High tide reached in water charges fiasco as TDs drown in war of words

The water charges issue has, since it emerged on the political agenda in earnest in late 2013 and early 2014, wreaked havoc on all who have sought to grapple with it, writes Daniel McConnell

High tide reached in water charges fiasco as TDs drown in war of words

WHAT a shambles the past week has been. It was a week when all logic in relation to the future of water charges went in the rubbish bin and the murkiest political game-playing became the official recommendation of a powerful Oireachtas committee.

It was the latest illustration that the current political landscape in the Dail is utterly defunct and the sooner it comes crashing down, the better.

The water charges issue has, since it emerged on the political agenda in earnest in late 2013 and early 2014, wreaked havoc on all who have sought to grapple with it.

It led to a devastating local and European elections for Fine Gael and Labour in 2014 — and both parties went on to lose 57 seats between them at the 2016 general election.

Of course, not all of those seats were lost because of water charges but a large chunk were.

For Fianna Fáil during all that time, its position on water charges went from one that was supportive of a charging regime to one that swung massively to the populist left (to keep apace with Paul Murphy and Sinn Féin).

The party’s decision in the run-up to the general election last year, to adopt an abolitionist approach to charges, was a dramatic shift in the party’s approach to policy. Fianna Fáil showed itself to be ready to ditch what is genuinely in the best interests of the country in favour of rank populism. Its relative success in the election and Fine Gael’s collapse led to the need for both parties to discuss an arrangement which would allow a minority government be formed.

Fianna Fail’s Barry Cowen
Fianna Fail’s Barry Cowen

The main issue to dominate those talks was water charges.

Fine Gael was adamant, initially, that charges had to remain, that Irish Water would be allowed to continue, and that those who abuse the supply would be penalised.

In return for its support, Fianna Fáil, however, demanded water charges be abolished. That ultimately turned into a nine-month suspension to allow a commission be formed to make a recommendation.

Through gritted teeth, Fine Gael, led in the talks by Simon Coveney, swallowed the bitter pill to allow a Government be formed.

The commission ultimately reported in October and recommended that generous allowances be granted to homes but excessive usage be penalised.

That report was then taken up by the newly established Oireachtas committee on the future funding of water services.

Over several months, it heard from witnesses and began to draft a report.

As that process came to its conclusions last week, the committee descended into farce.

Before last Monday, it seemed the committee had reached an agreement which would allow it to sign off on a report, which may have been politically acceptable but was legally dubious and environmentally treasonous.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

Coveney had even taken to Twitter to thank committee members for their diligence in reaching a compromise.

The report at that stage was already an abject defeat for Fine Gael in terms of its previous red-line positions on how water charges should be handled.

It would appear that once again, the need to stay in office took primacy over common sense and good policy.

Fine Gael, at that stage, seemed prepared to kick the water can down the road for some future government to mop up.

Having championed for so long the need to make people pay for water usage, Coveney and Fine Gael appeared so keen to remove the water issue from the political agenda that they were willing to accept a dodgy report which in effect would have killed off the concept and principle of charging for water.

What had been agreed was:

  • A generous allowance for normal domestic usage to be funded through taxation and a household charge for excessive usage based on volume used above the agreed threshold;
  • A tariff or levy to apply for excess usage or wilful waste. This would apply to households who use 70% above average domestic usage as set by the CER;
  • The excessive usage/water wastage definition currently applies to the 8% of households who are responsible for a third of all treated domestic water consumption.

But then something of a fightback occurred.

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, not for the first or last time, took aim at Fianna Fáil’s populism and described the deal as it stood in pretty shoddy terms.

As reported by Hugh O’Connell in the Sunday Business Post last weekend, Varadkar told Fine Gael colleagues it could not be classed as a “political victory” because the party had wanted 100% of households to pay something for water but now only 8% of households would face charges.

He said the party would be ridiculed if it sold the deal on water charges as a “win”.

Also, Labour TD and former environment minister Alan Kelly said the committee’s plan was simply illegal, as it did not meet either the polluter-pays or the cost-recovery principles which form the basis of the EU water directive.

Then, last Monday, when the committee regrouped, Fine Gael members appeared to have rediscovered their backbones or at least their sense of outrage and began to quibble with the deal as had been agreed.

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen said O’Connell’s story had shown Coveney to have been “spooked” by Varadkar’s stinging comments and that that is what led the party’s committee members to have belated issues with the report’s conclusions.

Fine Gael took to blaming Fianna Fáil, saying it was that party which had “reneged” on the previous commitments.

It accused Fianna Fáil of:

  • Reneging on the commitment to require all new homes to have meters installed;
  • Removing the term “excess usage”, fundamental to the application of the polluter pays principle;
  • Reneging on the commitment to charge for excessive usage per household, at odds with the agreed position last week.

As the committee failed to sign off on the final report on Thursday, the recriminations continued.

Varadkar, standing in for Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Leaders’ Questions, took aim at Barry Cowen and Fianna Fáil.

“I congratulate Deputy Paul Murphy on one enormous success, though not on the role he has played in the campaign against water charges,” quipped Varadkar.

“I congratulate him on the role he has played in reducing Fianna Fáil to what it is now. The party of Lemass, which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of its fear of Deputy Murphy and of Sinn Féin.”

That stung.

All the while, Murphy and his merry band of anarchists who appear to have free reign in the Dáil these days are claiming a massive victory for the ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ contingent.

They take again to the streets of Dublin, causing more disruption to commuters and businesses to celebrate their so-called victory.

But, in truth, it is a victory for chaos, for anarchy over common sense and logic.

The events of the past seven days in the Dáil have been akin to allowing the inmates take over the asylum.

The sooner it ends, the better.

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