Friday 22 November 2019

Water charges deal in jeopardy as talks descend into farce

Fine Gael party chairman Martin Heydon. Photo: Tom Burke
Fine Gael party chairman Martin Heydon. Photo: Tom Burke

Niall O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

The Oireachtas water committee is at risk of collapsing without agreement after Fine Gael lost a series of key votes on the issue of so-called "excessive usage".

Yesterday's committee hearing descended into farce as TDs squabbled over the wording of the final report.

Fine Gael demanded that the report must be significantly changed to reflect the need for householders who wilfully waste water to be hit with a tariff or levy.

The party wants the final document to state clearly that anyone who wastes water will be hit with a bill.

Fine Gael's representatives on the committee insisted the draft document circulated by chairman Pádraig Ó Céidigh proposed a system that would instead be "non-compliant" with EU law and leave Ireland open to hefty fines.

But Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil rejected amendments proposed by Fine Gael and forced the issue to a series of votes, which were won by the Opposition parties.

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said what was being proposed by Fine Gael was akin to "bills by the back door".

Just minutes into the meeting, an adjournment was called because agreement could not be reached over the first recommendation tabled.

The recommendation states: "The committee recommends that domestic water charging as provided for under the Water Services Act 2014 be discontinued."

Fine Gael insisted this statement must be amended to include a charge for excessive usage.

But the party was outvoted by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

There were frantic scenes as the Fine Gael members gathered outside the committee room to consult with each other on what approach to take.

It is understood a number of TDs phoned Housing Minister Simon Coveney for advice.

But after losing a series of further votes, the Fine Gael contingent refused to resume negotiations over the final document in the afternoon.

The main parties then arranged a series impromptu media interviews on the Dáil plinth, during which they levelled accusations at each other.

Fine Gael chairman Martin Heydon said the language used in the report was "disingenuous and misleading to the Irish people and the members of the Oireachtas".

Party colleague Kate O'Connell said excessive usage needed to be quantified and based on the metric system. She said: "We are saying to the Irish people: 'You will get an allowance. Above that, you will get a bill in the door, simple as'.

"It can be called a charge, a levy or otherwise, or a penalty. But a charge for excessive use."

Just minutes later, Fianna Fáil held its own media event, led by Mr Cowen.

The Offaly TD said he did not know what Fine Gael's problem was, but suggested that it was linked to the fact that Mr Coveney was engaged in a leadership contest.

Labour Party TD Jan O'Sullivan then held a briefing, during which she described the situation as "farcical".

She said she did not believe much of the document would be accepted by the EU.

Last night, Fine Gael tried to clarify its position, telling journalists the Government "cannot stand over a report that does not meaningfully seek to ensure that Ireland meets its EU obligations".

But Fianna Fáil last night accused Fine Gael politicians of "acting like spoilt children".

A senior source told the Irish Independent: "They enter a process and because they don't get their own way, they throw a strop."

The committee is due to resume today, but any failure to reach agreement could have serious consequences for the Government.

Water charges are due to be suspended until the end of the month. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do not reach an agreement, there is a risk that no final report will be put forward for a Dáil vote.

Irish Independent

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