Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin has denied performing a “U-turn” on water charges after confirming his party is now seeking to completely abolish the fees.
The situation occurred as former environment minister Alan Kelly challenged Fianna Fáil to publish legal advice which claims to show Ireland can avoid an EU backlash if it scraps the charges.
The Labour TD was adamant Ireland will be hit with severe fines if it makes the move.
It emerged yesterday that Fianna Fáil’s submission to the independent water commission had sought a permanent end to the water charge. On RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Martin insisted that, despite surprise at the move, his party was still being consistent with its pre-election policies.
Previous plans pointed to Fianna Fáil being in favour of suspending charges for a significant period before introducing a new, fairer, charges system.
However, in a submission to the water commission, the party says it wants to scrap charges completely and replace them with a three-fold funding system based on general taxation, the strategic investment fund and the European investment bank.
Responding to criticism, Mr Martin said the change was not a U-turn and said it was “very consistent with our general election position”.
Despite warnings from the EU that Ireland will face significant fines if water charges are scrapped entirely instead of being suspended for a lengthy period of time, Mr Martin insisted his own party had received independent legal advice contradicting the view.
The position was repeated by a Fianna Fáil spokesperson, who told the Irish Examiner the “quite detailed and clear” legal advice from an unnamed senior counsel notes there was “legal precedence for national flexibility on water charges”.
However, Mr Kelly lashed out at Mr Martin’s remarks, accusing the Fianna Fáil leader of not knowing “what he’s talking about”.
Mr Kelly, synonymous with the water charges regime due to his time as minister, said Ireland was unable to scrap the charges without “facing into an abyss” on the issue.
Challenging Fianna Fáil to publish the legal advice, Mr Kelly said he believes the attorney general’s own advice that Fianna Fáil’s view will be found to be “flawed”.
The stand-off came as Sinn Féin yesterday published its own legal advice on the issue, further ratcheting up the pressure on Fianna Fáil to release the file.
“The legal opinion [from Mattias Kelly SC] has confirmed what we have been saying all along, that the abolition of water charges would not contravene the water framework directive providing that Ireland can meet the objectives of the directive, which is about conservation and protection of water,” said Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan.
Claiming there is now “a clear majority in favour of scrapping water charges”, she said water charges should be scrapped immediately adding the water commission was redundant.
Meanwhile, a Right2Water campaign is due to hold a protest in Dublin City on Saturday.
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