Wednesday 22 November 2017

Coveney in final desperate bid to fix water bill row

Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke

Niall O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

Housing Minister Simon Coveney has made a last-ditch bid to resolve the row over water charges, warning that the proposed regime places Ireland "at odds" with the European Union.

In a significant intervention last night, Mr Coveney expressed his deep concern over the "direction" being taken by the Oireachtas water committee.

He described the decision of the committee to vote against the provision of meters for all new builds as "deeply worrying".

Last week, Fianna Fáil was in favour in principle of having meters installed in all new builds as a pre-condition.

But the party has now changed its stance on this key issue.

The minister said that any failure to include the term "excessive usage" in the final report would cause Ireland to breach its obligations under the Water Framework Directive.

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have united to scrap the term 'excessive usage' and replace it with 'wilful wastage'.

"I cannot imagine that the committee members, behaving responsibly, would consciously seek to put forward a set of recommendations that would fail to achieve compliance with our EU obligations," Mr Coveney said in a letter to committee chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh. 

Read More: Water saga adds to Coveney's leadership woes

"Please do not take this letter as an attempt by me to in any way seek to interfere with the deliberations of the committee. Rather, I am simply stating the onus on all of us to ensure that we produce a set of recommendations that the Oireachtas will then legislate on that allows us to meet our obligations," he added.

The intervention - which is likely to infuriate Fianna Fáil - came following another dramatic day in Leinster House as the row over water charges threatens the prospect of an early general election.

Senior officials in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil made contact last night after the committee agreed to postpone a vote on the package until Tuesday.

Further legal advice will now be sought on the report in its entirety.

There were heated exchanges at the committee between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians.

At one stage, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said his party would allow for an adjournment until Tuesday so that Fine Gael members could "consult their three leaders" on the issue of water charges. He was referring to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Mr Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar.

Earlier, Mr Varadkar lashed out at Fianna Fáil over its stance on water charges during Leaders' Questions.

Sitting alongside Mr Coveney, Mr Varadkar backed his Cabinet colleague over his refusal to implement the report in its current form.

He said Fianna Fáil - "the party of Lemass" - now had its water policy determined by Sinn Féin and the hard left parties.

Fine Gael sources last night said they believed Mr Varadkar had boosted his leadership credentials as a result of his performance.

The same sources pointed out that Fianna Fáil had this week voted against amendments which it insisted should be included in earlier versions of the report.

In contrast, Fianna Fáil argued that the whole committee would have collapsed.

Party sources said Mr Varadkar was privately undermining Mr Coveney as part of his leadership bid. "Simon Coveney was selling this as a win but when Varadkar started puncturing holes in it and ridiculed anybody who tried to sell it as a win, Fine Gael decided it was better to have a fight over it," one senior Fianna Fáil source said.

"If Simon Coveney had kept the head, we'd have had a deal that everybody got something from."

Irish Independent

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