Friday 24 November 2017

Fianna Fáil show of strength over Coalition

O'Toole says FF threatened to withdraw its co-operation

Fianna Fáil spokesman on the environment Barry Cowen Picture: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil spokesman on the environment Barry Cowen Picture: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

The outgoing chairman of the expert commission on water, Joe O'Toole, says Fianna Fáil threatened its non-co-operation in order to force his resignation.

The resignation is a blow to efforts to defuse the ongoing water charges row. It also again underlines the vulnerability of the Fine Gael-led minority Government, and the power of Fianna Fáil underpinning it.

Mr O'Toole, the chairman of the expert commission tasked with charting a way out of the dispute, was forced to quit just a week after he was first appointed.

Announcing his decision, he said he had been effectively forced out of the job by threats from Fianna Fáil to withdraw co-operation from the Government on water issues.

The former Senator and teachers' union leader had been under pressure over comments in a series of media interviews since his appointment was announced on Tuesday of last week. He had insisted that water must be paid for, and he questioned the credentials of left-wing activists who opposed broadening the tax base via domestic charges.

He had defended the controversial views and said he would carry out his job independently and dispassionately. But both the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit and Sinn Féin heavily criticised his comments and repeatedly called for his resignation.

But crucially, Fianna Fáil, which changed its position to oppose water charges during this year's election, announced that Mr O'Toole must resign. The Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen said their stance gave them no pleasure as they found Mr O'Toole to be an honourable man.

"His comments challenged his potential to be impartial, and his specific comments about 'sugar-coating' water charges for 'political passage' meant we just had to call upon him to consider his position," Mr Cowen told the Irish Independent.

Yesterday began with a defiant statement from Mr O'Toole and some support from Government ministers. Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said Mr O'Toole had done similar work for government in the past. "I'm sure he will be impartial," Mr Varadkar said.

In the Dáil the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit TD Brid Smith raised questions over the selection of the other members of the commission. She said that Peter Peacock, the chairman of the customer forum for Water Scotland, favours charges and "boasts" that customer forums can help lower prices.

The Dublin South Central deputy also said that Bill Emery, a former director of the British Energy Regulator, is an associate of a company that lists 22 water companies among its clients. Ms Smith also named Xavier Leflaive of the OECD, who "steers water policy in selected countries in South America, such as Brazil". She said that in Brazil, only one in six people enjoy safe sanitation.

"The Commission based on the selection will be a complete sham," Ms Smith said, adding that she knows qualified individuals who failed to secure a position on the board. She said there will be a company that "allows privatisation by the back door", adding that a protest will take place on September 17.

Just after 2pm Mr Coveney effectively signalled Mr O'Toole's departure, when he appealed for "time and space" so that the chairman could make a personal statement. It is understood that Mr Cowen and the minister had earlier privately discussed the issue.

Mr O'Toole followed by releasing a short statement confirming his resignation. He said he had intended staying and proving critics wrong.

"That was until Minister Coveney informed me that the main opposition party would not co-operate with Government on this and related issues for as long as I remained in the chair," he said.

"There are enough problems facing the Government without me adding to them."

Irish Independent

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