Noel Whelan: Expect more Fianna Fáil flip-flops on water
Latest move to abolish charges for good took some members of the party by surprise
‘This week we have again seen the political potency of water charges.’
This week we have again seen the political potency of water charges. Policy on water could determine not only the length of this Government but also Fianna Fáil prospects in the subsequent election. It is worth revisiting the party’s stance on the matter over the past seven years.
The Renewed Programme for Government published by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party on October 9th, 2009, said on page 5: “We will introduce charging for treated water use that is fair, significantly reduces waste and is easily applied. It will be based on a system where households are allocated a free basic allowance, with charging only for water use in excess of this allowance. In keeping with the allocation of greater responsibility to local government, local authorities will set their own rates for water use.”
In his budget statement on December 9th, 2009, Fianna Fáil’s then minister for finance Brian Lenihan reiterated the commitment “to introduce a system of water metering for homes”.
“Preparations are under way. Water charges, when introduced, will be based on consumption above a free allocation.”
The Programme for Financial Support for Ireland, which Lenihan signed with the European Union and IMF on December 16th, 2010, said on page 9: “We are also planning to move towards full cost-recovery in the provision of water services.”
The same document said on page 25: “The government will have undertaken an independent assessment of transfer of responsibility for water services provision from local authorities to a water utility, and prepare proposals for implementation, as appropriate, with a view to start charging in 2012/2013.”
Initially, water was to be charged for on the basis of use, but that government switched to a flat household charge.
The Fine Gael-Labour government’s handling of the introduction of water charges was disastrous, and Fianna Fáil robustly opposed the manner in which the charges were being introduced and railed against the guillotining of the relevant legislation.
Fianna Fáil ultimately announced that if elected to government it would abolish both Irish Water and water charges.
In the front section of its 2016 manifesto setting out “priorities” there was a bullet point emphasising that in government it would “abolish Irish Water and water charges”.
In a second section of the manifesto focusing on ways in which Fianna Fáil would “cut the cost of living for households” there was another bullet point about how it would “abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges”. The manifesto promised to “end the failed water charges regime”.
Later in a section dealing with how the party would “secure” the finances of older people there was another bullet point saying how Fianna Fáil “will abolish water charges which would be worth €60 to an older person living alone and €160 to an older couple”.
The manifesto also said: “According to the Department of the Environment the net cost of scrapping water charges would be of the order of €210 million annually. This would be replaced by a direct State subvention to the new National Water Directorate.”
There has been some confusion since the election, suggesting that Fianna Fáil merely promised to suspend water charges. This was contributed to by Fianna Fáil itself because in various interviews spokespersons, including Micheál Martin, alternated that word “suspend” with “abolish”. Indeed, on occasion it adopted the Orwellian approach of saying it would abolish water charges for the life of the next Dáil and then might reintroduce them.
We have seen the words “abolish”, “scrap” and “end” used in the manifesto – not the word “suspend”.
Interestingly, the Fianna Fáil manifesto was silent on the controversial question of whether or how those who had paid water charges would be compensated or repaid for having done so.
In the “confidence and supply” agreement negotiated between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in advance of the current Government taking office the parties agreed to suspend water charges initially for nine months and for longer if necessary. This would enable an expert commission to report on the question of funding of Irish Water, and for the Dáil to debate and decide on that group’s recommendations.
Then last Monday came Fiach Kelly’s story reporting that in its submission to that expert commission Fianna Fáil has proposed that the water system be paid for through general taxation and that the principle of paying for usage should be abolished for good.
This was confirmed by Martin in a Morning Ireland interview on Tuesday, but it seems this latest stance came as a surprise to some in his parliamentary party.
There could yet be even more twists in the saga of Fianna Fáil’s policy on water charges.