News John Downing

Saturday 23 August 2014

No point in Labour trying to pretend water charges are new

John Downing

Published 17/04/2014 | 02:30

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Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore - Labour's behaviour about water charges did them no favours yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore - Labour's behaviour about water charges did them no favours yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys

LABOUR are in trouble facing into these mid-term elections – but joke-shop political tactics will not help them.

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Their behaviour yesterday in discussions about water charges has left them looking weak and toothless where they set out to try to look assertive. They may not like their Fine Gael partners' tactics on this one.

But anyway you look at things, Fine Gael's move to give out a ballpark figure on water charges was the only way to go.

In fact, if anything, there is an argument that FG were far too slow about giving people access to some very basic information.

We have known since autumn 2009 that water charges were likely at some stage. Since the troika's arrival in November 2010, that they were unavoidable, and since this Government came into office in March 2011 that it was just a case of when and how much.

Since late 2013 we have known that water charges would begin on October 1 of this year and that we would have first bills next January. The persistent and unanswered question has remained how much?

Yesterday, in rather uncharacteristic fashion, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave the straight answer of €240 for the average family in year 1 – or about €60 for the first three-monthly bill.

The Taoiseach stressed that many formalities have yet to be gone through – but his estimate was based on EU rules for calculating national debt, which limits the state subventions given to semi-state firms like Irish Water.

By that yardstick, the most the State can give Irish Water in subvention in 2015 and 2016 is €537m a year.

It requires €1bn a year and the rest has to be made up by water charges. So the shortfall divided by the number of households yields the average water charge to be levied.

Labour's attitude yesterday could have suggested that this water charge business was all so new. Granted, they had problems about leaked information from Cabinet as they entered yesterday's meeting. But that was an internal matter and not an issue beyond the bubble that is Leinster House.

Marching into the cabinet meeting yesterday, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin of Labour was suitably wounded.

"There is no agreement on the scale of water charges . . . and there's no agreement that we're going to have an agreement," he said.

Labour further argued that there was too much detail left to be decided to justify what the Taoiseach himself was saying in the Dail. There is no agreement on the water charges and the matter will be revisited after Easter.

Fine Gael agreed that this package was not signed off. But changes are likely to be matters of detail. Some of these are important to individuals seeking exemptions or reductions.

But the overall annual water charge is now out there and unlikely to change. Relations between the parties are strained. But they will have to get over it.

Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail equally did themselves some harm yesterday as they bickered on about water charges.

The Taoiseach was able to tell them that FF had signed for water charges of about €400 per year with the troika back in 2010.

It is easy to see why they are called the 'amnesia party' in certain quarters.

Their vague message on water charges – not like this and not right now – is diffuse and unconvincing.

In five weeks from tomorrow voters will be invited to select local councillors and European Parliament members.

They were entitled to the information they got yesterday ahead of those elections.

No amount of carping by Labour – or posturing by Fianna Fail – will change that simple fact.

Irish Independent

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