Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has predicted that water charges will be suspended for more than nine months and will never return in their current form — contradicting his party’s minority government deal with Fine Gael.
The opposition leader made the claim in his first in-depth interview since the new government was formed, and just 24 hours after the first clear cracks in the historic agreement appeared.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke, Mr Martin said his party was forced to focus on Irish Water during talks because it was obvious that no government would have lasted more than a few months if the issue was not addressed.
In a highly controversial claim, he said new Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar told the talks the unpopular charges were 10 times more damaging for Fine Gael than the Fianna Fáil-inspired e-voting machines debacle.
And putting further pressure on his party’s government rival, Mr Martin added that while the deal with Fine Gael states that charges will only be suspended for nine months, the reality is this time-scale will be extended.
“The [charges] regime we’ve experienced is gone, but it depends on the Dáil, obviously a Dáil committee is to be formed. They [charges] will be suspended for nine months, and that’s likely to be extended given the configuration of the Dáil,” he said.
The Fianna Fáil leader said that despite the view and the fact there is little risk of non-payers being brought to court due to existing laws, people who have not paid their bills “should be pursued”.
He said this includes new Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath and Independent Alliance colleague John Halligan.
Asked to clarify an earlier remark that Leo Varadkar “had his own problems with water” during the talks, Mr Martin said: “As far as he [Mr Varadkar] could see, water charges was their [Fine Gael’s] e-voting machines multiplied by 10. It was an acknowledgement a potential waste of money.”
Mr Varadkar yesterday responded by saying Mr Martin was “not present for any of the talks” and all he meant was that “€500m worth of public money has been spent on putting water meters into the ground”.
However, Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen told reporters his leader’s views are “consistent” with the talks.
Meanwhile, despite contradicting Fine Gael’s view of the water charges suspension deal, hitting out at “false health budgets” in recent years and calling for previously rejected variable mortgage rate reforms, Mr Martin insisted he does not have “the boot on the neck” of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Mr Martin denied the that dynamics of the minority government arrangement mean he is the real taoiseach when the question was put to him, and insisted his party is not waiting to bring down the Government to benefit itself.
“It [minority government] is as treacherous for the opposition as it is for the public,” said Mr Martin. “I think people want to give this a fair wind, want to give it a chance. I’m not going into this looking to pull the plug.”
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