Cliff Taylor: To pay or not to pay? Mixed messages on water charges

‘That Finian McGrath wanted to consult the Attorney General on whether he should pay shows level of farce we have reached’

When you’re in a hole, it’s best to stop digging. But on water charges our politicians just keep on going. Here is the latest position.

1. We are told that in June the water charge will be "suspended" for nine months and probably more. Goodness knows how long the proposed independent commission and Oireachtas committee examinations of the charges will take, before the issues even come before the Oireachtas.

2. The charges look most unlikely to return, as Fianna Fáil has been saying, and Fine Gael has not been disputing.

3. Nothing has been done to pursue those who haven’t paid so far, bar a threat to impose penalties after a year.


4. Now Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are both saying that despite the fact that charges will be suspended in six weeks, people should pay up until then because it is “the law”. This money may or may not be refunded in future.

It is the most extraordinary attempt to have it both ways – to meet the demands for abolition of the charges, while at the same time trying to keep those who have paid already onside by calling for people to pay the final bill. The fact that Minister of State Finian McGrath, we are told,wanted to consult the Attorney General on whether he should pay shows the level of high farce we have now reached. Imagine going to ask the AG if you should obey the law. It appears that he got the predictable answer and will pay his bill.

It requires an extraordinary mangling of logic and language to try to sell the Government’s position, but boy are they trying.

New chief whip Regina Doherty put it this way: "It is the law, and if and when we pass a new piece of legislation to suspend the law it doesn't diminish the fact that it is the law and those outstanding bills need to be paid." People's bills aren't going to "magically disappear", she said, "just because they may be suspended and we go back to the commission looking for expert guidance as to what we should do in the future."

So there.

It is pretty clear what has happened here. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been taking the heat from people who paid the charge and feel like mugs. Now they are seriously trying to make us believe that there is some kind of level playing field, and that those who haven’t paid need to do so because it is “the law”. The trouble is that this particular law has been completely and utterly undermined.

Nobody in Government can give a straight answer to any of the relevant questions the public have, with everything kicked to the “expert” commission. Will those who paid be refunded, or those who didn’t pay be pursued? Or neither of the above? What action will be taken against those who haven’t paid?


The legal position is that

Irish Water

can add penalties of €30 a single resident’s bill or €60 to a larger household after one year of non-payment, and the same amount each year thereafter. With the first bills having issued in April of last year, the penalties should be starting to be added soon to those who didn’t pay from the start.

Irish Water

says it expects this penalties issue to be dealt with in the legislation to suspend the charges. So the penalties appear to be on hold, and no further action to collect unpaid bills is likely, as would happen with other utilities such as the


. And legislation now forbids Irish Water from cutting off or reducing water supply for non-payers.

Legislation which came into effect at the start of this year means owners will have to pay their water charges before selling a house; if they are not paid the solicitor doing the conveyancing on the sale will be obliged to deduct unpaid bills from the proceeds of the sale. Another decision is needed here, on whether this rule remains.

Political decisions

While the politicians may be just about able to stay on the tightrope between the payers and non-payers for the moment, this will all come home to roost. The commission examining charges will have to look not only at the charging mechanism, but also these thorny issues of what happens to non-payers, or whether those who did pay are refunded. But really, this is a political decision, as is how we pay for water investment in the future.

And what does it mean for the wider culture of payment – or non-payment – in future? The boycott of water charges was a widespread act of civil disobedience. It would be a stretch to say it might spread to other mainstream taxes. But People Before Profit/Anti-Austerity Alliance, which backed the campaign, has also made noises about other charges, particularly the local property tax. Other campaigns will surely follow, on the basis that the water battle was “won”. And the Government is unlikely to try to introduce any other new charges anywhere else, as we enter an era of “low-risk” politics where the aim is to upset nobody.

The water charge controversy was always about much more than water – and so the collapse of political will on the issue in the face of public opposition is bound to have consequences. The Government’s new programme is full of commitments to consult the Oireachtas on various issues, as reflects its minority position. We are, it seems, to be ruled by some kind of consensus. But if we all have to agree on everything, is anything ever going to get done?