There was hope that a report this week on solving the water charge dilemma for politicians, would gift Fine Gael a grand political fudge like no other to quietly consign water bills to the dustheap, but instead it has given the party an almighty headache which will last for months.
Fianna Fáil look like they will get away with vague answers on what to do about water, while all the pressure is now mounting on Fine Gael’s rank and file for refunds.
Instead of just sweeping the charging regime under the carpet, the party of law-and-order is now split on whether to chase non-payers or whether to give pay back to households which paid their bills.
After a revolt from backbenchers at the Fine Gael party meeting in Leinster House on Wednesday night over the thorny issue, Housing Minister Simon Coveney will surely have to cave in now. How can his party, and others, delay a decision on refunding water customers until a new Oireachtas Committee finishes its deliberations next year on the expert water commission report?
Finance Minister Michael Noonan compared the issue to a “dead cat” yesterday and said it should not be allowed become an election issue. It’s too late for that now.
By yesterday morning backbenchers, with the hangover of a tense party meeting on water the night before, walked the halls of Leinster House, privately admitting this was here to stay now.
It is understood that during the party meeting, Dublin-Fingal TD Alan Farrell told his colleagues that Fine Gael would now be stuck with water as an issue again for at least another year. There will be no putting this to bed now, as Minister Coveney so calmly declared on radio during the week.
Even worse for Fine Gael is that its upper ranks are mainly in favour of no refunds, while TDs, senators, and junior ministers are the ones arguing to give money back to people. In an emotional plea, Drugs Minister and Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne, said she is getting huge criticism over water and wants her own water charge payments refunded. Mr Coveney would not budge, though.
However, by this morning, his junior housing minister was showing cracks from the pressure. Damien English told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke show that, yes, a system of refunds might have to be considered if decided by the Oireachtas Committee and supported by the Dáil.
However, ministers privately fear the administration cost alone for refunds will become another headache. Added to all this is the fact that the EU have yet to decide on accepting the expert commission proposals and essentially allowing the Government to pay for water services, with tariffs being applied for excessive use.
Clearly, there is massive division in Fine Gael on the matter of whether to refund the two-thirds of households who paid their water charges since late 2014. TDs and ministers contacted by the Irish Examiner were split. Many said it was a no-brainer: Refunds are needed. Others say “‘go after the non-payers”. The Cabinet is also split. Members of the Independent Alliance, including Shane Ross, favour refunds, while Fine Gael ministers don’t. This issue is not going away anytime soon.