Suspicions of manufactured fight over water charges

Latest row between Labour and FG about procedure rather than substance

File image of Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment.  Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

File image of Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times


What has changed today to cause the latest crisis at Cabinet?

Is it that ministers were suddenly told they had to introduce water charges? No, we’ve known that since Ireland entered the bailout in late 2010.

Is it that the average bill per house was suddenly revealed to be around the €300 mark? No, that estimate has been doing the rounds for quite some time.

Is it that we all of a sudden know there is going to be a standing charge applied to water bills, irrespective of use? No, we’ve known that for a while too.

Yet the Labour Party this morning said it had serious problems with the proposals being brought by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan to a special Cabinet meeting, called to discuss water charges amongst other issues.

Labour sources said Fine Gael was trying to “railroad” the plans through Cabinet, with some characterising it as the “most serious disagreement yet”, placing it alongside rows on budgets, as well as tensions on the promissory note deal, the abortion legislation, and the various controversies surrounding Alan Shatter and James Reilly.

Labour say Hogan’s proposals are “half-baked”, with party sources – all sticking to a seemingly agreed line: “They have not thought through details of key issues like metering, standing charge, ability to pay, pensioners, conservation. It would not survive public scrutiny if left out in its current form.”

Yet the issue of water charges has been continually discussed at the Economic Management Council, the four member economic committee at the heart of Government which comprises Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin.

One Labour source claimed “heavy discussions” at the EMC had only taken place in recent weeks and nothing had been agreed with Fine Gael.

Amid scepticism of how big a fight this actually is, the junior Coalition partner says it is “all too real”.

The problem seems to be an issue of procedure rather than substance, though the suspicion remains of a contrived controversy weeks from an election.

Labour seems annoyed that details of Mr Hogan’s proposals appeared in the media this morning before it had an opportunity to fully digest them.

Sources said Mr Hogan had his memo at the routine Cabinet meeting yesterday but did not distribute it to his colleagues for fear it could leak. It is understood it was then circulated late last night.

There were indications – from both sides of Government - in recent weeks that the water announcement was not expected until later this month, and certainly not now. But is it worth all this heat for something we knew was going to happen already? Hardly.

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