Future of Irish Water hangs in the balance

After another 24 hours of crunch talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the future of Irish Water remains in the balance, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

But regardless of how the standoff concludes, the array of waivers, allowances, charge deferrals and the complete replacement of the utility that are now all on the agenda have key consequences for both parties — and the country.

The most pressing need for most of the public is the current cost of water charges, an issue that is believed to have taken up a significant amount of discussion in the talks in recent days.

Fine Gael, which remains steadfast in its view that a national water utility is required to address problems in the service, is understood to have put forward a series of possible fee reductions this week.

The proposals include waivers on who should pay aimed at vulnerable sections of the public, and household allowances designed to lessen the pain of the water charges system.

The plan has been tabled as it would allow Fianna Fáil to save face by ensuring a better deal for the public, while also ensuring Fine Gael can claim victory by guaranteeing the continuation of Irish Water.

However, if such an agreement — which has to date been shot down by Fianna Fáil — is eventually agreed, it is likely to mean people who cannot avail of the allowances system will have to pay higher charges, an issue which is a potential stumbling block to the talks.

As a way around the potential impasse, Fianna Fáil has suggested that charges should be deferred until all households in the country are metered, with every home then given a substantial free allocation of water usage and only paying for anything above this level.

However, this move — which Fine Gael is similarly opposed to because it will in effect mean water charges will be brought to a halt for a number of years, handing victory to Fianna Fáil — will also result in a lack of any funds for water service improvements in the short to medium term.

A third key issue still being discussed at the talks is the complete replacement of Irish Water by another utility, a move repeatedly put forward by Fianna Fáil.

However, while Fine Gael is opposed to this move for policy reasons, even if it happens the step poses significant — and still unresolved — questions for thousands of Irish Water workers, who may be entitled to compensation for breach of contract.

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