Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have had to row back on their positions on Irish Water and water charges and no one has an answer for those who have been paying their bills, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe

A backlash against the suspension of water charges for the foreseeable future began yesterday as politicians recoiled at the idea of trying to explain if people’s money had gone down the drain or whether there would in fact be repayments for those who footed their bills. Before the ink is even dry on a minority government deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, serious questions remain about undoing the botched water charge system and the future of water services in Ireland.

Already, the discussion has turned to the funding gap that will open up when people stop paying. Furthermore, there are questions about how long this commission on water charges will run for. The North’s commission on water charges sat for several years, eventually seeing them out there.

Other issues that arise include how charges would be reset, if at all; what happens to the conservation grant or free €100 given to homes across the country; will any new billing system be put on hold until full metering is complete nationwide and, most importantly, how in God’s name any charging system for any service from water to bins to housing can ever be rolled out again in this country?

It’s an unenviable task, having to go back to the blackboard and invent the water services system all over again. That is what this commission will now be tasked with doing.

Nonetheless, with the agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that Irish Water can continue its job, it could be quite difficult changing the path of that colossal quango.

Irish Water has been as much part of the problem alongside the fiasco of water bills. Gold-plated salaries and bonuses, water legislation that was rammed through the Dáil and a system of environmental conservation that was, in truth, just an EU-enforced flat tax for banking debt, ie the bailout deal. These were some of the problems with water and reasons why over 100,000 people — of all backgrounds — one weekend marched in Dublin at the height of opposition to water charges.

Enda Kenny tried to play down concerns, to make it sound affordable. Last year, he suggested to a man that the cost of two pints would cover 10 weeks of charges. It didn’t work.

Given the bashing the Fine Gael-Labour coalition got in the 2014 local elections on the back of the criticism on water charges, the argument on the national stage was lost.

So what are the implications now for Fine Gael, as well as Fianna Fáil, on both sides conceding their positions for a government deal? Fianna Fáil look set to accept that Irish Water will stay while Fine Gael, in government, are willing to suspend water charges for up to two years. The bigger climbdown though seems to be on Fine Gael’s side.

Fianna Fáil have run rings around Fine Gael. For weeks now, we were told from Fine Gael that water charges were non-negotiable in any minority government talks. Then both parties got up on their high stools this week and were throwing out hints of an election. It got very close. There were whispers around Leinster House that the date was May 20.

Fine Gael backed down, knowing full well the implications of fighting a fresh election on paying water charges. Running a campaign with Mr Kenny as leader was also a concern.

Instead, the party of ‘law and order’ have now aligned themselves with demands from the left. Albeit, they have not agreed to scrap charges, but Fine Gael’s cave-in to suspend charges they backed to the hilt during the last election will damage them.

Not surprisingly, the same matters which peppered the debates around the initial setting up of Irish Water and the bills system are likely to return over the coming months and year. This was conceded by Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty in the Dáil yesterday.

The Meath East TD said that she found the whole argument about funding water services from a levy or through other direct taxation as strange. The debate about whether you pay “out of the left pocket or the right pocket” was bizarre.

Instead, TDs would be here in nine months’ time still debating EU rules about charges and stating the same arguments, Ms Doherty said, about conservation and levying systems.

Admitting that special exemptions were needed for certain communities, she also admitted that in reality Fine Gael had “dragged along” law abiding people into paying water bills. We can expect a lot of humble apologies to perplexed voters and constituents from Fine Gael over the bank holiday weekend. Thereafter, it is likely to take a number of days to decide the detail on how water bills will be suspended and how a commission will be set up.

Labour’s Alan Kelly pulled no punches yesterday when warning of the uncharted waters ahead. The clearly angered outgoing environment minister said those who had paid their bills were “about to be made fools of”. Furthermore, the row back on water charges would mark “political, economic and environmental sabotage”. Mr Kelly’s view clearly reflects the frustration of Labour, who took a battering in two elections over water charges but are now watching a complete u-turn unfold while out of government.

Fine Gael TDs even admitted yesterday that freezing bills would be fatal for the system. Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy said that charges would effectively now be “dead in the water”.

University College Cork economist Seamus Coffey told this newspaper yesterday that even more questions remain, now that water charges have been sunk.

“Water services have been competing with other areas for funding from government for decades and always lost out. Works are disruptive, underground and there are not many votes in them.

“Charges make the system more transparent. It’s very unclear now if investment — made by politicians now rather than engineers — will see money allocated properly.”

The €1bn cost of servicing and treating water will now be reliant on exchequer funds for the foreseeable future. Irish Water will be unable to raise private funding, like the ESB has.

“A much better system would be to have no cap on charges but an allowance instead. But you need full metering and charging for that. I wouldn’t think this is going to be very successful, it seems to be a mishmash of ideas rather than a coherent plan.”

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