Talks between Kenny and Martin collapse, and FG and FF gear up for election
Both party leaders prepared to 'go to the country'
The country now faces another general election after talks between Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin collapsed yesterday in bitter acrimony over water charges.
During a crucial meeting aimed at resolving two months of political deadlock, Mr Martin told Mr Kenny that the suspension of water charges for the lifetime of the Dail was a necessity for Fianna Fail to facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government.
But Mr Kenny was adamant at the meeting that any deal on returning him to office as Taoiseach should not result in the long-term suspension of water charges.
Mr Martin's ultimatum came as Fine Gael's national executive met yesterday to begin preparations for a second election amid increasing fears that a deal will not be reached with Fianna Fail.
A senior Fine Gael official involved in election planning told the Sunday Independent the talks were "going nowhere" and warned that an election could be called this week.
"The party is now officially on an election footing and our executive council has been told to prepare for a general election," another senior Fine Gael source said.
A senior Fianna Fail source also said the party was "prepared to go to the country" on the water charges issue.
After the meeting in Government Buildings, Mr Kenny and Mr Martin spoke by telephone during the course of the afternoon.
It was decided that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail negotiators would hold make-or-break talks tomorrow after the two leaders had again failed to reach a compromise on the water charges issue.
However, the stalemate in the talks led to a bitter war of words, with Fine Gael accusing Mr Martin of being "spooked" by political attacks from the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
Before the election, Fianna Fail promised to abolish Irish Water and suspend water charges for five years.
In negotiations to facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government, however, Fianna Fail has conceded that Irish Water need not be abolished, but insisted that its future "construct and model" be referred to an independent commission for advice.
In return for this concession, Fianna Fail insisted that water charges would have to be suspended for the lifetime of the Dail.
However, Fine Gael yesterday only agreed that water charges should be suspended for the period it takes to agree and introduce a new payment model to allow for waiver schemes and welfare packages.
Fianna Fail was not prepared to abandon its pre-election promise on the suspension of water charges.
Fine Gael believes that it will be politically difficult to reintroduce water charges once they have been cancelled for a long period.
Other policy issues in a range of areas, including increasing rent supplements, reducing hospital waiting lists, introducing tax credits for childcare and re-introducing career guidance teachers, also have to be ironed out in the negotiations between the parties.
A senior Fianna Fail source has said that it is now time for Mr Kenny to "pony up" and accept the suspension of the charges as a condition of the party facilitating a Fine Gael-led minority government.
The demand is due to fears in Fianna Fail that members, including TDs, will abandon the party if it facilitates Fine Gael in government without striking a deal on suspending charges.
"We can't agree to something that can't be sold to our party members," a senior Fianna Fail source said.
Mr Kenny is faced with similar concerns. At a recent meeting of Fine Gael councillors in Sligo, the party's general secretary general Tom Curran was told that he would be faced with a raft of resignations if the acting Taoiseach caved in on water charges.
Fine Gael's parliamentary party voted unanimously in favour of retaining the charges ahead of government talks with Fianna Fail.
A senior Fine Gael negotiator yesterday said the stalemate over water had put the talks in a "very precarious" position. "We tried to facilitate compromise on positions and options, and they were having none of it," the source added.
There have been advanced discussions between the two parties on a series of welfare packages which would make water more affordable for older people and those on low incomes.
And there are plans being discussed to introduce waivers aimed at encouraging people to conserve water.
At yesterday's Sinn Fein ard fheis in Dublin, Mr Adams targeted Mr Martin in his keynote speech.
"You promised in your manifesto to abolish Irish Water and to scrap water charges. Water charges must go. Irish Water must go," he said.
A senior Fine Gael source yesterday accused Mr Martin of "not showing real leadership" by allowing Sinn Fein to determine Fianna Fail policy.
"If he and Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams believe there is a majority in favour of abolishing water charges, well then they should come together and form a government," the source said.
However, a senior Fianna Fail source yesterday said: "Fine Gael needs to put its hands up and admit failure on this issue. The entire construct of Irish Water and water charges needs to be re-examined.
"After the election, 90 TDs in the Dail are opposed to water charges. Fine Gael needs to take account of that. There is an opportunity now to wipe the slate clean and start again," the source added.