Simon Coveney faces FG water charges revolt

Housing Minister Simon Coveney is facing a water charges revolt after at least a dozen fellow Fine Gael ministers, TDs and senators insisted people who have paid the controversial fees must be refunded.

The senior Fine Gael minister’s position was directly contradicted during a behind-closed-doors party meeting last night in which Mr Coveney controversially claimed people do not want their money back if the State pursues non-payers and as one junior minister told him she wants a refund now.

Speaking during the Government party’s weekly TDs and senators’ meeting and as the fallout from Tuesday’s water commission report intensifies, Mr Coveney rigidly stuck to his position that refunds are unlikely to happen.

He was supported by Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who also said the State can afford to take up the cost of funding the €120m water charges expense and urged the situation not to become an election issue.

However, despite the staunch position, at least a dozen of the 27 TDs and senators who spoke at the private meeting said there is little practical or electoral point in pursuing non-payers.

And in a clear contradiction of Mr Coveney’s stance, the individuals — who included junior minister Catherine Byrne, Fine Gael Seanad leader Jerry Buttimer and European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy, among others — said refunds must now be considered.

During a lengthy three-hour meeting, almost entirely taken up with the water debate, Mr Murphy said that “fairness” was important and refunds should be considered, while Carlow-Kilkenny TD Pat Deering also called for refunds.

He was followed by Mr Buttimer, who told the Irish Examiner after the meeting that “people who paid must be rewarded”, and junior minister for communities and the national drugs strategy Catherine Byrne who insisted refunds must now occur. While Ms Byrne did not respond to calls from the Irish Examiner last night, several TDs from different sections of the party who attended the meeting confirmed she said she wants her charges money back after reading the conclusions of the independent commission on water charges earlier this week.

She said this is because the reality is non-payers will not suddenly pay now, and that she campaigned for charges in the last general election — convincing family members and friends to pay — meaning she and others must be recompensed.

In response to the remarks, several sources confirmed Mr Coveney claimed he is being told the exact opposite by voters who speak to him.

He is understood to have said that “when people speak to me, they say they don’t want their money back” and that non-payers must be pursued.

The remark is likely to provoke an angry reaction from anti-water charges groups. However, Social Protection Minister and potential leadership rival Leo Varadkar told the Irish Examiner last night he is also not in favour of refunds.

While the Government’s official position remains that non-payers must be pursued, it has yet to clarify if this will be through the courts, tax system, social welfare payment cuts or from the future sale of property.

Meanwhile, rural families could face “double taxation” under the expert commission’s proposals on water charges, a senior minister has cautioned.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said the issue of inequity needs to be considered by urban TDs who want charges funded by the exchequer as it will mean a “double taxation” for other parts of the country.

“These points need to be borne in mind when people are advocating general taxation should pay for it [water],” the Cork North West TD said.

The view was backed by OPW Minister and Independent Alliance member Sean Canney.

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