Water charges an issue that refuses to flow away
As Oireachtas committee is assembled, water funding keeps taunting Government parties
The future of water charges will be decided by the Fianna Fáil party and how they interpret and vote on the Oireachtas committee’s recommendations.
Two years after they were first introduced, water charges are continuing to dominate the news agenda and, in turn, plague the Government.
This week an Oireachtas committee made up of 20 members will be established and tasked with examining how water services in this country are funded.
Its work will be based on a report of an expert commission, which has spent the past three months looking at various options.
The report will be sent to the committee and Minister for Housing Simon Coveney at the same time.They will then have three months to debate the findings.
It will be a long and tedious process that will eventually lead to a Dáil vote early in the new year.
And despite the twists and turns, the future of water charges will be decided by the Fianna Fáil party and how they interpret and vote on the committee’s recommendations.
While the other parties involved have steadfast positions on the charges, Fianna Fáil’s position is somewhat fluid, for want of a better word.
Despite agreeing to facilitating a minority Fine Gael-led Government, Fianna Fáil is not bound to accept the commission’s recommendations or support Fine Gael’s position.
The party’s housing spokesman, Barry Cowen, has trod carefully on this issue, knowing Fianna Fáil may need an escape route by the time the Dáil vote is called.
His leader, Micheál Martin, has not been so cautious. In February, Martin supported a suspension of charges with a review of the levies scheduled for 2021.
In September, he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that Fianna Fáil supported abolition of the levies.
Cowen is now insisting the party has not decided how it will vote on the commission’s recommendations.
Politically, it will be difficult for Fianna Fáil to vote in favour of the return of the charges, having campaigned strongly against the current regime.
However, it is their casting vote which will be either the final nail in their coffin or the means of their resurrection.
The Fine Gael position is for a modest charge to be introduced with generous free allowances and waivers for certain sections of population.
The Independents in Government say they are committed to the concept of fairness. The majority of them believe those in urban areas should pay the same as those in rural Ireland.
The Oireachtas committee’s membership has not yet been decided. It will have five Government TDs, four Fianna Fáil TDs, two from Sinn Féin and five TDs from the smaller groupings including Labour and the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People before Profit grouping.
Four Senators, including the chair Pádraig Ó Céidigh , will also be asked to participate. There has been some controversy surrounding the appointment of Ó Ceidigh.
In a nutshell, Coveney chose a chair he felt could be impartial and was devoid of any political allegiance.
He secured the agreement of Fianna Fáil, meaning Ó Céidigh’s appointment is secure.
However it is odd that he was chosen rather than elected. In all other circumstances, a committee chair is appointed by the D’Hondt system or the committee itself holds a vote.
For example when the Dáil committee on homelessness was established, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had a vote pact and Fianna Fáil TD John Curren was chosen.
A vote was held though. In this instance, Mr Ó Céidigh, through no fault of his own, was anointed.
It has not been the greatest beginning for a committee whose every move will be analysed and scrutinised by the general public.
The process unfolding is a reflection on what was agreed with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in their confidence-and-supply arrangement.
It probably seemed like an ingenious idea from both sides. An exercise in long-fingering which would allow Fine Gael time to stabilise the Government and give Fianna Fáil the time to figure out its policy.
However, it has somewhat backfired on both parties. It has ensured the issue can fester for longer than it should and has allowed left-wing TDs to continuously push an agenda that the majority of middle Ireland has moved on from.
The issue will continue to dominate, and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have nobody to blame but themselves.