Sunday 21 July 2019

Brendan Howlin: 'One thing is crystal clear: If water charges are scrapped, people who are law abiding and paid water charges cannot be penalised'

Labour Party TD Brendan Howlin Photo: Steve Humphreys
Labour Party TD Brendan Howlin Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taosieach Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny
Fiasco: FF’s environment spokesman Barry Cowen. Photo: Damien Eagers

Kevin Doyle, Cormac McQuinn, and Tom Tuite

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has said that people should pay their water bills despite uncertainty surrounding the future of Irish Water after the formation of a government.

He said it would be a "historic" mistake to get rid of a single national utility responsible for water.

Fianna Fáil has indicated the scrapping of water charges will be a red-line issue if it is to support a minority Fine Gael government headed by Mr Kenny.

But it could be months before any such deal is agreed, and the uncertainty is now expected to result in a massive drop-off in the number of households paying their bills.

Meanwhile, Brendan Howlin said this evening that if charges are to be abolished, it would be "unconscionable" for people who have paid the charges not to receive a refund.

"One thing that is crystal clear to me is that it cannot be that people who are law abiding are penalised."

"It would be unconscionable if charges are to be abolished, and there seems to be a majority of deputies in the new Dail who want that, that there would not be a full refund to everybody who have paid water charges to date. Anything else would be an idnication that to be law-abiding is to be penalised."

Asked about the issue today, Mr Kenny said people "should pay their bills".

On The News at One today, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney also echoed the Taoiseach's remarks.

"We believe it was the right thing to do to set up a single utility company. It was the right thing to do to set up a fair charging system to contribute towards a big investment to fixing our water problems. That is still our view.

"We stand over a fair charging system," he said today.

Read More: No refund for families who have paid hundreds on water charges

"Let me be clear, we are not proposing to do away with water billls. We are not proposing to do away with Irish Water. People should pay their water bills and I will be paying it. We are likely to continue to have a fair charging system for water and a single utility company for that. We are committed to that."

He said that the Fine Gael parliamentary party is meeting tomorrow and they will set out the parameters in which "we can negotiate".

"It is my view that it would be a huge mistake to start reversing what has been a very difficult process setting a single utility which is now starting to work with an investment for €5.5bn for the six years.

"It is my view that if Fine Gael continues to be in Government there will be a single utility company and charging system."

Last night Mr Coveney appeared on RTÉ's Prime Time last night and said Fine Gael would "certainly be willing to talk about water" in an apparent bid to woo Fianna Fáil.

"We need to take on board, within reason, what they are looking for," Mr Coveney added.

Mr Kenny was asked this afternoon if Irish Water is dead and if he agreed with Mr Coveney's remarks.

"Simon Coveney was correct in what he said in that Fine Gael as the largest party in this Dáil want to move on to put in place a process to form a government and part of that is we'll be prepared to listen to all groups and like-minded parties who have views about how that should happen.

"I want to say in respect of Irish Water that I think it would be a seriously costly and seriously historic mistake to move away from having a single national utility to provide water and clean water for the country, and for the future.

He said he there should be a system where the public pays for water that is "fair and affordable".

He was speaking after it emerged that families who have paid their water bills will get no refund, even if the charges are abolished as part of a deal to keep Fine Gael in power.

Fianna Fáil has indicated the scrapping of water charges will be a red-line issue if it is to support a minority government headed by Enda Kenny.

But it could be months before any such deal is agreed, and the uncertainty is now expected to result in a massive drop-off in the number of households paying their bills.

Read More: The three most pressing issues that will top new government's to-do list

However, an EU report warns that if charges are abolished, Irish Water will not come off the State's balance sheet - and this will therefore reduce the money available for spending increases and tax cuts in future Budgets.

Fianna Fáil's environment spokesman Barry Cowen confirmed to the Irish Independent that while an ending to charging was an "imperative" for his party, the party would not seek to give refunds.

Read More: Irish Water: Should it stay or should it go?

"We can't change the law retrospectively, as much as we'd wish. We were not in government so we couldn't stop this fiasco, as much as we tried," he said.

Asked about the likelihood that there would be widespread boycotting of charges until the situation is resolved, Mr Cowen said: "The Government has created this mess and has to bring it to a conclusion, or somebody else will."

Read More: Irish Water to replace Tierney with an insider

Last night, outgoing Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney indicated Fine Gael's willingness to move on water charges.

Speaking on RTÉ's 'Prime Time' in a clear bid to woo Fianna Fáil, Mr Coveney said Fine Gael would "certainly be willing to talk about water".

"We need to take on board, within reason, what they are looking for," he added.

Read More: Texts sent telling households to pay now and avoid €60 fine

Fine Gael sources admitted Irish Water was "an unmitigated disaster" and that "no effort was made to sell it properly".

A number of TDs accepted that something would have to change, but warned they had invested too much political capital to scrap Irish Water completely. The company has completed three billing cycles and is in the process of issuing a new round of invoices.

Read More: Utility to spend €60m mapping sewers as parts at risk of collapsing

Dermott Jewell of the Consumers' Association of Ireland said there would be a "very, very sharp" decline in payment rates as a result of the political upheaval. "At the very least, people will hang back rather than put more money into a bottomless pit," he said.

He added that in the event charges are dropped, those who had paid to date "should not be seen as another fallout from this unusual situation".


Former Labour Party minister Pat Rabbitte yesterday told's 'Frontbench' podcast that "some day, what happened at Cabinet on that issue will come out, no doubt".

Read More: Money will have to be found somewhere to fund works on creaking system

"It is remarkable that if there are two people living in a house and they get a water bill for €160 and they get a grant from the Department of Social Protection for €100, that after all we have suffered in the last eight years, that €60 on water is the cause of contention. But it was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.

Former Fine Gael justice minister Nora Owen said her party would struggle to justify dropping charges without also giving a refund.

She said most Fine Gael voters were likely to have paid their charges - but would be annoyed if they were abolished without a refund "because the bloody neighbour down the road with two cars was boasting that they were not going to pay it".

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said nobody was looking to maintain the status quo in relation to Irish Water.

His party wants to change the utility from being a commercial semi-state into a national authority.

The European Commission Post-Programme Surveillance Report Ireland for autumn 2015, which was released yesterday, said it was important to ensure funding for Irish Water's capital plan beyond 2016 "in order to address critical weaknesses in water infrastructure".

Meanwhile, Brendan Howlin said this evening that a Fianna Fáil/ Fine Gael coalition would be the only stable option for the next Government.

"I think objectively the only stable government for the country for the next five years would be that coalition because anything else would be a minority that would be inherently unstable and the country needs a stable government. Whether even the grand coalition of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would last five years because bluntly the longer that that particular coalition existed the less reason there would be for two distinct parties. And I think there would be an incentive for both parties to have a pretext to end that and redefine themselves separately."

"So I think we are in very troubled times. As we have seen from Spain we need a government there is a consequence of having a protracted period of no government. I am a member of a caretaker government right now but in terms of making new policy decisions we must await the decision of the new Dail and the election of a new government to do that and the longer we wait the more harm we will do to a very fragile recovery. We need to ensure the investments into Ireland that people are now deciding upon continue, that the job creation programmes continue and we can only do that with the assurance of a stable government."

Irish Independent

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