Q&A: What’s going on with Irish Water?

Election result puts utility’s future in doubt and raises questions about payment of bills

Some 745,000 households – or about 50 per cent – made a payment during the second water billing cycle. File photograph: Getty Images

Some 745,000 households – or about 50 per cent – made a payment during the second water billing cycle. File photograph: Getty Images


Why is Irish Water back in the news?

Repeatedly over the course of the general election campaign, Fianna Fáil promised that if it ended up in government it would abolish the company while other parties, including Sinn Féin and Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, along with many of the Independents, also made its abolition a cornerstone of their campaigns.

Is the abolition of Irish Water likely?

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney did say that Fine Gael would be willing to talk about water during any negotiations on the formation of a new government so at the very least the future of the company is uncertain.

But I have paid my Irish Water bills already – two of them, in fact. If it is abolished, will I get my money back?

Some 745,000 households – or about 50 per cent – made a payment during the second billing cycle. Many if not all of them will understandably be aggrieved if they do not get their money back if the utility is abolished.

However, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen has said that if his party does enter government, or supports a minority Fine Gael-led government and manages to have the utility wound down, it will not be possible to put in place mechanisms to refund those who have already paid.

That’s annoying. How much money are we talking about?

Well, the set charge for a two-adult household is €260 a year and if such a household has paid two quarterly bills, they will have forked out €130 to date. However, they may well have got the erroneously named water conservation grant from the Department of Social Protection which means that they will only be worse off by €30 assuming that department does not come looking for its money back if Irish Water is wound down.

Hang on, wasn’t it possible to apply for the water conservation grant without actually paying your bill?

Yes, it was. So yes, it is conceivable that someone was given the €100 grant and did not pay their bills and so they will be better off by that amount if the utility disappears.

Have people started cancelling direct debits?

Banks contacted by The Irish Times said it was too early to say if there had been any upsurge in the numbers cancelling direct debits.

An online poll conducted by The Irish Times, however, had attracted more than 4,000 responses by the middle of yesterday afternoon and might give an indication of an emerging trend.

When asked if they would stop paying water charges until the future of Irish Water was certain, 42 per cent answered Yes. A further 35 per cent said they had not paid the water charge while just 23 per cent said they would continue to pay.

Consumer groups have said the number willing to pay is likely to plummet as negotiations on the formation of a new government go on.

So, should I pay my Irish Water bill?

Only you can answer that question. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, however, firmly believes people should continue to pay their water bills, whatever that’s worth.

The utility has also been sending text messages to people who have registered but not yet paid warning them that late-payment fines of up to €60 might be imposed if they don’t pay what is owed.

It can impose such a charge on every household if they don’t pay their bill for more than a year.

And what is Irish Water saying?

Not a lot. When asked by the The Irish Times if it was concerned people might stop paying because of ongoing confusion over its future, it sent this reply: “As you would expect, Irish Water remains absolutely focused on the vital job of fixing Ireland’s water services.

“Customers are continuing to engage with us to make payments on their accounts and more customers are paying with each billing cycle. We have had increased activity at the call centre but customers are continuing to pay.

“Based on the figures most recently published, more than 61 per cent of Irish Water customers (928,000 households) have now paid and we had close to €111 million in customer revenue at the end of January.

“This compares to 55 per cent at the end of the second cycle and 44 per cent at the end of the first billing cycle. Even more customers have started to pay for the first time since we started bill cycle four.”

Who will pay for Ireland’s water if Irish Water is scrapped?

We will, as we always have. It costs in excess of €1 billion a year to maintain our water supply and over the past three decades that money has been coming out of the general exchequer.