Water controversy: election threat lifted for now

All parties share some responsibility for an appalling mess

The end of the long-drawn-out wrangle at the Oireachtas committee on the future of water services has come as a relief. Whether the majority report from the committee will hold up to legal scrutiny by the European Commission is another matter. For the moment at least it appears that the issue has been taken off the political agenda and the threat of an unwanted general election has been lifted.

All of the political parties in the Dáil share some of the responsibility for the appalling mess that has been allowed to develop over a relatively simple issue. The deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil which finally emerged this week from the Oireachtas committee includes a commitment to install water meters in new builds, a charge for excessive use and a household allowance for average usage with excess usage being defined as 70 per cent above average.

The committee also agreed that the Water Services Act 2007 would be amended to impose levies on householders who waste water, rather than go down the road of imposing fines. In effect it means that households deemed to use excessive water will be charged for it rather than facing automatic prosecution. This is a sensible outcome even if it falls well short of the system of water charges originally envisaged by Fine Gael.

The committee remained deeply divided until the end, agreeing the report on a majority vote of 13 to seven with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Independent TD Noel Grealish and committee chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh supporting the report's recommendations. Those members of the committee who voted against the deal did so for different reasons. Sinn Féin and the anti-water charge TDs rejected it because they utterly reject water charges and believe the provision relating to "excessive use" amounts to water charges by another name. Labour and the Green Party voted against the deal for the opposite reasons because they did not believe it goes far enough to ensure that the "polluter pays" principle is implemented.


The outcome represented a U-turn by Fianna Fáil on the position it had adopted in recent weeks but, over a longer term, it also represented a U-turn by Fine Gael on the charging policy it adopted in Government and defended during the last election campaign.

The Government now has to draft legislation to deal with the issue. The first hurdle will be whether Attorney General Máire Whelan can stand over legislation giving effect to the committee's report. Ultimately, the European Commission will have to make its own assessment and hopefully the legislation produced by the Government will be enough to meet the requirements of the water directive. It is not simply a matter of avoiding massive fines by the EU but of ensuring that this State develops a safe and secure water supply system that meets future needs.