Drowning in Irish Water: how Eamon fought with Enda
In this exclusive extract from 'Inside The Room', Eamon Gilmore reveals his tensions with Enda Kenny over water charges
Published 02/11/2015 | 07:00
On 9 January 2014, I was on my way to the Young Scientist Exhibition when I heard about a breaking story that Irish Water had spent €90m hiring consultants. This was the worst possible start for the new water utility.
We knew that would be a difficult ask for people. Now, before the details of water charges had even been considered, Irish Water was under fire for hiring consultants, which in the public mind equated to wasting taxpayers' money. Moreover, it was way behind with the metering. At best, only 40pc of households would have meters by the end of 2014, we were informed.
Conscious of the fact that the first full year of the property tax would also be in 2014, I felt that to add water charges too, as per Fianna Fáil's agreement with the Troika, would be a step too far. I said at the EMC that I wanted water charges to be held back until at least 70pc of houses were metered and until the Government had agreed measures to ensure that charges would be affordable for households on low incomes, families with children and those with illnesses requiring extra water.
We agreed that the actual charging would be deferred until the beginning of 2015, but the first bills would date from October 2014. This would give Irish Water time to develop a reasonable and hopefully acceptable water charging regime.
In the Dáil, the opposition goaded the Taoiseach with questions and accusations: will you publish the average charge before the local election? Kenny relented and committed to doing so.
Unfortunately, making the most of the information vacuum, opponents of water charges were by now claiming that the charge would be as high as €700 or even €1,000! Householders were becoming alarmed and Fine Gael argued that we should settle the figure.
Michael Noonan said to me: "A fiver a week is a lot more manageable than a thousand a year." I continued to resist. A fiver was still a lot from a pensioner's weekly budget and an extra burden on hard-pressed families.
Kenny's biggest worry was that he had said in the Dáil that he would release the figure before the local elections and he feared a failure to deliver. He put the issue on the agenda for a Cabinet meeting without my agreement - the first time he ever did that. This resulted in a full-scale argument across the Cabinet table, between the Taoiseach and myself.
The discussion was parked for another day.
In the meantime, I was getting reports from the Labour local elections canvass that it would be better to have certainty about the figure. So I turned my mind to mitigating the €240.
The Programme for Government spoke of the charges applying only after each household had been granted a minimum allowance of free water. What should that be?
We agreed a free allowance for every household. Shouldn't it be greater for larger families? We agreed additional allowances for children up to 18. And shouldn't people with medical conditions which required extra water get special allowances?
Now what about pensioners and others on low incomes? Shouldn't there be a free scheme for water? We came up with a 'Water Conservation Grant' of €100.
But not every household would be metered by the time the charges come in. Those not metered would be given an estimated bill and when they were eventually metered they could claim back any excess they had paid.
Overall, it was not a bad deal. If we could just get the message out there.
But water charges, no matter how logically explained and rationally justified, were the final straw for people worn down by years of austerity. They were also Labour's biggest political handicap in the local elections.