Parties keep spinning as water issue remains

Is it an oasis, or a mirage? After 55 days lost in the post-election political desert, with seemingly no hope of rescue, for a brief period yesterday, TDs, senators and their handlers believed that at long last a government-forming deal is imminent.

After 55 days lost in the post-election political desert, with seemingly no hope of rescue, for a brief period yesterday, TDs, senators and their handlers believed that at long last a government-forming deal is imminent.

As the first rays of summer beat down outside, within the Leinster House confines, there was only one issue on everyone’s increasingly parched lips.

Water.

Or more specifically, Irish Water, a deal on which appeared in the early afternoon to finally be glimmering tantalisingly close on the horizon.

Amid talk from Fine Gael that an agreement was set to happen, Fianna Fáil’s TDs were put on notice at their weekly parliamentary party meeting that they may need to attend a second meeting on Saturday, Monday or Tuesday to sign off on a long-awaited deal.

The same message was repeated to Fine Gael’s own parliamentary party meeting, before acting Finance Minister Michael Noonan told reporters as he attended the Trinity College negotiation talks that a “game-changer” moment had arrived.

Like a person lost in a desert for eight weeks who is gasping for water, the growing rumours an agreement could finally be reached within days — further added to by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney — was like an oasis suddenly appearing in the near distance.

But just like in that tropical scene, as the Irish public tentatively approached the image last night it quickly became apparent the progress was just a mirage.

Despite hope earlier in the day, water was barely discussed in yesterday’s talks, with the issue parked until today when “technical” matters will be examined.

And in a further stumbling block, it became apparent last night that Mr Noonan’s “game-changer” claim has angered Fianna Fáil to such an extent it is insistent the country is nowhere near any deal on the utility.

As the oasis in the political desert that is currently Dáil Éireann dissolved before people’s eyes, Fianna Fáil were last night demanding water charges must be suspended for the entire duration of the next Dáil — an issue that has effectively thrown the debate right back to the depths of February.

Fine Gael was likewise holding firm, saying it may allow suspension for a shorter period of time before it introduces a new waivers and allowances system for people struggling to pay the fees.

While both sides were clearly spinning their own version of a mirage in the strongly worded messages, along the sidelines hints a fresh deal could yet save the negotiations were also being suggested.

Fianna Fáil will not allow a short-term suspension of water charges instead of a longer term arrangement because it doesn’t want to announce the deal and face voters holding their bills.

But, if Fine Gael is willing to swallow a complete suspension of water charges until the next election — whenever that will be — Micheál Martin’s party, one senior aide stressed, may be able to similarly agree a written deal to allow the next government to sit for three budgets.

In other words, a plan that would offer both apparently warring sides enough wiggle room to save face.

For some in opposition, the apparent last ditch attempt to resolve the issue is a little too convenient, with the hard left opposition yesterday warning the now-daily public drama is a trick, and that talks are being ‘dragged out’ to allow both parties to slowly bring their grassroots with them.

55 days after wandering into the political desert, you could forgive some people for wanting to believe such a mirage is true.

Knock-on effect

The likely temporary delay of Irish Water charges and introduction of waivers and allowances could pose significant difficulties for the incoming government in terms of how much money is available for other services.

With a €500m fiscal space limit and mounting problems in health, funding for universities and other areas, resolving the issue may result in serious questions being raised elsewhere.

While it remained unclear last night how much any charges suspension and allowances introduction will cost the State, it is expected the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil deal will come with a price tag in the hundreds of millions. This is because removing water charges even for a short period will mean money will have to be found from other areas to continue water services improvements while introducing waivers and other deals for vulnerable people.

The issue could have a knock-on effect for areas such as health, which it emerged earlier this month in private briefings by Department of Health officials to Fianna Fáil’s own negotiating team is facing a minimum €300m shortfall. already this year.

While financial overruns are nothing new in the health service, the fact that under new EU rules supplementary budgets later in the year are no longer allowed means the system is under extreme pressure to come in on budget.

Similarly, a still unpublished Department of Education report has raised significant concerns about how universities can be funded into the future, with concerns deeply unpopular student fees may have to be imposed to keep colleges afloat — a likelihood only added to if available funds are re-routed to any Irish Water deal.

In addition to the issues, other planned services such asTransport funding injections may need to be put on hold, while the suspension of water charges could pose difficulties for previously announced plans to reduce the Universal Social Charge over the next five years.

With a limited fiscal space available, the reality is extra funding pressures coming from a waivers and allowances system alongside a pause on charges mean other areas may have to suffer in order to ensure a deal can be agreed.

More on this topic

Water charges 'will be collected'; Joan Burton expected to step down as Labour leaderWater charges 'will be collected'; Joan Burton expected to step down as Labour leader

Independent Alliance say FG will have to agree to 'radical proposals' for a govt by ThursdayIndependent Alliance say FG will have to agree to 'radical proposals' for a govt by Thursday

Talks with Independent Alliance could delay govt formation; SF says FF have 'lost credibility'Talks with Independent Alliance could delay govt formation; SF says FF have 'lost credibility'

Leo Varadkar's govt formation comments 'misleading and self-serving', says Michael McGrathLeo Varadkar's govt formation comments 'misleading and self-serving', says Michael McGrath


Lifestyle

This season textiles trend large, full of colour and exotic pattern, and applied in new ways to make a personal design statement from the living room to the bedroom, writes Carol O’CallaghanTextile trends that can help you make a personal design statement

More From The Irish Examiner