Sunday 16 December 2018

Leo’s FG leadership hopes damaged by water outburst

€100 rural water grants are price of Independents' votes

Health Minister Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Health Minister Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
'Enda Kenny’s shaky deal with Fianna Fáil depends on securing Independents’. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Six-member Independent Alliance: Shane Ross, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Finian McGrath, Michael Fitzmaurice, John Halligan and Seán Canney
Independent newcomer Katherine Zappone
Former Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry
Simon Coveney: ‘People who haven’t paid charge must pay’

John Downing and Fionnán Sheahan

Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael leadership ambitions have been damaged by his latest outburst on water charges.

The Health Minister attacked Fianna Fáil over the deal which sees water bills being suspended.

Fianna Fáil and Independents have identified Mr Varadkar as a problem within the government talks.

The minister's comments went down well with Fine Gael supporters. But party backbenchers are said to be wary of his erratic nature and outspokenness.

"The membership don't understand how delicate this whole situation is and he is seen to be a guy who just says what they want to hear," a senior party figure told the Irish Independent.

Simon Coveney, who is viewed as Mr Varadkar's main competitor for the party leadership, yesterday dismissed suggestions Taoiseach Enda Kenny will soon be departing as speculation.

Meanwhile, Independent TDs will today argue for a retention of the €100 water grant for 360,000 families who already pay for water in group schemes or by having their own wells.

TDs in the six-member Independent Alliance believe that rural families risk being discriminated against in the arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that underpins an emerging minority coalition.

Fine Gael negotiators today begin two separate sets of talks with 11 Independent TDs seeking as many votes as possible to have Enda Kenny elected Taoiseach later this week.

The Independents will scrutinise the weekend deal between the two big parties on how a minority government can be made work for three Budgets into 2018. They will also examine a general statement on policy matters agreed by both parties.

Assuming this is agreeable to the Independents, they will then proceed to work on their demands with the Fine Gael negotiators. These include action on rural development, agriculture supports, housing and mortgage distress, transport - and a speeded-up delivery on rural high-speed broadband.

But two members of the Independent Alliance, Michael Fitzmaurice and Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, have confirmed that compensation for rural families funding their own water will be a crucial issue.

Both deputies said they will seek retention of the €100 payment - ostensibly "a water conservation grant" - now scrapped as water charges have been put on hold. They said it must be retained for those funding their own water supply.

Mr Fitzmaurice said 190,000 families are members of group water schemes and a further 170,000 families provided their own wells and pumps.

"If we're giving free water to everyone else we have to some semblance of fair play for these rural dwellers. Let's try to cherish all the children of the nation equally," the Roscommon-Galway TD said.

Mr Fitzmaurice said they will also fight for a refund scheme for the six out of 10 households that complied with the law and paid their water charges.

Meanwhile Kevin 'Boxer' Moran backed calls for tougher rules on setback distances for wind turbines. Both deputies said this issue was extremely important for many rural communities.

Sources close to the process suggested that a compromise on water grants might revolve around reversing cuts to group water scheme supports of €45 per household.

However, acting Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney yesterday insisted that households that have not paid their water charges must still be pursued, even though water charges have been shelved.

"I think the likely approach that we will take, and certainly the one I will be advocating, is that those who have paid should see others who haven't paid being required to pay.

"One of the things in the written document we have hopefully agreed now with Fianna Fáil is that people who have paid charges won't be disadvantaged."

Independents’ Day at Leinster House

Enda Kenny’s shaky deal with Fianna Fáil depends on securing Independents’ votes. He must secure the backing of at least six Independents to complete a Fine Gael-led minority coalition and to become Taoiseach. In practice, he needs eight or more to give him stability.

A record total of 23 Independents were elected on February 26. These break into specific groups and from the earliest a maximum of 16 Independent TDs appeared open to discussions about backing government. But this number has dwindled over time.

Mr Kenny can rely upon the support of former Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry for his proposed minority administration – but he would prefer if Mr Lowry’s vote was not the deciding factor.

Independent newcomer, Katherine Zappone, is also expected to support a Fine Gael-led minority after becoming one of the first to pledge her support for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach

Seven left-leaning Independents have never figured in government formation talks. These are:

■ Seamus Healy

■ Thomas Pringle

■ Catherine Connolly

■ Mick Wallace

■ Clare Daly

■ Joan Collins

■ Tommy Broughan.

The Healy-Rae brothers are unlikely to support a deal. Newcomer Danny has ruled it out. Michael Healy-Rae kept his options open but his demands were deemed excessive by Fine Gael. Independent Maureen O’Sullivan remains undecided but is unlikely to back a deal.

In the six-member Independent Alliance, Shane Ross, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Finian McGrath, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Seán Canney appear open to striking a deal. Big doubts surround John Halligan, who is seeking guarantees on coronary care services for Waterford University Hospital.

There are five ‘Rural Independents’. Of these, Denis Naughten and Dr Michael Harty appear ready to deal if conditions are right. Michael Collins and Noel Grealish are undecided. Mattie McGrath appears most unlikely to participate.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section