Can Simon Coveney turn water charges defeat into victory?

Analysis: With FF hardening its position, backing down may be Minister’s best move

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, about to compete for the leadership of his party, is the person trying to solve the political dilemma. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, about to compete for the leadership of his party, is the person trying to solve the political dilemma. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

The time for arguing over the merits of charging for water has passed. The Dáil will not support the reintroduction of water charges, and the system as previously existed is dead.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney, about to compete for the leadership of his party, is the person trying to solve the political dilemma. He is trying to maintain Fine Gael’s position (that there should be charging for excessive use) while placating Fianna Fáil, now outright in its opposition to any charging at all.

If Coveney and Fine Gael are surprised by this hardening of Fianna Fáil’s position – for that is what it is no matter how party TDs argue – they should not be.

It is, in fact, formalising a shift that has been obvious for some time, but Coveney was perhaps too naive to recognise it.

It has been evident since Fianna Fáil took a hard line on water charges in talks with Fine Gael on the formation of the minority government, that they had gone down a certain road and would not be turning back.

At one stage in the talks , both sides neared agreement on a system that would see charges largely abolished, save for excessive use.

Swimming pool tax

Fianna Fáil was even preparing how it would publicly explain its position, bandying about the term “swimming pool tax”.

Those on the Fine Gael side believed they were close to a deal, but the Fianna Fáil team returned with a granite-like position against charges.

The die was cast then, and was underlined with the party’s submission to the commission on water charges last autumn.

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That submission saw Fianna Fáil move from a position of suspending charges for five years to outright abolition. Its reasons for opposing charges shifted from the water system not yet being up to standard to the argument that the improving economy meant there was no need for charges.

Yet Coveney believed that Fianna Fáil would eventually come around to the notion of charging for excessive use.

Misread opponents

Where Coveney achieved huge success in his pre-Christmas battle with Fianna Fáil over rent, a fight that elevated his leadership credentials in Fine Gael, he misread his opponents on water.

The pugnacious Barry Cowen, who backed down over rent, was unlikely do so again.

Yet to pitch this latest dispute as alpha male shoulder-jutting between Coveney and Cowen is to give it too narrow a focus.

Water charges are a simpler political equation for Fine Gael, because its competition is Fianna Fáil. For Fianna Fáil, the competition is Fine Gael and, in urban areas, Sinn Féin.

It is in the cities and towns where Micheál Martin is watching over his left shoulder, anxious about anything that could stunt his party’s half-finished recovery. Martin believes that opening Fianna Fáil up to Sinn Féin and hard left charges of u-turns will be extremely damaging in some constituencies.

Coming contest

Coveney’s supporters say one of his main arguments in the coming contest with Leo Varadkar for the Fine Gael leadership is that he, more than most, was responsible for putting the Government together.

It was Coveney who visited Independent TDs in their constituencies and who applied himself to the talks with Fianna Fáil.

The image of Varadkar playing on his phone was peddled by Independent TDs and Fianna Fáil claimed the Dublin West TD was a disinterested passenger in the negotiations.

Varadkar has already tried to head off this line of attack by saying that it was he who initially reached out to Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan.

Populist

If one of Coveney’s calling cards is that he can stitch disparate groups together and keep a government intact, he now has to live up to that reputation.

While the Minister for Housing will push for the best deal he can get, he will be playing with the fire of a general election on water if he pushes too hard.

He was right to fight before Christmas, but his own interests may best be served by seeking compromise now. That may be kicking the can further down the road, but so be it.

He may end up giving more than he initially expected, but it will show he is calm and pragmatic enough to know when the time is right to back off in order keep the Government in place.

Coveney can tell those voters whose support he will seek that, although he vehemently disagrees with Fianna Fáil’s position, he put the Government first.

It is attempting to turn defeat into victory but, for his leadership prospects, that is the best he can hope for.

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