Resolution over water charges fraught with political risk

Levies remain unpalatable, contaminated and subject to political ‘boil notice’

Independent Senator and Oireachtas water charges committee chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh must now, unenviably, come up with recommendations from a divided committee in three months. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

A recipe for Political Fudge.

Take one minority Government.

Add a host of populist Opposition parties.

Pour in a half cup of Irish Water (don't worry if some leaks out).


Stir vigorously with a confidence and supply agreement that you prepared earlier with the main Opposition party.

Add spices, including an expert commission and an all-party committee, and then leave to marinade for at least three months.

If you follow the recipe closely, the predictable outcome, disaster, will be guaranteed.

There are political rulebooks about what to do with embarrassments like the Irish Water fiasco, but the State’s ruling class has not been reading closely of late.

Water charges were a dominant theme in the the election but not as dominant as political parties think. An RTÉ exit poll showed it was the main issue for only 8 per cent of voters. Sure there was popular support for those who opposed water charges, but the election was not decided on that issue.

The bulk of households paid at least one bill, but the difficulty was the absence of any meaningful sanctions for those who did not. There was a group that opposed water charges on principle, and another that opposed paying anything if they could get away with it.


The then rules facilitated this, with arrears having to amount to at least €500 – for a period not less than 18 months – before a defaulter was pursued. At this stage, the prospect of any defaulter being pursued is as remote as Rockall.

Fianna Fáil decided to put water charges at the core of its deal to support the Fine Gael-led minority Government. That deal envisaged the convoluted process – an expert commission passing the book to an Oireachtas committee, which is then charged with making recommendations.

Fianna Fáil’s submission to the commission showed how artful the party, which first ceded on the principle of water charges to the bailout troika in 2010, is at speaking out of both sides of its mouth. It said the charges should be scrapped until such a time as water services were “fit for purpose”, ie when humans have a colony on Mars.

The expert group came up with a very political report that ducked out of grasping the nettle on key issues. It ceded that nearly every EU country charges for water by volume, but relied on a half-forgotten report on local government funding that said it was not good to be correct in principle on an issue if you could not implement it in reality.

Household needs

So the exchequer pays for Irish Water services for “sufficient” household needs. It becomes a customer even though nobody pays anything. Those households who use excessive water should be charged, but the commission remained agnostic on how that will be measured, and on the continuation of Irish Water’s metering programme, which has to date reached 800,000 homes.

It all seems like a formula to try and satisfy the EU water framework directive with its unhelpful obligations on domestic charges.

The Oireachtas committee on water charges had its first meeting in December and its chairman, Independent Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, now must, unenviably, come up with recommendations from a divided committee of 20 politicians in three months.

If fault lines develop between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over water charges at the end of the process, a big decision will have to be made. Some within Fine Gael believe it should call an election on the issue.

Water charges remain unpalatable, still contaminated, still subject to a political “boil notice”.