Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil deadlocked over water charges

Parties given until noon today to outline their positions to Oireachtas committee

Tens of thousands have attended a demonstration against water charges, organised by the Right2Water campaign in Dublin, having marched from the city’s railway stations and suburbs to congregate at the Spire on O’Connell Street. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil remain deadlocked in a dispute over water charges with no sign of a compromise.

The two parties did not hold any discussions on Thursday on the issue despite being given until 12pm on Friday to outline their positions to the Oireachtas committee examining domestic water services.

Both sides played down the prospect of a general election on the issue but also remained firm on their positions.

Fine Gael is understood to be willing to delay the introduction of excessive charges for two years if Fianna Fáil agrees to imposing such a levy.

However, Fianna Fáil has resisted that proposal insisting it does not believe a new charge is warranted.

The two parties are also at odds over the rollout of metering, with Fine Gael insisting their installation must continue and Fianna Fáil believing excessive usage can be identified by district metering.

Speaking Thursday, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney said the general taxpayer should not have to pay for those who waste water.

Water meters

On that basis it would be “very strange” if water meters were not used to detect excessive water consumption by households, Mr Coveney said.

He added: “There are nearly 900,000 meters in the ground across the country it makes sense to use that infrastructure to ensure that if people use very large volumes of water that they pay for that rather than the tax payer.

“It would be very strange in my view if we didn’t use the existing infrastructure that’s functioning and working quite well at the moment as a basis for ensuring the polluter pays principle is part of our plan, and if people are wasting large volumes of water then they pay for that rather than their neighbours who are taxpayers.”

It is also now certain that if a compromise is not reached, and a vote is taken, the 20-member committee will be deadlocked on the funding issue, particularly the controversy over charging for excessive use

Senior Ministers and Taoiseach Enda Kenny supported Mr Coveney’s position on the issue despite threats of a general election.

Fine Gael is maintaining that some charge for excessive water use should remain in place, whereas Fianna Fáil is in favour of an outright abolition of water charges.

Micheál Martin’s party has instead called for fines for excessive water use, but the Government has said that position contravenes EU directives and could leave the State liable for significant penalties.

Participants in Saturday's water protests in Dublin. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
A water charges protest in Dublin. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Ministers have received a 30-page opinion from the Attorney General, which insists it would be illegal not to enforce the polluter pays principle.

Fianna Fáil produced its legal opinion Thursday from senior counsel Conleth Bradley and barrister Darren Lehane, who is a former Fianna Fáil local election candidate.

It states that while Ireland is bound by the European Water Framework Directive, it has a “wide discretion” as to how the principle is implemented.

EU law

They insist failing to bill for excessive use would not breach EU law, saying it is up to the State to determine its own practices.

The party’s spokesman on housing Barry Cowen said he wanted to see the advice from the Attorney General given to this Government but also to former ministers Phil Hogan and Alan Kelly.

Both sides must make submissions to the Oireachtas committee examining water charges by midday on Friday.

There is an increasing likelihood that the committee, chaired by Independent Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, will seek an extension of the March 13th deadline that has been set for it.

It is also now certain that if a compromise is not reached, and a vote is taken, the 20-member committee will be deadlocked on the funding issue, particularly the controversy over charging for excessive use.

So far, 10 members of the committee have indicated they will oppose any charge outside of general taxation.

Nine have said they would be in favour of charges being levied for excessive use.

The critical vote will be that of the chair, Mr Ó Céidigh. He told the committee he does not want to use his vote but has told colleagues it is likely he will side with those in favour of some form of charge, thus leaving at 10 votes on each side.

It would mean the committee would not be in a position to give a recommendation to the Oireachtas on the funding issue.

Following the divisions and disputes that emerged this week, there is now less confidence among committee members that a report can be fully completed by Mr Ó Céidigh and the committee’s secretariat before March 13th.