Water-charge issue flows back to where it started

After 10 days of flailing each other around, the parties returned to the original deal

 

If nothing else, the all-party committee on the future funding of water services have provided plenty of drama over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, with an ominous deadline fast approaching, the Fine Gael delegation gathered at the top of the stairs talking urgently about what approach was needed to get a deal over the line.

Fianna Fáil’s chief negotiator Barry Cowen joined them for a huddled conversation, gesturing to a bullet point in a sheet of printed paper in his hand. The Independent TD Noel Grealish, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan and Grace O’Sullivan of the Green Party came and went during that period.

Meanwhile, downstairs, four members of the Right2Water group crowded into a tiny room to see if they could draft their own amendments on some of the vexed questions, including the contentious matter of the compulsory installation of water meters in new buildings (something it opposed on the basis it provided a gateway for charges).

Such high drama was not widely expected before the Committee met to finalise its report on Tuesday. What paved the way for these events was a two-page document containing the legal advice of senior counsel David Nolan.

Legal advice

Nolan had been in Hong Kong last week and had not had an opportunity to view fully the latest draft with its many amendments. Last week he had okayed individual amendments as they were presented but on Tuesday, his advice was that some significant changes were needed.

Nolan advised several key amendments to the report. That essentially allowed Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to begin repairing their hand after the calamitous hames they had made of it the week before.

By lunchtime, backroom people from both parties were saying a deal was imminent, that they were back to the status quo ante – in other words, after 10 days of flailing each other around, they had returned to the deal that was originally struck.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that. Fianna Fáil had U-turned on compulsory meters in new buildings last week. It didn’t quite fully U-turn on its U-turn on Tuesday but the reality is that building regulations will be used as a basis for installing meters in all new-builds.

Moreover, the terms “excess use” and “normal” are now back, as Fine Gael had demanded.

The big stumbling block has always been what is “normal”. Both big parties had agreed that 8 per cent of households should pay and that the limit where people start paying is 1.7 times average use. Fianna Fáil wanted an allowance per person and Fine Gael per household. Very late in they day, just before the final vote at 7.30pm, Fianna Fáil agreed that it would be per household.

The vote was 13 to seven with pro-water-charge parties, Labour and the Greens, voting against. They were unhappy that water wasters would be subject to a clumsy system of fines rather than being simply charged extra.

Sure it was known that neither Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil wanted an election. But judged from the prism of Tuesday, the agreement will be seen as a climb-down by Fianna Fáil as it reverses from last week.

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