SO, HERE WE go again…
One of the main political issues of the last five years is back in the spotlight again this week, in the wake of the election.
Water charges featured only sporadically in coverage of the campaign. A major march in Dublin the Saturday before polling day refocused some attention on the issue, but even that was overshadowed by the furore surrounding Enda Kenny’s ‘whingers’ comment the same weekend.
Of course, those who have been campaigning for the abolition of water charges for the last two years would argue that the subject has never been off the agenda.
And this morning, the AAA’s Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy asserted in a statement that Fianna Fáil would never have shifted their position on charges were it not for the pressure applied by the ‘we won’t pay’ campaign.
Since Tuesday night, water charges and Irish Water have been dominating the news agenda once again (with just the occasional break for recount results).
So in the wake of an election where, as Tom McGurk noted in the Sunday Business Post at the weekend, the ‘don’t knows’ appeared to win, what now for the beleaguered utility?
Will we see a boycott of Irish Water gather pace?
Will charges be scrapped?
Can charges be scrapped?
Your questions, answered…
Let’s start big – what is Irish Water?
In short, a utility incorporated in 2013 to combine the public water and wastewater services of the the 31 local authorities. Of course it’s much, much more than that too… The set-up and roll-out of Irish Water was, without a doubt, the most controversial project overseen by the Fine Gael/Labour government (click here for a rundown on the various scandals). A campaign to scrap fees gathered pace at the end of 2014, forcing the coalition to scale-down the charging regime dramatically. They also brought in capped fees and a €100 rebate in the wake of several large-scale protests.
The government, in particular the Labour Party, took a hammering in the polls and ultimately at the ballot box as a result.
Why is it back in the news now?
Because of the election result – or, more to the point, the lack of one.
Fine Gael and Labour support the retention of Irish Water and water charges as they now are – but Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and the AAA-PBP campaigned to scrap the charges.
A quick glance at the make-up of the new Dáil underscores the scale of the divide:
So what are the parties saying?
As far as it goes with Fine Gael, it depends who you ask. Simon Coveney, the outgoing defence and agriculture minister, said on Tuesday night that the party “would be willing” to discuss the issue of water charges in post-election talks.
Speaking yesterday, however, Enda Kenny insisted that people should continue to pay their water bills, telling reporters he thought it would be “a seriously costly and seriously historic mistake to move away from having a single national utility”.
Fianna Fáil have been challenging the legitimacy of that stance, however – with Dara Calleary yesterday pointing out that the majority of TDs in the 32nd Dáil now want to abolish water charges.
“We were very clear during the campaign that we would abolish Irish Water, that we would suspend water charges for five years [and] would not give refunds,” Calleary insisted.
Gerry Adams weighed in on the issue today, saying the charge must be abolished, while the AAA-PBP have said they will vigorously pursue the issue in the coming days.
Sorry, what was that about no refunds?
Indeed. In fairness, Fianna Fáil did say during the campaign that they didn’t envisage refunds being given out in the event that charges were suspended.
The party made it clear in the last few weeks that it would push for management of water supply to be returned to local authorities, and for Irish Water to be downsized into a national oversight body modelled on the National Roads Authority.
The ‘no refund’ thing probably won’t go down to well, will it?
No, not really – there’s every possibility we could see a whole new set of protests in the event that charges are scrapped and there’s no opportunities for people who have paid to avail of refunds.
Speaking yesterday, former Fine Gael councillor and Dublin lord mayor Gerry Breen said he would launch an action in the courts in such an event.
“I would go in and take a case against the State for the two-thirds of people who have paid or are paying their water charges,” he told Liveline.
Speaking this morning, the AAA-PBP’s Coppinger said she would “completely favour” the charges being refunded “because it was a completely unviable tax”.
So what happens now?
We’ve only seen the first few stumbling steps towards forming a new government so far.
With Fine Gael now 29 seats short of the 79 needed for an overall Dáil majority, joining forces with Fianna Fáil appears to be its only choice for forming a stable government.
There are a few other combinations that could technically work – but the final tally of seats has led to increased speculation that Fine Gael could lead a minority government, with Micheál Martin’s party supporting them on a case by case basis.
The arithmetic of the new Dáil means Fianna Fáil can legitimately claim they have a mandate to argue for the scrapping of water charges in any talks that lead to such an arrangement.
What would it cost to get rid of Irish Water anyway?
It depends who you ask – but internal figures from the utility, published in the Irish Times yesterday, put the figure at €7 billion over the next five years. That would include some €100 million in cash costs – to include paying off staff not transferred to work at local authorities, the cost of breaking leases and the cost of transferring back property already put into the utility’s ownership.
In an analysis of those figures, RTÉ’s economics correspondent Sean Whelan put the cost at between €5.5 and €6.7 billion.
Speaking this morning, Coppinger said the €7 billion figure was “totally spurious” and called for a fresh, independent examination of the issue.
And… What’s the story legally?
It’s complicated. So complicated that it requires another ‘explainer’… Fortunately TheJournal.ie’s Dan MacGuill has already done the research, and you can read his exhaustive take on the situation here…
As Dan puts it, ‘Simple question – VERY complicated answer’.
In short, the European Commission’s Water Framework Directive may be the main stumbling block here.
Article 9 of that directive gave every country until 2010 to:
Ensure that water-pricing policies provide adequate incentives for users to use water resources efficiently, and thereby contribute to the environmental objectives of this Directive.
However, Article 9.4 allowed something of a loophole, known as the Irish exemption, which meant countries could, if they didn’t have an “established practice” of water charges, find some other way to encourage conservation and other environmental aims.
Michael Doherty – an expert in EU Labour law and policy and professor of Law at Maynooth University – told us that while that exemption may have applied to Ireland in previous years, now that we do have water charges, “it might now be difficult to argue that it is ‘established practice’ in Ireland not to have them”.
Told you it was complicated. Now clear yourself 15 minutes and read Dan’s article.
What’s Irish Water been saying?
What you’d expect it to really.
“Irish Water remains absolutely focussed on the vital job of fixing Ireland’s water services,” the company told us in a statement.
61% of customers had paid bills at the end of the latest billing cycle, it added.
The spokesperson’s statement also made a number of points about current arguments being put forward by those in favour of scrapping charges, arguing:
- Running the service with 31 separate local authorities does not work – too much money is spent building plants and not enough maintaining them
- Running an agency like the NRA does not work either – no other country in the world has ever done this.
- A single national utility with a domestic charge is the only model of service delivery that can work to deliver the investment in water services that Ireland needs.
So should I pay my Irish Water bill?