While they have attacked the Government, the opposition parties have failed to develop coherent policies, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
THE coalition is drowning in Irish Water problems right now. But those opposition lifeboats supposedly coming to rescue us all have more than a few holes in them as well.
Details revealed in an exclusive Irish Examiner questionnaire show that despite the current focus rightly being on what the Fine Gael-Labour Government plans for the divisive utility, vocal opponents have some questions to answer themselves.
Responses outlined on these pages confirm all but one opposition party has pledged to scrap or replace Irish Water if it gains power, but how exactly they will fund long-overdue improvements in our Victorian-era water services is less clear.
Depending on which form of alternative government enters power should the current coalition be heaved overboard, EU funding, millionaire taxes, and even a rise in charges and general tax hike are on the cards.
For some parties, current bill payers who are simply complying with the law will not be reimbursed if Irish Water is scrapped — with one party saying this is a “side issue” — while non-payers will not be told to hand back the €100 “conservation” grant despite all opposition groups saying it has nothing to do with conservation and insisting it wastes taxpayers’ money.
As a result, while the utility is currently the Coalition’s daily problem, with a general election looming the waves of discontent over the Irish Water crisis are soon likely to be lapping just as ferociously at the doors of the parties’ main political rivals.
On the key issue of how exactly water service improvements will take place in a non-Irish Water world the opposition responses have only given partial answers, with a number of parties saying EU funding and savings can tackle the issue, although one admits general tax rises are likely.
According to Fianna Fáil, the reforms can be funded by the “tax people already pay”, the strategic investment fund, and support from the EU investment bank, with the party noting that the Government has not spent any more money on pipe repairs and other infrastructure than Fianna Fáil did in office.
Similarly, Sinn Féin believes while there would be “some cost to forming a new public body for the supply of water” which a number of parties have put forward, “a great deal can be recouped by spending less money on consultants, metering and legal advisers”.
The party said abolishing the conservation grant would “save €136m”, and that it will outline exact costings in its pre-budget document next month.
In a move that will shock no one, the Socialists/AAA and People before Profit have said they would target companies and millionaires in tax hikes that would not affect the general public — a matter the Government is likely to say would stall the economy.
Interestingly, Renua Ireland said it wanted to keep a “users pay” model of water charges and it accepted the removal of Irish Water would meant it was “unlikely we can fully comply with key water directives without direct investment by the State in capital infrastructure”.
While it said it wants a scaled-down alternative to Irish Water to be set up which would have a “completely” different approach to what exists, Renua noted charges may not just stay, but increase — a risky pre-election admission.
The Greens also said charging will stay, on the grounds Ireland should seek EU funds under the “new Juncker investment plan” which allows for support if financial flexibility is needed — a plan it said the country cannot proceed with if there is no “charging mechanism”.
Speaking for the newly formed Social Democrats, Roisín Shortall TD said an alternative body to Irish Water can be funded “from existing taxation including €1.2bn already ringfenced for water services” alongside a reduction in “operating costs”.
In terms of charges, every party except for the Greens and Renua would scrap usage bills, but what happens after that gets complicated.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have said they would refuse to reimburse current bill payers should Irish Water and the charges be scrapped, with Fianna Fáil arguing the matter — which directly hits the pockets of almost half the population — is a “side issue”.
“There is no precedent for compensation for previous payments such as the abolition of the residential property tax in 1997, water charges system in 1996 or domestic rates in 1977.
“Direct payments or tax reliefs are impractical. People will not be compensated,” a spokesperson said.
The Socialists/AAA and People before Profit said they would reimburse bill payers, the Social Democrats said it would “make more sense” to abolish the conservation grant, while Renua instead prefer to change but keep the current billing process.
Controversially, the Greens — which want to keep charges — said while non-payers must not go to jail, penalties may include “taking into consideration fees owed” in “social housing applications”.
Unexpectedly, when it comes to that other financial headache — what to do with the €100 water conservation grant — none of the parties plan to take the money back despite all lashing out at it as a “bribe”.
While presumably this approach is intended not to frustrate voters by hitting their pockets before even entering office, it won’t gain support among existing non-reimbursed bill payers.
The scrapping of Irish Water brings a fourth financial dilemma, namely what to do with staff. The majority of the opposition plans to bring them back into local authorities. Fianna Fáil feels 100 workers would be kept for an alternative body to Irish Water, while Sinn Féin believes “the majority would be kept on to maintain expertise” at an unexplained “negligible” cost.
The Socialists/AAA and People before Profit said workers would be brought back to local councils and a new alternative body to Irish Water, while Renua said a new body would oversee “dramatic” worker cuts.
The Social Democrats feel workers will “transition” to a new public body with “no costs” involved, while the Greens did not answer.
While the opposition parties insist the money adds up, Government is now likely to pick at the information with the same manic focus as their own plans have been attacked.
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