Homeowners look set to lose out on the €100 water conservation grant payment for 2016 as it has been “shelved” amid deep uncertainty over the future of Irish Water, the Irish Examiner can reveal.
The news comes as a major chasm emerged between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the issue of suspending water charges, with one leading negotiator Barry Cowen saying the chances of success are at best “50/50”.
Fianna Fáil last night rejected a Fine Gael offer of a suspension of water charges for a period of six to nine months for the second time in three days as “woefully insufficient”.
Fine Gael is, meanwhile, facing a backlash from its own backbenchers, who are deeply opposed to the proposal to suspend charging domestic customers for water.
However, the Irish Examiner has learned that the order to release the funds to pay the €100 conservation grant has been delayed since January, and according to sources, it will not be signed.
The scheme which cost €94m to run last year was expected to cost €110m this year, and a figure of €110m has been provided for in the 2016 Revised Estimates for Public Services.
While the Department of Social Protection pays the money to homeowners, it requires an order from Environment Minister Alan Kelly, in order to release the funds. Mr Kelly has not given the order and is unlikely to do so, given the current state of chassis.
Statutory regulations must be made under Section 5 of the Water Services Act 2014 to set down the particulars of any 2016 Water Conservation Grant Scheme, including the application process and eligibility criteria.
“The regulations haven’t been presented to the minister,” a Department of the Environment spokesman told the Irish Examiner.
“The Department of Social Protection is ready to pay out the funds, but Kelly and his department won’t give the order,” said one minister. “In a climate where Irish Water’s future is in doubt and charges look like they are being suspended, the order won’t be given. They are shelved it seems.”
As a result, there will be €110m extra of so-called ‘fiscal space’ for the parties to utilise in their government formation talks, senior sources have suggested.
Talk of axing the grant means €6m spent on setting up the payment system could go to waste.
In more than three hours of talks yesterday, Fine Gael reoffered a suspension of water charges, believing the move would help to end the stand-off. This was on condition once the period ended, some form of charges system would be returned.
However, Fianna Fáil repeatedly rejected the offer.
Meanwhile, the Fine Gael offer has caused a separate crisis for the party, with a number of backbench TDs warning they will not support any such deal.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner last night, Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy said if a suspension happened “that’s the end of Irish Water”, and that no compromise deal will be agreed when this week’s parliamentary party meeting takes place today or tomorrow.
Kildare South TD Martin Heydon was similarly vocal, saying any suspension deal with Fianna Fáil would be tantamount to the party turning its back on candidates “who took a lot of punishment”, while Regina Doherty said it would be a “very large climbdown and I’m not sure of the merits of it”.
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