Coalition tensions rise over water charges

Inside Politics: Political parties dodging the issue since troika programme agreed

‘Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that (1980s) government and Enda Kenny a junior Minister so it is hardly a surprise that they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

‘Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that (1980s) government and Enda Kenny a junior Minister so it is hardly a surprise that they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 00:01

The spat between the Coalition parties over the introduction of water charges will probably be sorted out in a couple of weeks but the row has fuelled a growing impression of a government that is losing its grip.

If that image takes hold in the public mind it will do far more damage to the Coalition’s long-term prospects than any decision it makes, however unpopular.

The fate of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the 1980s is a case in point. What undermined public confidence in Garret FitzGerald’s government was not so much the range of tough choices it made but the endless wrangling between the parties in the face of every decision.

Michael Noonan was a senior figure in that government and Enda Kenny a junior minister so it is hardly a surprise they have been expressing frustration to their Fine Gael colleagues in recent days about the way events have appeared to slip out of their control over the past few months.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the departure of the troika last December, rather than marking the new political dawn imagined by both Coalition parties actually started a slide that is becoming ever harder to stop.

The irony of the row over water, which burst out in advance of Wednesday’s special Cabinet meeting, was that just a day earlier at their regular Tuesday meeting Ministers had a frank discussion about the need to refocus and take control of the political agenda. Concerns were expressed that Government departments were slipping back into old habits of deferring decisions indefinitely now that the troika three-monthly deadlines no longer applied. Ministers were urged to get a grip on their departments and put an end to drift.

Those good intentions went out the window the next morning when Labour went public with its annoyance at what the party’s Ministers regarded as an attempt by Fine Gael to bulldoze through a decision on water charges before the issue had been properly teased out.

The Fine Gael reaction was to say Labour foot-dragged to delay a decision until after the May 23rd local elections. The Fine Gael view was that such a move would have allowed Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to make exaggerated claims about the likely scale of the charges.

Both Coalition parties had a case but the public squabble did neither of them any good. They will need to make a coherent decision by April 30th and be prepared to defend it on the doorsteps for the following three weeks.

Water charges have been on the agenda since the troika programme was agreed in 2010. The issue should have been dealt with long before that but all of the political parties dodged their responsibility even though they all knew charges would ultimately have to be adopted as part of our EU commitments.

Eventually, as a result of the troika programme in 2010 the Fianna Fáil-led government agreed to introduce a flat charge of €400 per household in 2012. After the change of government, Noonan and Brendan Howlin negotiated a deferment until 2015 so that a national metering system could be developed.

About 30 per cent of households will have metres by the time the charges kick in around October of this year with the Department of the Environment hoping 66 per cent of the country is metered by the end of 2015. One of the contentious issues in this week’s row was Labour concerns about how the charges will be assessed for the two-thirds of households who will be without meters for the first year of the charges.

The other big issue for Tánasite Eamon Gilmore was how vulnerable groups are to be protected. He had particular concerns about the impact of the charges on elderly people living alone and families with children. These issues had been discussed since February at the Economic Management Council of which Gilmore is a member but no decisions were reached before Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan brought his memo to Cabinet on Wednesday morning.

The Taoiseach had given a commitment that the scale of the charges would be announced before the local elections and it appears Hogan was determined to honour that pledge and get the €240 average figure into the public domain before all of the issues were ironed out with Labour.

Ministers in both parties expect that outstanding problems will be ironed out over the next two weeks. It is likely vulnerable categories will be compensated through the social welfare system, with extra resources being allocated to Minister for Protection Joan Burton to increase the living alone allowance.

The issue of assessed charges will not be as easy to deal with – a system that will allow people to get a rebate once metering starts is probably the best that can be achieved at present. Ultimately both Coalition parties will probably be able to claim a victory of sorts. Labour will be in a position to claim credit for the exemption of vulnerable groups while Fine Gael will be able to claim the Taoiseach’s commitment to tell the voters the figure before the local elections has been honoured.

Both parties will point to the fact that Fianna Fáil planned to introduce a higher charge of €400 and that Sinn Féin implements a system in the North that has even higher charges.The problem is that the damaging impact of the row on the Coalition’s credibility won’t be so easy to explain away.

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