up a very dangerous precedent whereby other bills that have been issued can be retrospectively rescinded.”
Outstanding bills that remained unpaid were still legally due, said the Cork South Central TD.
He said he believed the minority government talks should end “successfully” and “quickly”.
Mr McGrath refused to confirm if the deal, as it nears completion, includes Fianna Fáil supporting in opposition at least three budgets under Fine Gael’s minority government.
The duration of the deal would form part of the agreement though, he confirmed.
Meanwhile, a FIanna Fáil source also confirmed there was fresh disagreement over the terms by which water charges may be reintroduced after the suspension.
Fine Gael have prepared draft legislation by which charges could be reintroduced by a ministerial order.
But Fianna Fáil, pointing to the verbal deal on government, want a return to charges decided strictly through a Dáil vote.
A Fianna Fáil source said: "There are some difficulties that we are trying to work out hard to put in legislation the outcome of two bodies that have not yet been set up so trying to work through this as best as possible to tie it down."