The future of Irish Water and water charges has emerged as the primary obstacle to a “modified coalition” between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Last night, three senior members of Fianna Fáil have confirmed that the party is working on a bill to scrap Irish Water and suspend water charges, describing it as a “red-line issue”.
However, three leading Fine Gael ministers and key government formation talks’ negotiators responded sharply and insisted their party will not scrap water charges, regardless of any pressure from Fianna Fáil.
“Keeping Irish Water is and always was a red-line issue for us. There is simply no getting away from that,” one senior minister told the Irish Examiner.
After the planned bill emerged, the Fine Gael minister said “our view remains Irish Water will stay, although it may not be called Irish Water, and water charges will stay”.
The Fine Gael minister, who declined to be named accepted there are “some options” on the table in terms of reducing costs for vulnerable sections of the public like pensioners — an issue he said may benefit both parties but which the Nevin Institute has recently warned will lead to price hikes for other bill payers.
The minister said that, despite the likely difficulties in resolving the Irish Water stand-off, “there is a deal to be done with Fianna Fáil”.
However, he said it would be a “very poor negotiating position” for Fine Gael to accept they would be willing to admit defeat on water charges before “the real talks” begin later this week.
It is understood Fianna Fáil told the Rural Five TDs (Mattie McGrath, Denis Naughten, Noel Grealish, Michael Collins, and Michael Harty) and the Healy-Rae brothers that they want up to 18 months to abolish Irish Water. They are seeking to park water charges for up to five years, as they had pledged during the general election campaign.
The party said they want to create a slimmed-down agency with “local services to be handed back to democratically elected local authorities with on-the-ground knowledge”.
The Fine Gael leadership expects to present its 110-page document for agreement to the 15 Independents at 4pm today before presenting it to a meeting of the party at 6pm.
The document, which stretches to 16 chapters, is said not to include specific costings of agreed policies, a fact which has caused much annoyance among the Independent TDs, who look set to abstain from the vote for Taoiseach in the Dáil on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Leo Varadkar caused anger among the Independents by tweeting that his election posters are “cleaned, counted, stored, and ready to be deployed”.
My posters cleaned, counted, stored and ready to be deployed pic.twitter.com/TPiAU1ZMcM— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) April 3, 2016
Independent TD Shane Ross slammed the tweet as an attempt to threaten the Independents into supporting Enda Kenny’s nomination for taoiseach.
Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, also criticised Mr Varadkar.
“While most of us have made some comment on the challenges surrounding the process that is currently under way,” said the Tipperary TD, “this tweet actively reveals that a key leading member of the Fine Gael negotiating team is far from committed to making to making that process work.”
Meanwhile, it was confirmed that an anticipated €500m overrun in health this year will have to be met from existing budgets or lead to deep cuts elsewhere.
According to the first quarter Exchequer returns, the Department of Health recorded a €38m.
Officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform confirmed there will be no end-of-year bailout or supplementary estimate as they are called because of EU rules. This is because Ireland has moved out of the corrective arm and into the preventative arm of the Stability and Growth Pact.
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