Saturday 21 April 2018

FF will publish law to scrap water charges

It's a minority FG government or another election - Flanagan

Charlie Flanagan: Micheál Martin doesn’t have numbers
Charlie Flanagan: Micheál Martin doesn’t have numbers

Niall O'Connor, John Downing and Barry Lennon

Fianna Fáil is in the final stages of drafting a new law to scrap water charges in a move that will significantly heighten tensions with Fine Gael as the government-formation talks enter a critical phase.

Party strategists say the bill, which will see charges suspended for at least five years and the abolition of Irish Water, will be presented to acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the coming days.

The issue is set to form a major part of negotiations between Mr Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin when the pair finally meet, possibly as early as tomorrow evening.

But in a move that has significantly heightened tensions between the two parties, Fine Gael figures last night claimed that their position to retain water charges had the support of Independents.

Fine Gael strategists say a lengthy policy framework, due to be distributed to Independents and the Fine Gael parliamentary party today, makes no reference to the future of water charges.

This is because Independents have no objection to the Fine Gael position of retaining charges and keeping Irish Water as the main public utility, one key strategist said.

"Water charges are here to stay, Fianna Fáil need to accept this is a red-line issue for us," the minister said.

Responding to the claim, a senior Fianna Fáil figure suggested that the talks could collapse unless the parties could find common ground on the issue of water.

"I will be saying to Micheál Martin that the use of this sort of language by Fine Gael is not acceptable," the source told the Irish Independent.

It is now inevitable that water charges will pose the greatest impediment to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreeing to form a government.

Fianna Fáil has accepted that it will need to address the issue of non-payment prior to the suspension of charges.

Sources say this could be done by transferring the details of those who have not paid bills issued to date to a new slimmed-down utility, which will be modelled on the National Roads Authority.

But in relation to scrapping charges, the party says it has sought its own legal advice, which contradicts claims made by Irish Water's lawyers that charges are irreversible.

Following further negotiations which lasted throughout yesterday, it now looks likely that all 15 Independents engaged in the talks will abstain in the vote for Taoiseach. In this event, Mr Kenny will win more votes than Mr Martin - but will still fail to be elected Taoiseach.

Last night, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said the only realistic options now were a minority government led by Mr Kenny - or an early general election.

"Micheál Martin cannot expect to be Taoiseach, given the raw numbers. Every political group and every TD has an obligation to help provide government and Fianna Fáil, as the second-biggest group, has a special responsibility," Mr Flanagan told the Irish Independent.

He said he hoped that a large number of Independent TDs would support a minority government led by Fine Gael.

And Fianna Fáil, he said, must enter talks this week on how it would co-operate in facilitating such an arrangement.

Mr Flanagan said he hoped the two parties could "exchange papers" on how a minority coalition could work. This could follow on from talks involving Mr Kenny and Mr Martin after tomorrow's vote for Taoiseach.

A significant pledge contained within the Fine Gael document, which runs to hundreds of pages, is the appointment of cabinet ministers for Housing and Rural Affairs.

Meanwhile, speculation surrounding the prospect of another general election in the coming months has heightened following remarks made by a number of ministers.

Acting Health Minister Leo Varadkar sent out a tweet alongside the comment that his posters were "cleaned, counted, stored and ready to be deployed".

And acting Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe also said another election could not be ruled out.

"There will be continuing discussions with Independents across the week," he said.

Asked if he had election posters on standby, he said he had them safely stashed but hoped he wouldn't need them.

"There is always the possibility of an election." But he stressed that anyone involved in negotiations was concerned to form a stable government.

Irish Independent

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