DANIEL MCCONNELL: Water funding report could be the issue that collapses an 'unstable Government'

As political a document as you are ever likely to come across, with lashings of fudge to go around, writes Daniel McConnell

Yes, the report from the Commission on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services was produced by a panel of the great and good of experts, but it has a remarkable politcal subtlety to it.

The headline aspect of the report is that funding for water should primarily come from general taxation, a recommendation surely aimed at helping Fianna Fáil to support the proposals.

The report recommends that provision should be made for those with special medical or other needs.

It also states the volume of water necessary to meet the normal domestic and personal needs of citizens should be independently assessed through an open and transparent process.

Under the proposed arrangement, the national water utility will provide sufficient water to all citizens to cover their domestic and personal needs, and the cost of that water will be recovered from the State, which will be a customer of the utility, based on tariffs approved by CER following consultation.

“What is proposed does not therefore amount to the provision of a ‘free allowance’ of water,” the report states.

Fianna Fáil now has political cover to say they have forced fundamental change to Fine Gael’s plan to make homeowners and renters pay for what they use.

Box one ticked.

Proposing that charges in theory will exist albeit with very generous allowances, means that technically Ireland can comply with European law.

Interesting, that the EU Commission wrote to Water Commission chair Kevin Duffy as late as last week, November 24, to restate that the European directive does not “allow disapplying water charges once they are instated”.

“While the Expert Commission cannot purport to offer an authoritative opining on questions of European Law, it is satisfied that it can cogently be argued that its recommendations will achieve the objective pursued by Article 9 of the directive,” said the report.

Box two ticked.

The most controversial aspect is that excessive usage of water will have to be paid for by the user, in keeping with the polluter pays principle of the European laws.

The report is suitably vague as to what is meant as excessive usage and is also vague as to how such charges would be levied.

Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Bróin last night said that it would be financially un-viable to pursue people for their excessive usage.

No doubt this will be one of the keenly contested elements in the report when the new Oireachtas committee begins its deliberations in due course.

That 20-person committee is made up of politicians from all parties and none, but crucially between them Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will have a majority.

So, therefore, should agreement be reached between Housing Minister Simon Coveney and his opposite number Barry Cowen, then the outcry from the hard left could be restricted to the margins.

But, as we all know to our cost, when it comes to water charges, nothing is straightforward.

This is an issue that almost ripped the Fine Gael-Labour coalition apart in the summer of 2014 and without question cost the two parties a lot of seats in the general election last February. This issue, more than any other, risks to collapse this most unstable Government.

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