Sunday 8 December 2019

Government had rough water week

Water charge fiasco has led to growing tension among TDs as an election looms

Huge crowds took to the streets of Dublin and all around Ireland on a national day of protest against the water charges .Picture shows protestors on the streets of Dublin.
Huge crowds took to the streets of Dublin and all around Ireland on a national day of protest against the water charges .Picture shows protestors on the streets of Dublin. PIC:MAXWELLS /JULIEN BEHAL
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

On Tuesday, after spending more than an hour fighting off questions from the opposition benches, Tanaiste Joan Burton rose confidentially to inform the Dail that a family of four with two adult children would pay less than €200 a year in water charges.

Finally, the public had been given a clear indication of what they would have to pay once the dreaded Irish Water bills start piling through their letter boxes next year.

Households around the country breathed a sigh of relief as the State's second most senior politician sought to end uncertainty over the seemingly unending water charge fiasco. But almost as soon as it was given, it was taken away. Around two hours after the Labour Party leader said she was "perfectly happy" to announce the proposed new charges, her spokesman clarified that this was only her "personal view".

It was also highlighted that the proposed figure was after tax concessions were taken into account for workers and welfare relief was factored in for those receiving social welfare payments.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Taoiseach Enda Kenny insisted the Coalition was at least two weeks away from introducing new water charge policies and nothing had been decided. "We only have one shot at this," he told reporters. The next day, the Taoiseach told the Dail Ms Burton was speaking in a "personal capacity" when she revealed her "views" on water charges. At the same time, Ms Burton held a press conference on the latest live register figures.

Unsurprisingly, the Tanaiste spent most of the press conference answering questions about water charges.

She stood over her "personal view" that families of four should not pay more than €200 but said the Taoiseach and herself were "on the same page". She also said the Coalition was discussing a flat-rate water charge for customers, which could stay in place for at least two years but possibly four. However, well-placed sources described Ms Burton's intervention as the necessary kick the Government needed to move things along.

Another source said Ms Burton was concerned by figures of €800 and €1,000 for water charges being thrown around by opposition politicians.

"The figures being kicked around are a million miles off and Joan is sticking to the €200," the source said.

However, Health Minister Leo Varadkar added to the confusion by suggesting the average household would pay around €250. And for added drama, Labour senators decided to vote against the Government during a Seanad debate on holding a referendum on the privatisation of Irish Water.

As the week progressed, the Irish Water fiasco showed no sign of abating, and with the deadline for signing up for water charges less than four weeks away, the public was none the wiser as to what they would actually have to pay.

Around Leinster House, politicians of all persuasions began growing increasingly anxious that the Coalition's handling of the water charge fiasco could signal a general election sooner than expected.

Meanwhile, Labour deputy leader Alan Kelly was in damage limitation mode in his new role as Environment Minister and spent much of the week at the side of Irish Water boss John Tierney.

Like a troublesome student being frog marched by their parents to the principal's office to apologise for misbehaviour, Mr Kelly dragged Mr Tierney into public view so he could say he was very sorry for all his messing.

In this instance, Mr Kelly took the role of stepfather as Mr Tierney's biological father - the former Environment Minister Phil Hogan - washed his hands of the water company boss after beginning a new life in Brussels.

Mr Kelly made sure to highlight this fact by insisting he was not a member of the Cabinet when water charges were first introduced. Mr Tierney solemnly promised there would be no more messing and his customers would be fully informed from now on.

He even made an appearance in Leinster House on Wednesday to brief TDs on advances being made on water charges. Sources said the behind-closed-doors meeting was "quite heated" with deputies firing questions out of both barrels at the under-fire water company boss. Mr Tierney held his nerve and answered questions to the best of his ability, but TDs were still left in the dark about most of the issues raised by their constituents.

Cork East TD Tom Barry was one of the more vocal speakers at the meeting and grilled Mr Tierney on Irish Water's plans to bill farming families. Mr Barry wanted to know why farming households would have to pay a flat-rate charge to Irish Water while continuing to pay commercial rates to local authorities.

Despite desperately trying to get his point across, a clearly frustrated Mr Barry left the meeting feeling less confident in the State's newest utility company. Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he said: "Their left hand doesn't know what their right hand is doing. It's all well and good hiring fancy PR people, but it's time for straight talking.

"We need to tell people it's not going to be crazy money. It's the fear of not being able to pay." After failing to get clarity from the Irish Water boss, Mr Barry later presented the issues faced by farming families to the Taoiseach.

"He seemed to get what I was talking about and said it would be looked at," Mr Barry said. Another TD said Mr Tierney "seemed to know what he was talking about" on some of the other issues raised by deputies.

The growing realisation that the Government was losing the battle to appease public anger over the introduction of water charges was the prime focus of both the Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary meetings on Wednesday.

Exasperated Fine Gael TDs complained that ministers were not publicly addressing an issue which was threatening the stability of the Government. Questions were specifically asked about the lack of a senior party figure on the recent Late Late Show debate on water charges.

Wicklow TD Andrew Doyle, who represented the Government on the panel discussion, received a round of applause for his performance and words of thanks from the Taoiseach. TDs warned that the water charge controversy was beginning to look eerily similar to the medical card debacle that dominated the run-in to the local elections.

The long-promised political reforms, which many TDs believe have yet to materialise, was also on the agenda.

Over at the Labour parliamentary party meeting, the mood was equally as tense with Kerry TD Arthur Spring warning that the party would "evaporate" if there was a general election in the morning.

Speaking after the meeting, one Labour member said the party was acting like a "bunch of spineless bastards" and needed to stand up to their Coalition partners.

At 7.30am on Thursday, the all-important Economic Management Council met to thrash out new water charge rates. The Cabinet sub-committee, comprising the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, were joined by Minister Kelly and Communications Minister Alex White.

"There is broad agreement among everyone on most of the issues but it's the details that need to be teased out," a source said. "They are examining everything and everybody appreciates the reality of the problems involved."

That reality is that a final decision is at least two weeks away, after more high-level meetings. Publicly, politicians are playing down the suggestion they are at loggerheads.

If the Tanaiste gets her way, charges will be lower than previously expected and households may receive some relief for signing for up the charges. But frustration is increasing among backbench TDs who believe the continuing uncertainty around water charges could be the key to getting elected at a future general election.

Sunday Independent

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