Coveney seeks a middle ground on refunds to put 'issue to bed'
Fine Gael members of the Oireachtas committee on water will be allowed to have an 'open mind' on the issue of refunds, Housing Minister Simon Coveney has said.
Despite consistently saying he believes everybody should be forced to pay their bills, Mr Coveney has now told the Irish Independent he is not taking a hard line.
"Everyone is going to have to move a little towards the middle to deliver an outcome," he said.
The minister's comments open the door to the possibility that Fine Gael's six members of the water committee could compromise on the issue.
Although Mr Coveney insists his "personal view" is that refunds would set a "dangerous precedent", he added: "If I'm too prescriptive at the start, our team won't have any room to negotiate at the committee."
While acknowledging that there were "differing views" within Fine Gael about whether to refund customers or chase those who had not paid, he said: "To expect a hard-line view within all parties now is just not fair."
He described the issue as "toxic" and said it was time to "put this issue to bed once and for all".
Fianna Fáil's Barry Cowen said the minister's statement about needing to ensure everybody paid their charges was "rushed".
"He jumped to the gun when he had no right to," Mr Cowen said.
"It will be up to the committee to explore, analyse and check the costs associated with chasing people or giving refunds."
Fianna Fáil has five members on the water committee, which will spend three months considering its proposal for a way forward, meaning it will have major influence when it comes to the question of refunds.
However, the Labour Party's member on the committee, Jan O'Sullivan, said Mr Cowen was trying to sit on the fence.
"The only thing to do is to refund people if they are going to get rid of charges," she said.
"Fianna Fáil need to take responsibility like the rest of us have and take a position going into it. We don't all agree on the positions but we'll go in and debate them."
In response, Mr Cowen said the former minister "needs to get a better grasp of what the committee is tasked with".
"She is missing the point. This needs to be dealt with calmly, methodically and have a resolution that's evidence based," he said.
"If they had done that in the first place, the Labour Party wouldn't have just seven seats now."
Meanwhile, one of the Fine Gael members of the committee, Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell, said he intended to give all sides "a fair hearing".
"I've been told the issue of refunds or pursuing people is for the committee to decide," he said. "If we go down the road of pursuing people through the courts, we're on a hiding to nothing. It will become martyrdom for some people."
Meanwhile speaking in the United States, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he believed "very strongly that the committee should be allowed to do it's work and fulfil it's remit".
"Irrespective of what conclusion it comes to that it would come back to the Dáil and in respect of the provision of water obviously there has got to be a payment process because water is not free," he said.
"I do believe that it is important that we let the committee do its work now."