‘Dead cat’ of water charges keeps bouncing back

Analysis: After week’s unedifying spat, FF and FG have run out of second chances

Troubled waters: The Oireachtas committee’s  recommendations will more closely reflect the views of Right 2 Water members of the committee than Fine Gael. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Troubled waters: The Oireachtas committee’s recommendations will more closely reflect the views of Right 2 Water members of the committee than Fine Gael. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

In politics, when a project goes into terminal decline the symptoms are easy to identify: public rows, finger-pointing, a blame game, disunity, contradictory messages, chaotic behaviour and desperate measures to arrest the slide.

Over the past week, like a peacock fanning its tail, we have seen the full fluorescent display of all those attributes as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have fallen out spectacularly over water charges.

As a senior Fine Gael figure put it yesterday: “Fianna Fáil feel they went too far. Fine Gael, maybe we were a bit too pushy.”

It culminated in Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney sending a harshly critical letter to the Oireachtas committee on water charges. Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen retaliated with a letter that said his party might not agree a change in leadership in Fine Gael if the confidence and supply agreement between both parties was not honoured. In the meantime, Fine Gael’s Alan Farrell posted a crass and unhelpful message about the Cowen family on his Facebook page.

It sounded like high-stakes poker, but by Sunday afternoon, it became clear neither party was at a stage it wanted to bet the house on its hand.

Cooling heels

Strategists for both parties agreed it was time for the protagonists to step back a little, cool their heels and see what can be salvaged.

So can it be resolved before Tuesday when the committee finalises its recommendations to Government? Not a hope. The problem for Minister for Housing and Local Government Simon Coveney is the damage done to the Oireachtas committee’s report by the row. The language of the recommendations will more closely reflect the Right 2 Water members of the committee than Fine Gael, after Fianna Fáil sided with their amendments.

The chair Pádraig Ó Céidigh adjourned the final meeting until tomorrow to allow senior counsel David Nolan to give legal advice on the report as a whole. He was away in the Far East last week and has not had an opportunity to study the effect of the flurry of amendments made in the frenetic closing days.

There has been a bit of wishful thinking (from Fine Gael in particular) that Nolan could somehow pull it out of the fire. He might advise that some of the language and phrases be modified. But nothing more than that.

Nine lives

So what will happen then? Will it lead to the fall of this Government? Hardly. There is zero appetite for that – yesterday Fine Gael’s Patrick O’Donovan repeated Michael Noonan’s memorable phrase that the “dead cat” of water charges will need to be taken off the agenda.

The report from the committee will be debated in the Dáil this week. And Coveney will then have to legislate for a new Bill on water services, based on a report that offends his political core beliefs. He has no choice but to proceed with the legislation, otherwise the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil will be breached.

That is where politics will enter the picture. Fianna Fáil sources pointed out yesterday that Fine Gael was putting the cart before the horse, and looking to lock down principles in the report rather than in the law. Fine Gael strategists now concede that sometimes politics needs constructive ambiguity in documents, to get something over the line, and they might have been too hasty in insisting on prescriptive language.

A good example was the phrase “existing infrastructure” in the putative deal. That was a code word for water meters, and allowed the possibility to use them to calculate how much water was being used by a household, without explicitly stating it. By the way, that phrase was culled completely once the hostilities started.

If the report stands, Coveney will bring forward legislation for the parts considered legally sound by him. He will seek the advice of Attorney General Máire Whelan on the recommendations that would breach the EU water framework directive and lead to fines.

How much is too much?

That will mean negotiations with Fianna Fáil after Easter, on the legislation, when the fury of last week’s shenanigans has receded. And the signals coming from the main Opposition party is that it is willing to go at least some of the way.

So where do the parties agree and where do they diverge? Both agreed that 8 per cent of households be subject to possible sanction for excessive use. That’s about 70,000 households (out of 1.6 million) and they use 1.7 times more water than the “normal” household.

The biggest stumbling block for agreement is how that figure is calculated. Fine Gael says it should be based on a per household figure and Fianna Fáil says it should be a per person figure. Fine Gael says if Fianna Fáil’s allowance of 133 litres per person per day is allowed, virtually zero per cent will pay for excessive use. Fianna Fáil says Fine Gael’s figures will mean 25 per cent of households pay extra. Who is right? It’s hard to know. But somebody needs to bring objective clarity to this.

Late last week, Fianna Fáil backed out of an agreement for mandatory installation of water meters in new buildings. That requirement is already there in many local authorities and it might be willing to concede on this point when legislation is being drafted (though it will get it in the neck from the Opposition for yet another flip-flop).

What Coveney needs to do is bring forward legislation that is “defensible” with the European Commission. That means essentially a progressive charging system for water services. The report is a goner at this stage but there is still scope – and time – to broker a deal with Fianna Fáil when the legislation is being drafted and finessed. Both have botched the first attempt at it. They won’t get another chance after this.

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