Coveney risks general election by facing down FF ultimatum on water charges
Housing Minister Simon Coveney is to risk to a general election by facing down an ultimatum from Fianna Fáil over the scrapping of water charges.
The minister believes it would be "blatantly irresponsible" to introduce legislation to permanently end charges and leave Ireland open to massive fines from the EU.
A committee set up by the Government to decide the future of water services is on course to recommend that they be funded through general taxation after Fianna Fáil dramatically hardened their position on the issue.
In a high-risk strategy, senior Fianna Fáil figures said they would be prepared for an early election rather than support the re-introduction of a charging regime.
This includes a proposal laid down by the Independent Expert Commission that charges should be brought in only for those engaged in "excessive usage".
But during a 25-minute press conference last night, Mr Coveney emphatically stated that he will not abolish water charges contrary to EU law.
"I'm just not going to do that as a minister. I will not introduce legislation that potentially exposes the country to severe penalties and fines from the European Commission. I won't do that. We have clear advice from the Attorney General's office.
"There has to be some consequence for households wasting large amounts of water," he said.
He accused Fianna Fáil of having a similar position "up until a few days ago".
Senior Fianna Fáil sources were last night stunned by Mr Coveney's reaction, with their party spokesman on water, Barry Cowen, claiming the minister was breaking the 'confidence and supply' arrangement which ensures the minority Government's survival.
It states that the Government must facilitate the passage of legislation based on the committee's recommendations "including abolition".
During a heated private sitting of the Oireachtas water committee, the Independent chairperson Pádraig Ó Céidigh warned he could not accept proposals that are illegal.
A source close to the senator last night said he was trying to impress the view that any proposals brought forward must be "workable".
Yesterday's meeting was tense and acrimonious. Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy was told to "grow up" for tweeting details of the meeting, while Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin was criticised for holding a press briefing while the issue of water charges was still being discussed.
With the Dáil due to vote on the issue of water charges next month, the 20-person committee is now split down the middle.
Ten members say they are opposed to any form of charging regime. These include the five Fianna Fáil representatives, two Sinn Féin TDs, Independent deputies Seamus Healy and Thomas Pringle and Mr Murphy. The six Fine Gael representatives are in favour of a charging regime for excessive usage, as are Labour's Jan O'Sullivan and Senator Grace O'Sullivan of the Green Party.
Independent TD for Galway West Noel Grealish has yet to decide his stance.
This means that the chairman, Senator Ó Ceidigh may be required to use his casting vote.
If the committee can resolve its differences, Fine Gael may be forced to produce a minority report.
But with the Dáil arithmetic stacked against the Government, the prospect of charges returning at all seems highly unlikely.
During the meeting, Mr Cowen told the committee his party wants charges completely "scrapped".
He said the country's water system should be funded through general taxation and within the parameters of the so-called fiscal space.
The party also wants refunds issued to those who have paid their bills but said these should be offset against the Government's €100 conservation grant.
Meanwhile, a new opinion poll shows the vast majority of voters believe households that waste water should be charged for in some form.
The Labour Party commissioned 'Ireland Thinks' put a series of statements relating to water charges to over 1,000 people to gauge attitudes.
The standout result was 77.9pc who said they either agreed or strongly agreed that people who waste water should be charged. Just 16.7 disagreed with this view. Overall 68.7pc said everybody should pay something towards water.
At the same time 51.4pc agreed that water is a basic human right.