Today’s water charge protests have been dismissed by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan as just the opposition "having their last rally around the water issue".
His remarks come as anti-Irish Water sentiment reaches new heights with almost 100 protests planned in towns and cities.
It has also emerged that the State’s human rights watchdog has told the UN the setting-up of Irish Water was “potentially impacting” on the right of people to access water and sanitation. In a bid to address public concerns, the Government is considering options to ease payments for households. However, clarity on bills could be weeks away.
In the strongest hint yet of what is planned, Tánaiste Joan Burton last night said it was “impossible to have a meter system unless everybody has one”.
Her comments suggest the 1.5 million homes facing charges might only have to pay the assessed rate, an average €278 a year, for a longer period beyond next summer. Only a third of homes so far have meters installed.
Ms Burton told RTÉ’s Six One News that changes meant charges would be modest and fair. However, in earlier comments Fine Gael’s Mr Noonan played down the significance of today’s marches.
“I assume that a lot of people will march, but they have various motivations. Nobody has said that they are marching because they have a disagreement with the budget. The budget has been generally welcomed as a very good budget.
“The opposition parties have identified nothing in the budget on which they have focused and they’re having their last rally around the water issue because it’s the last issue which the opposition to the Government regard as a fruitful political issue,” he said at Farmleigh, Dublin.
The Government is examining methods to ease payments and give households clarity. Mr Noonan said it would be weeks before a decision is made. In further developments, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has expressed concern to the UN on the Coalition’s decision to create Irish Water.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said the move potentially impacted on the right of people to access water and sanitation. In a submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it said it was “concerned that accountability mechanisms are weakening” under recent decisions to privatise public functions.
“Potentially impacting on the right to access water and sanitation, a new entity, Irish Water, has been established to introduce the privatisation of water services,” it said.
It said this would effectively replace state subvention by private subvention as required under the 2010 Agreement between the State and the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“The right to access water and sanitation will henceforth be accessed through Irish Water which will be regulated by the energy regulator [the Commission for Energy Regulation], whose remit does not include a human rights focus.”
The commission’s submission is to flag issues on which it will make a longer ‘shadow report’ in 2015, before Ireland’s formal hearing with the committee in June. The commission also said successive austerity budgets had severely affected economic and social rights and had the effect of “silencing statutory voices” on human rights and equality.
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