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Is Sinn Féin now in favour of water charges?

Fine Gael says a vote in the European Parliament means Sinn Féin is now in favour of water charges, but the reality is somewhat different.

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan with party leader Gerry Adams
Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan with party leader Gerry Adams
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

SINN FÉIN IS facing accusations of having reversed its position on water charges in the wake of a vote in the European Parliament this afternoon.

MEPs today passed a report from the parliament’s environment committee regarding the Right2Water European citizens’ initiative.

Fine Gael MEPs claim that a key paragraph in the report, the publication of which was led by Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, amounts to the party having performed a u-turn on its opposition to water charges.

But what’s actually happened here? We’ve put together this quick explainer…

Background

In December 2013 the Europe-wide Right2Water group began a campaign to force the European Commission to guarantee access to water and sanitation as a human right, and give a legal undertaking that water services will not be liberalised in the EU. In other words, that they would not be privatised.

You’ll recall that the whole issue over the potential privatisation of Irish Water has been huge in Ireland’s debate on water charges. Various parties have called for a referendum to enshrine public ownership of water provision in perpetuity.

The campaign

In order to successfully lobby the European Commission, Right2Water had to collect at least one million EU citizens’ signatures from at least a quarter of member states in one year under what’s known as the European citizens’ initiative (ECI).

Members of the public were asked to sign a petition calling on European authorities to guarantee access to water and sanitation and give a legal undertaking that there would be no privatisation. The campaign managed to collect 1.8 million signatures across 13 EU countries.

What happened next?

Appearing before the MEPs on the European Parliament environment committee in February of last year, Right2Water urged the European Commission to consider legislating to protect public ownership of and access to water.

6/8/2015 Ibrahim Halawa Case Lynn Boylan Source: Leah Farrell

Sinn Féin MEP and Right2Water rapporteur Lynn Boylan then authored a report criticising the European Commission’s response to the ECI petition as doing little to answer the demands of the Right2Water movement.

Today that report was approved by the European Parliament by 363 votes to 96, with 261 abstentions, including the European People’s Party, which includes Fine Gael MEPs.

What’s actually in the report?

A lot. You can read it in full here.

Broadly, the report examines issues around water quality and public health. But, for the purposes of this political row, in paragraph 92 it recommends:

A pricing policy that respects people’s right to a minimum quantity of water for living and cracks down on waste, providing for the application of a progressive charge that is proportional to the amount of water used.

So that’s what the row is about?

Yes. Sinn Féin’s support for a report which includes that line has sparked claims from Fine Gael that it has reversed its position on water charges.

As you probably know, Sinn Féin’s policy on water charges is that it opposes them and the party has repeatedly stated it would abolish charges and Irish Water if in government.

27/4/2013 Young Fine Gael Meetings Mairead McGuinness Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Yet on the face of it its four MEPs have voted in favour of the application of a progressive charge that is proportionate to the amount of water used. Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness said:

By voting in favour of this text, Sinn Fein have demonstrated support for water charges, and having been written by a member of the Sinn Fein party, it indicates a U-turn by the party on water charges or a break with national policy at European level.

What does Sinn Féin say?

Sinn Féin believes Fine Gael, and its colleagues in the centre-right European People’s Party grouping, attempted to remove language from the report that criticises any attempt at privatisation of water provision.

Boylan said it was ”disappointing that Fine Gael’s cronies in the European Parliament managed to water down some mention of the need for non-profit cooperation and introduced the call to also promote public-private partnership as well as public-public partnerships”.

Fine Gael said it abstained on the overall report because of the politicisation of the issue by Sinn Féin, saying:

As a number of key compromise amendments were not successfully adopted, the Fine Gael delegation abstained on the final vote on the report and instead supported the EPP’s alternative resolution on the same issue outlining their position.

But what about this big claim that Sinn Féin has u-turned on water charges?

We asked Lynn Boylan about this earlier in the week. She sent us a statement that basically accused Fine Gael of “playing games” over the issue.

In true Fine Gael fashion, instead of supporting the wishes of the Irish people or the 1.8 million who signed the ECI they and their political group in Europe have rode roughshod over the key demands of the people and instead have presented an alternative motion.
This motion clearly ignores the demands of the Right2Water campaign and indeed deletes any mention of the water affordability issues people have experienced due to austerity measures across the EU.

You may have noticed that Boylan didn’t address the central charge that Sinn Féin has u-turned on water charges.

We asked her for a response to this charge on Monday but have not received anything beyond that statement.

In a statement to the Irish Independent earlier this week, a party spokesperson said: “People previously paid for water through a progressive charge, ie, general taxation. Sinn Féin ministers have blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.

It is our commitment that a Sinn Féin-led government in the South would end water charges and return to fund water from progressive general taxation.

Then in a statement this afternoon Boylan said that the wording in paragraph 92 came from another political group.

I did not write it and did not vote in favour of the wording in question during the committee stage and unfortunately Fine Gael have blocked all attempts to remove the wording in the plenary.

So what are we to believe then?

It’s fair to say that Sinn Féin is not about to reverse a policy that it has vociferously advocated for several months now. In fact, the party says it won’t go into government unless it secures a commitment to abolish Irish Water and water charges.

It’s a red line issue and that much is clear.

But what’s not clear is that if its opposition to water charges is so trenchant then why have Boylan and Sinn Féin supported a report which appears to endorse a progressive water charges regime based on a person’s usage.

Read: Irish Water issues bill to woman for dead husband’s water usage

Read: The story of ‘NO’ … 15 moments that have defined the Irish Water protest movement

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