Monday 24 October 2016

'Non' from Brussels demands a dose of reality on water charges

Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30

Former Environment Minister Alan Kelly said of the Irish Water furore: 'We can have water charges or we can have EU fines.' The Labour TD was right. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Former Environment Minister Alan Kelly said of the Irish Water furore: 'We can have water charges or we can have EU fines.' The Labour TD was right. Photo: Gerry Mooney

We are back in the water rather more quickly than we had expected. However, we should not be too surprised.

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Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin believed they had bought a year of peace on this vexed but seriously time-wasting issue. They had parked it in a commission, which would in due course pass it to a committee of TDs and senators, and they in turn would later return it to a Dáil that has a majority of TDs who are declared opponents of water charges.

But we had not reckoned with the European Commission coming back on the pitch with a resounding message. On Wednesday, the EU's policy-guiding executive told Sinn Féin's Dublin MEP, Lynn Boylan, that in fact Ireland no longer had any exemption from levying water charges.

Ms Boylan had a different take on the Commission's reply. But it soon became evident that Brussels was saying "Non".

In summary, we did have an exemption - but when the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government planned for water charges in 2010, that effectively lapsed.

If there was any doubt about that, then the faltering and botched moves by the last Fine Gael-Labour coalition to implement charges certainly put the kibosh on any exemption. We cannot reverse ferret now and look to revive the EU exemption.

On Saturday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, gave his first major interview since being re-elected, to this newspaper. He bluntly said that we would have to pay our water charges and any review of the system would have to take on board our EU obligations.

Yesterday the 'Sunday Independent' reported the fulminations of Fianna Fáil, demanding that the Taoiseach withdraw his statement.

It also reported that Fine Gael continues to believe that water charges were somehow going to be back with us before too long.

This political Punch and Judy Show was inevitable - we just thought it would take longer to materialise. But much good it will do any of those involved, or the rest of the nation.

In the words of the former Environment Minister, Alan Kelly: "We can have water charges or we can have EU fines."

This writer believes the Nenagh bruiser is 100pc right.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit and Sinn Féin predictably say we "must stand up to the EU Commission".

Remember Gerry Adams advising us to let it keep its money in 2011? Wonder how that one would have worked out?

More depressingly, Fianna Fáil, which had shamelessly chased Sinn Féin on the water issue, doing a complete U-turn, began to talk about legal opinions which would stop the EU in its tracks.

Yes, let's have a major court case.

Let's forget that we have a system which leaks up to 50pc and that 40-plus key locations have raw sewage going into our water courses. But do let's have an EU court case.

Populist use of our 'new politics' has led us to the 'Land of Other Way Round'. Our political system obsesses about water charges which are likely to cost an individual around €160 per year. It quietly overlooks promised tax cuts, which would put thousands back in the average worker's pocket.

Of course, water is free. Here's a bucket, the river is down there, take all you want. Piped clean water at the turn of the tap never was, and never will be, free. It is totally beyond question that the nasty but vitally necessary business of sewerage is not free. It is time all our politicians took a reality check.

Mention of the European Union and water charges in the same breath brings us neatly to another important issue. Today, we report that Communications Minister Denis Naughten was unable to travel to an EU ministers' meeting in Brussels last month because he could not get a 'pair' from the Opposition in an important vote.

It happened on May 25 as Sinn Féin sought to embarrass Fianna Fáil with its vote calling for the abolition of water charges.

In the event, Fianna Fáil swallowed and voted with the Government's counter-motion to let the review process take its course.

But what will happen next time? And how many 'minor' votes can this minority Government lose before it ultimately loses whatever scant authority it already has?

The point here is that, firstly, the Opposition are playing silly boys' games, which could have ruinous consequences. The assumption that this Government could last two years could prove totally wrong.

Also, the failure to grant a pairing to allow ministers to represent Ireland's interests at the EU and other international bodies is harmful to this country's reputation and its citizens' interests.

In more civilised times, pairs for EU and other such meetings were well-nigh automatic. That should continue to be the case. There is an onus, especially on Fianna Fáil, as it has promised the so-called 'confidence and supply' to facilitate this Government.

Fianna Fáil was also long enough in government to know the importance of not leaving 'the empty chair' at important talks in Brussels and Luxembourg. The other parties, notably Sinn Féin, must also step up here.

In the absence of a minister, our senior diplomats, with a thorough knowledge of the subject, do their duty. But a minister is required to cultivate good relations with his or her counterpart and be able to put a face with our case.

It is high time all parties and groups at Leinster House put some good codes of practice in place and began some serious work.

Irish Independent

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