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Water charges were scrapped in the mid-'90s, but what exactly happened?

Boycotts, disconnections, court orders, and shocking by-elections – it was quite the ride for the Rainbow Coalition.

John Bruton Proinsias de Rossa of Democratic Left, Fine Gael Leader John Burton, and Dick Spring of Labour, who presided over the final years of water charges. Source: Photocall Ireland

WATER CHARGES ARE nothing new.

In many parts of the country they were the norm until 1997, when they were scrapped after Government faced mounting pressure on the issue.

Now they’re in a strikingly similar situation, with growing public opposition.

Let’s take a quick look back at what happened last time…

Before 1994

Domestic rates were abolished in 1977, replaced later by increases to VAT and Income Tax. In mid-1980s service charges were reintroduced, and attempts were made to start applying water charges again. This was abandoned in Dublin after it was met with some resistance, but went ahead in all other parts of the country.

1994

The division of Dublin into four separate councils on 1 January was seized as another chance to introduce water charges, although not without teething problems.

Fingal and South Dublin both faced abolition by Fianna Fáil Minister Brendan Smith over a delay in submitting their budget estimates. This was centered on the potentially political damaging introduction of water or service charges. After buying time, agreement was reached in February, roughly £75 in Fingal and £80 in South Dublin.

In May, the campaign to contest the charges began in earnest. The Dublin Anti Water Charges Campaign (DAWCC) was up and running, with then Militant Labour councillor, now Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins at the helm. By the end of the summer, councils were reporting a slow rate of payment, but this was dismissed as normal and not the result of a boycott.

JOE HIGGINS Joe Higgins Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

This campaign of opposition gathered steam, and attendance at their meetings began to increase. As councils geared up for their 1995 estimates it looked as though more people than previously thought were boycotting the charges.

Things also began to look shaky elsewhere. In Navan, the council threatened to publish the names of those who hadn’t paid their water charges in Stubbs Gazette.

The issue escalated in November as South Dublin moved to cut off the supplies of those who refused to pay, a move deplored by the Democratic Left and one that prompted the DAWCC to reportedly set up night patrols, to track workers attempting to cut off supplies.

It’s estimated that 900 people had their water supplies disconnected in 1994. There was a £100 re-connection fee.

There was also a change of Government at this time, from Fianna Fáil/Labour to Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left.

1995

The year began with a Budget that, in the eyes of DAWCC, failed to address the issue. Some tax concessions were introduced, and were later expanded.

There was mounting unease among the Democratic Left at householders’ supplies being cut off. This led to rumblings of a plan to allow councils to pursue people who didn’t pay the charge through the courts, and this was eventually introduced in legislation.

Disconnection orders

The Bill required the council to notify the household with a clearly defined procedure. An order was required from the District Court before water was cut off. These disconnection orders could not be issued if a waiver on the charges had been agreed, or where it could be proved that the householder was unable to pay due to hardship.

This did nothing to qwuell unrest. DAWCC upped their campaign, and pledged to pay the legal costs of anyone taken to court.

Read: Homeowners told they could win cars and holidays if they paid their water charges >

The numbers involved seemed quite large – a reported 18,000 people in Dún Laoghaire were being issued with final notices at one stage.

By November, the court cases had begun, raising a range of legal issues, and featured sometimes quite large protests by anti-water charges demonstrators. One group of almost 50 cases were thrown out after court ruled that South Dublin had failed to prove the respondents were homeowners, The Irish Times reports, but the council swore to soldier on. The cases rapidly began to clog up the courts.

1996

Hearings of court orders for disconnections were in full swing from mid-January, frequently accompanied by protests outside or inside the court, with cases popping up across the country. The first order was granted for a home in Lusk.

Many of the cases were delayed to due to legal argument over the technicalities of the legislation introduced.

In April, two surveys were published that would have lasting effects on the issue of payment for water services in Ireland – one recommended the installation of water meters, while another estimated that 40% of Dublin’s drinking water was leaking away.

April also gave the Government a big shock. In the Dublin West by-election, the anti-water charges candidate Higgins came strikingly close to taking a seat. Instead, Brian Lenihan Junior took the seat vacated by his late father, by just 370 votes.

Brian Lenihan Junior

Dublin South West saw a striking analogy to this last month, when Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy took a by-election seat.

This was an uncomfortable period for Government. It was facing into an election year with a major issue with water charges that seemingly wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. It was also taking flak over the Residential Property Tax

Towards the end of the year, Dún Laoghaire voted to retain the charge, while South Dublin postponed a vote.

It all came to a head 19 December, when Minister for the Enviroment Brendan Howlin announced that both water and sewage charges would be abolished from 1 January, and Residential Property Tax as well.

To replace water charges, at the time worth roughly £50 million per year, motor tax would be paid to directly to local authorities.

Refuse collect charges remained, and a rise in Stamp Duty was announced.

And that was that. 1997 came and the charges were dropped. Now, a decade later, the Government are in the grips of the same crisis.

Alan Kelly: ‘We’re going to get this right’ >

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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