Thursday 30 March 2017

Coveney hatches plan to turn tables on FF in battle over water bills

Minister will refuse to draft new law but 'facilitate' FF bill
Rows over charges, meters and refunds at tense meeting

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has told colleagues that he is prepared to turn the tables on Micheál Martin’s party if it refuses to back down in the latest water row. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Housing Minister Simon Coveney has told colleagues that he is prepared to turn the tables on Micheál Martin’s party if it refuses to back down in the latest water row. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Kevin Doyle, Cormac McQuinn and Niall O'Connor

Fianna Fáil will be told to draft its own legislation to abolish water charges in an unprecedented shifting of power within the Dáil.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has told colleagues that he is prepared to turn the tables on Micheál Martin's party if it refuses to back down in the latest water row.

As both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil threatened each other with an election, Government sources told the Irish Independent they would latch on to the word "facilitate" in the confidence and supply arrangement between the two parties.

Fianna Fáil's spokesman on water, Barry Cowen, has claimed if Mr Coveney does not legislate for the recommendations of the committee on the future funding of water, the minority Government will collapse.

Mr Coveney has insisted he will not abolish water charges in their entirety because this would result in massive fines imposed on Ireland by the EU.

He said it would be "very unreasonable" for Fianna Fáil to demand he introduce legislation which the Attorney General has ruled to be illegal based on commitments made in a European Framework Directive.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government would facilitate the passage of legislation. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government would facilitate the passage of legislation. Photo: Frank McGrath

Sources say that "under no circumstances" will the minister do that, but he may try to avoid an election by putting the onus back on Fianna Fáil to find a legal way of abolishing charges.

One source said the minister was prepared to tell Fianna Fáil to bring its own legislation to the Dáil floor where the Government would "facilitate" its passage by allowing the necessary debating time.

Read more: Snap election threat 'if Coveney does not accept water recommendations' - Fianna Fáil warns

If the bill were to pass, it would then be up to President Michael D Higgins to decide whether to sign it into law.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny hinted at this strategy in the Dáil yesterday, saying: "The agreement says what it says, which is the Government will facilitate the passage of legislation.

"We also have an agreement in respect of the support of the major Opposition party in passing the budget, which is facilitating the budget without writing it."

The dispute now centres on whether households that waste large amounts of water are hit with charges.

Fianna Fáil insists the 2007 Water Services Act which allows fines of up to €5,000 if householders are abusing water is sufficient to meet EU rules, but Mr Coveney said there was "no real mechanism to deliver that" without water meters.

Trust between the two parties is at a low with Fine Gael ministers claiming Fianna Fáil is simply trying to outflank Sinn Féin who received an opinion poll boost at the weekend.

Breakthrough

"If Sinn Féin had risen another few points, Fianna Fáil would probably demand that we start paying people to drink water," said one Cabinet minister.

The committee tasked with reaching a compromise on charges met again yesterday but failed to make any significant breakthrough.

Sources said they had a consensus on 90pc of the issues at play but there were still major gaps in relation to charges, refunds and whether to continue water metering. All sides have been asked to submit written proposals for breaking the impassé to the committee chair Pádraig Ó Céidigh by tomorrow. The committee will not meet again until next Tuesday.

Sources described yesterday's meetings as "tense" with a 10-minute break required at one stage to allow TDs and senators to "cool off".

The committee does not have access to the advice of the Attorney General which Mr Coveney is relying on. However, the minister said there "may be room for setting up an opportunity for the Attorney General's office and the legal teams of any other political parties that want to engage to try and tease through some of these issues".

Meanwhile, Independent Alliance minister Shane Ross has said householders that paid their water charges should get refunds. "Those who paid them should get their money back because it's obvious that the pursuit of those that didn't pay them is not going to continue," he said.

On the issue of abolishing charges completely, the Transport Minister said he would "wait and see".

"I think what the Government is doing is sensible in the circumstances and I don't expect there to be a major crisis about it," he said.

Mr Coveney said he hoped the situation would not lead to a general election.

"I think most people are pretty sick talking about water and water charges," he said.

Irish Independent

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