Charges dead in the water

Charges dead in the water

The anti water charges protest in Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

FINE Gael's three-year, billion euro Irish Water experiment has finally proven that water charges are not necessary.

Following the report of the government's expert commission - which recommended that the state pay for water through general taxation with households paying only for excessive use - the Dáil is set for a three-month battle as parties try to come to an agreement that they and the public can stomach.

The response to this report showed just how far the Dáil has to go to reach a consensus, with no two parties holding the same opinion.

The only thing that is certain - and it has been certain since February - is that the old water charge regime is dead. However, some form of water charge could still be coming down the line. 

A 20 member cross-party committee with representation from all corners of the Dáil will spend the next few months examining this report, with a number of questions to answer.

How will the state take on the burden of providing water while still carrying out the upgrades that had been planned under the old model?

Will income taxes need to be adjusted to pay for it?

Will boycotters be chased for bills they didn't pay under the old regime?

If they are not, will those who paid their bills be refunded?

Will the metering programme continue to be rolled out?

What will be classified as excessive use?

This committee will be the first time that the Dáil will have really sat down to tease out Ireland's water service problems. A few years ago, everyone agreed that there was major issues with the infrastructure, but rather than trying to achieve a consensus on how to solve them, the government - under Minister Phil Hogan and then Minister Alan Kelly - pushed through their own vision of a bloated semi-private corporation that charged the public directly.

Of all the cuts and charges that came in during the recession, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. People didn't protest en masse when the IMF were brought in or when the USC was introduced. College fees were almost tripled with no resistance outside of students themselves. Whole sections of society lost medical cards and social welfare benefits. Banks closed in on struggling homeowners, but nothing captured the public's imagination and anger like water charges.

Had the government decided to commission an expert report and launch an all-party committee three or four years ago instead of now, a lot of time, money, and political capital could have been saved.

Fine Gael's frustration with how the water charges debate has worked out was clear this week. While on another issue they might have felt betrayed by their own commission and ignored the results - as many governments have done on many issues in the past. Instead, they seem to have reluctantly accepted that they lost, and want to move on. In Minister for Finance Michael Noonan's word's, the "dead cat" needs to be gotten rid of before the next general election. He's done the maths - the recommendations of the report can feasibly be implemented - but now it's up to the rest of the Dáil to figure out what happens next.

The left is already sceptical about the commission's report, and it will be difficult to get Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit on board with whatever replaces water charges. At best, Fine Gael can hope that the public will be satisfied enough that the mass protests of recent years won't happen again, even if smaller protests continue.

The left's concerns are that the excessive use charges will open up a backdoor to water charges, as any future government could revise down the definition of excessive to bring more homes into that bracket, and they are gearing up to take their campaign back onto the streets.

Labour's response has been all or nothing. Alan Kelly has continued to defend the system that he tried to push through, but his party leader, Brendan Howlin, has said that if the government is to abandon that system, then there needs to be a referendum to ensure that water services will never be privatised, and anyone who paid their bills should be reimbursed.

But it's Fianna Fáil's response that people should be really interested in - and the party hasn't given much to go on.

With the government in favour of water charges and most of the opposition against, Fianna Fáil has held the balance of power on the issues since the election. 

The party used that power to get the expert commission and Oireachtas committee, but the pressure is now on for them to get results.

Their response has been characteristically cautious - the issue needs to be examined and teased out in the committee before they will really give a response - but what their approach could either bridge the impasse between Fine Gael and the public, or drive a wedge and put the current government arrangement in peril. 

If all goes according to plan, the public will have an answer by March, and Minister Simon Coveney will be introducing whatever new regime replaces the old one. What that will be still remains to be seen.

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