Cabinet records obtained under new Freedom of Information (FoI) Act rules show Fianna Fáil — which now opposes water charges — backed potential legislation to introduce a €500 water charge and metering system in July 2010, five months before the bailout.
Files published by RTÉ last night confirm that, despite long-stated claims that water charges and other austerity measures were only introduced due to EU/IMF demands, the then government was considering the move even before the bailout.
While the records relate only to the water billing system, the revelation has had the double impact of calling into question Fianna Fáil’s anti-charges position now and leading to further questions over whether the troika was used by politicians from both the current and previous government to impose other divisive policies to avoid the blame.
According to the FoI files, then taoiseach Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fáil/Greens/PDs government was considering charging people for water usage from summer 2010.
The plan was initially due to be discussed at a special cabinet meeting on emergency spending cuts in Farmleigh House on July 26, 2010, before being deferred to September 2010.
On September 8 and 15, 2010, detailed discussions took place over “water metering for domestic customers”, a flat charge of €500 recommended by the Department of Finance and the creation of a “water usage agency” which would directly employ 25 people and cost €4m to set up.
While the plan was not put in place before the February 2011 general election, the files confirm water charges were considered by Irish politicians without the encouragement of outside bodies.
Fianna Fáil’s ministers at the time — the late Brian Lenihan (finance), Mary Hanafin (tourism), Brendan Smith (agriculture), Noel Dempsey (transport), and Batt O’Keeffe (enterprise) — all supported charges.
Then Green Party leader and environment minister John Gormley and communications minister Eamon Ryan were also supportive, despite questioning whether a flat charge rate would encourage conservation and if the system would lead to privatisation.
Although the Greens continue to hold these views, Fianna Fáil now wants the abolition of Irish Water and the end of a charging regime. Ms Hanafin and Mr Smith — the only two then Fianna Fáil cabinet members in favour of the policy in 2010 and still active in politics — did not immediately explain the contradiction last night, with Ms Hanafin saying she did not want to add to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s explanation.
Mr Martin said charges “never happened” under the former government, while his party’s jobs spokesperson, Dara Calleary, said the current system is a super quango costing and employing multiples of what was envisaged.
However, Environment Minister Alan Kelly said the files “expose the total hypocrisy” of the opposition party, while Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “It is clear to anybody with an eye to see that there is not a whisker of difference between the last government and the current one.”