Monday 18 November 2019

Irish Water staff get €5k bonuses as crisis deepens

- All 675 workers given 'performance-related payment'

- 11 spouses of executives also have free health insurance

- FF threatens to block election of a new FG Taoiseach

Protest: A march against water charges crosses the Matt Talbot Bridge in Dublin yesterday Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Protest: A march against water charges crosses the Matt Talbot Bridge in Dublin yesterday Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Mark O'Regan and Jody Corcoran

The water charges controversy dramatically escalated on two fronts yesterday as Fianna Fail threatened to block the election of a new Fine Gael Taoiseach, and new details emerged of a still-thriving bonus culture at Irish Water.

In an email to Fianna Fail TDs and senators yesterday, the party leadership warned it would not facilitate the election of a new Fine Gael Taoiseach unless the "confidence and supply" deal between both parties was honoured on water charges.

This amounts to the most overt pressure yet on Fine Gael to facilitate legislation to implement the Oireachtas water committee's recommendations on water charges. Fine Gael is now expected to increase legal pressure to torpedo the report at committee stage this week.

The dramatic escalation in the political row between both parties - in effect, a Fianna Fail threat to bring down the Government with Enda Kenny possibly still Fine Gael leader - comes as this newspaper also reveals details of lucrative bonuses paid out to Irish Water staff as recently as last month.

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

Irish Water suspended the bonus scheme in late 2014, following a public backlash.

But now payments over and above salary have been made to each staff member and gold-plated health insurance packages have been made available to executives and their spouses.

Car allowances and specially funded fitness instructors are also among the perks enjoyed at Irish Water.

Today's revelations are likely to reignite public disquiet at Irish Water and fuel opposition to water charges.

The bonus details emerged under the Freedom of Information Act as tensions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have ratcheted up to an unprecedented level.

Fianna Fail's new position, a threat to oppose the election of a new Fine Gael Taoiseach, comes as the Sunday Independent reveals that just last month all 675 staff at Irish Water each received a bonus payment of almost €5,000 on average, or €3.2m in total.

On top of that, 11 senior executives each received blue chip health insurance cover for themselves and their spouses, worth more than an additional €5,000 a year.

Read more: Water a driving force as new gulf emerges between political parties

It has also emerged that €22,328 has been spent on providing specialist fitness lessons for staff who avail of an in-house gym at Irish Water. Gym classes are said to be mandatory to comply with "health and safety regulations".

Overall, 32 Irish Water staff earn more than €100,000. A new company car, worth €41,998, was also purchased last year for the company's managing director Jerry Grant, and eight members of the senior management team also receive an annual car allowance of €10,500.

The bonus culture at Irish Water still exists even though water charges have been suspended and are on the verge of abolition.

The Sunday Independent has seen an email sent yesterday to Fianna Fail TDs and senators which effectively targets Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, front runners to succeed Enda Kenny, who has stated his intention not to lead Fine Gael into the next election.

The email was written by Fianna Fail Environment spokesman Barry Cowen but, crucially, was sent from the office of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. It stated: "It is important that we are all aware of the party's position on this issue."

Fianna Fail believes the Fine Gael leadership contest is undermining the Oireachtas water committee's attempts to reach a deal on water charges.

The committee will meet again on Tuesday in an attempt to sign off on a majority-agreed report. In the Fianna Fail email, Fine Gael is accused of "bad faith" and of "macho posturing".

Read more: Subsidies to rise for those in group water schemes

But for the first time, Fianna Fail also explicitly threatens not to facilitate the election as Taoiseach of a new Fine Gael leader to succeed Kenny.

The email stated: "Both of the ministers campaigning for their party's leadership would be well advised to understand that this behaviour means that Fianna Fail will require full confirmation of Fine Gael's intention to honour its commitments under the confidence and supply agreement before facilitating any potential changes to government personnel and roles." In effect, this means that Fianna Fail is demanding that the Government facilitates the passage of legislation to implement the committee's recommendations on water charges.

However, the report will need to be passed by a majority to proceed to the Dail. The possibility remains that the committee will split 10-10 and the report may fall.

However, Housing Minister Coveney has said he would refuse to introduce legislation which he believed to be contrary to EU law. Yesterday he reiterated this position.

Mr Coveney has written to the committee's chairman Senator Padraig O Ceidigh, outlining a series of concerns on the final recommendations contained in the report as to their compliance with European law. The chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Martin Heydon, has also written to O Ceidigh, urging him to appoint an expert in EU law to examine the report's recommendations.

Mr Heydon said: "While conscious that the report of the committee will guide legislation and is not a proxy for the legislation itself, we know the committee members would not wish, knowingly or inadvertently, to make recommendations to the Oireachtas that run contrary to our EU obligations.

"We are anxious to ensure that the advice be sought from counsel with expertise in European environmental law, a wide breadth of experience in conducting cases before the European courts, and extensive experience in conducting cases involving matters of public law and major public importance."

Read more: Fresh water row erupts as Fine Gael refuses to resume talks today

However, in his email to Fianna Fail TDs and senators yesterday, Mr Cowen stated that Fianna Fail policy on water charges was "financially, environmentally and legally sound".

He wrote: "We have had many problems with Fine Gael's behaviour and have already signalled to Fine Gael our extreme annoyance at breaches to the spirit and letter of the agreement. However, the handling of water in recent weeks has brought this to a head.

"Instead of working constructively with others, Fine Gael has sought to escalate problems and has spoken through the media rather than through direct contacts.

"On a mounting series of occasions, they have acted in clear bad faith. It has increasingly seemed that they have been trying to wreck the process rather than make a constructive contribution."

Cowen said Fine Gael's claims on the legality of the committee's recommendations are "directly contrary to the independent legal advice received by both the committee and Fianna Fail".

He added: "They are now demanding that an opinion be sought which backs up their assertions. Judgment first, evidence later."

Mr Cowen also accused Mr Coveney of taking a position not to allow government resources help find a way of implementing a "strategic approach different from Fine Gael's policy".

He said: "The macho posturing and media-focused strategy of recent weeks is one thing - but the ongoing attempt to frustrate the process is a clear and definite breach of Fine Gael's commitments.

"Fine Gael faces a choice - it can either be constructive or it can go further along its destructive route."

Read more: Varadkar says talk of general election over water charges is 'nonsense'

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