Coveney must accept water charge ripples to avoid election

Analysis: Minister says he will proceed with water legislation despite his reservations

 Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney: “I will need to bring forward legislation for the parts of the report that are good and legally sound.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney: “I will need to bring forward legislation for the parts of the report that are good and legally sound.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The water charges issue was always going to provide an unstable period for this minority Government.

Fianna Fáil had campaigned for their abolition in the general election while Fine Gael was one of few parties to stand on a pro-water charge policy.

The Government party suffered a backlash in the polls while Fianna Fáil began its resurgence. The issue was not the sole reason for either but it was the most obvious contributor.

As Fine Gael cobbled together a government, the future of the levies became an integral part of the conversation.

The issue became a stumbling block during the negotiations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, almost sinking the discussions at one point.

And this week the charges threatened the stability of this minority Government. While it was clear neither party wanted to go to the polls on water, their provocative language and counter threats brought us to the brink of an election.

The points of contention between Minister for Housing Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen were difficult to comprehend.

Both want to penalise those who waste water. One wanted to charge, the other wanted to fine. One said it was a matter for the Oireachtas committee to decide, the other insisting it was a matter for the Dáil.

‘Flawed’ report

Both marched their parties to the top of the hill, only it seems for Coveney to march them back down again. Coveney has indicated he would proceed with legislation based on the report’s recommendations even if the report was inimical to Fine Gael’s core policies on water charges. “The report is flawed and Fine Gael will not support it. At the same time, I will need to bring forward legislation for the parts of the report that are good and legally sound,” he said on Sunday. “For some other of the recommendations, I will need to seek the advice of the Attorney General to make sure that Ireland does not face fines for breaching the Water Framework Directive and the ‘polluter pays’ principle,” he said.

The Minister believes the proposals are flawed and incompatible with European law. More significantly for the Fine Gael leadership contender, the report is in breach of his party’s policy. However, Coveney knows he has to accept the path in front of him – or face an election.

The Minister is still insisting he will not legislate for something that is contrary to EU law. But by accepting this is a matter for legislation, Coveney has, in a way, conceded defeat.

How his party members react is key. The six Fine Gael members on the Oireachtas committee on water, including party chairman Martin Heyden, Kate O’Connell TD and Senator Paudie Coffey, were primed to fight this fight with Fianna Fáil at the committee. Now it seems Coveney has determined their outcome.

Faux politics

There are repercussions for Fianna Fáil too. The legislation that follows on from this report will provide for a financial penalty for excessive usage. By engaging in a faux political row Fianna Fáil has created the impression that it is opposed to such a thing. This will create further difficulties for the party down the line.

Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and Solidarity will seize on this when the legislation is eventually brought forward. While we may have a truce now, the war is likely to reignite at a future date.

There are also the long-term consequences for this minority Government. Fianna Fáil has engaged in “faux electionitis” on one too many occasions. It will not be long before the party’s members and supporters get restless and seek a day at the ballot boxes.

Fine Gael, meanwhile, has to wrestle with its conscience and policies to ensure its retention in the Government. A new leader beckons and the events of the past week have damaged Coveney’s prospects. Whoever replaces Enda Kenny as leader must decide if they are willing to continuously sacrifice power to remain in office.

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