Water controversy: public will not welcome election

Only Labour and the Greens emerge with honour from this mess

 

The water saga has some way to run but it retains the capacity to plunge the State into a general election, even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil cobble together some sort of compromise at the Oireachtas committee on the future funding of domestic water services. An election is not a prospect the public will welcome.

The two parties have played a part in creating the current mess; Fine Gael through the incompetent and confused way water charges were introduced in 2015 and Fianna Fáil by its opportunistic decision after last year’s election to support the abolition of any meaningful charge. It is hardly surprising that Sinn Féin and the variety of left wing Independents, who campaigned against water charges, are ready to sign up to a report which effectively abolishes charges and any meaningful system for measuring excessive use of water.

Fianna Fáil’s endorsement of that position is hard to justify, particularly because the original proposal to introduce metering and water charges was made by the Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition in 2010. Even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail manage to paper over their difference at the Oireachtas committee, any agreed report is still likely to be in breach of the EU water directive which enshrines the polluter pays principle.

The only parties to emerge with honour from the mess are Labour and the Greens. Despite the enormous hit it took on water at the election, Labour has consistently supported compliance with the EU water directive. The Greens, too, have stood by the polluter pays principle.

The independent think tank publicpolicy.ie has concluded the only way excessive use of water by a small minority of people can be dealt with is by metering. “We believe that a metered charge for excessive use of water is reasonable and justified once the existing programme to deal with leaks has advanced further. It is the only way to reflect in any way the polluter pays principle,” it found.

In the light of this, it is very difficult to see how the Government will be able to justify bringing forward legislation effectively abolishing water charges even if all parties on the Oireachtas committee agree to it. Going by the remarks of Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on Thursday, the Government will follow the advice of the Attorney General and will not attempt to bring in legislation that contravenes European law and opens the Irish taxpayer to heavy penalties. That would appear to put Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on a collision course sooner or later.

Though Fianna Fáil warned at the weekend it might not facilitate the election of a new Taoiseach after the Fine Gael leadership contest, it is possible that the water controversy will not come to a head until the autumn. The leadership contest has already fed into the water shambles and it is likely to have a decisive impact on the final position adopted by the party.

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