Water ownership: Unions call for referendum date

Promise made by Government on poll must be kept, says campaign

The Government must name a date for a referendum to keep water services in public ownership, a group of unions has said.

The Keep Water Public Campaign says the Government has not acted on its promise to stage a referendum on water ownership despite it being in the Programme for Government agreed in July 2020.

The campaign is supported by Siptu, Fórsa, Unite, Connect and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu).

Ictu president and Fórsa general secretary Kevin Callinan said it was time to end the “lingering uncertainty” about the future of water services in Ireland.


“A referendum would give people the opportunity to have their say, in addition to providing us all with a unique opportunity to safeguard public ownership of water for future generations,” he said.

“In that sense there should be no further hesitation, and we are urging the Government now to name the date. In doing so, it would be a welcome and positive step.”

Mr Callinan said he believed the time is right to announce a date for the referendum as the legislation to separate Uisce Éireann (Irish Water), which will own all water services on behalf of the people, and Ervia (formerly Bord Gáis Éireann) which is administering water services, is going through the Oireachtas.

He said that if the Government names the date, the trade union movement will look at the actual wording separately. As for a date, he stated there is no reason not to have it in the first half of next year.

Mr Callinan said the Government had not made the referendum on water ownership a “sufficient priority” in its legislative programme. “We see the four unions coming together today. That should provide broader focus for broader society and the political system to give it the priority it deserves.”

Fórsa union head of local government Richy Carrothers said there appears to be unanimous agreement across the Dáil that a referendum on water should be held.

“Now is the time to act. We can’t allow this to linger on. It is incumbent on us to protect water as a public good and a public service for future generations,” he said. “They need to name a date to make water public so we can get ready for the referendum.”

Unite regional officer Ed Thompson said the “issue cannot be kicked down the road any further”.

Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin suggested a referendum on water on the same day as a referendum on the right to housing provided the Commission on Housing recommends it.

“If it is recommended, Darragh O’Brien should bring a memorandum to Cabinet not with one referendums but two,” he said. “The positive thing about this is that if we have the entire trade union movement with strong grassroots movements involved it will be two exciting campaigns.”

Independents 4Change TD Joan Collins said she first proposed a Bill on a referendum to enshrine water in public ownership six years ago. That Bill has been held up at committee stage.

“The only conclusion I can draw from that is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who dominate the committee, do not want a referendum and want to leave the door open to the future possible privatisation of water services.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times