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‘Sickened by the threats’: Will Senators reject water charges?

“If the Seanad wants to be taken seriously it must do the right thing and not be merely a rubber stamp for the Government’s brutal austerity policies.”

Image: Shutterstock/Concept Photo

Updated: 4pm

THE GOVERNMENT HAS upped the pressure on senators, as the outcome of a vote on water charges looks uncertain.

The Water Services Bill 2014 is being debated in the Dáil today and tomorrow, before moving to the upper house on Thursday and Friday.

The Government no longer has a majority in the 60-seat Seanad, as Fine Gael and Labour have 17 and 11 senators respectively. This means Independent senators will play a particularly crucial role in whether or not the Bill is passed.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar is among those who have said that if the legislation is rejected, higher fees will apply to households.

The Dáil schedule for tomorrow indicates that the debate on water charges will end at about 9.30pm.

water charges debate

Independent TD Catherine Murphy criticised the Government for ‘guillotining’ the Bill.

The Sinn Féin leader in the Seanad, David Cullinane, has called on Senators to reject the legislation.

The Bill is expected in the Seanad in the coming days and it would be a great day for democracy if Senators voted against it.

“If the Seanad wants to be taken seriously it must do the right thing and not be merely a rubber stamp for the Government’s brutal austerity policies. The Seanad should reject this bill and stand with the people,” Cullinane said.

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell plans to seek an amendment to the Seanad’s Order of Business to defer debate on the Bill until the new year.

He said it was “nonsense” that the ”onus to pass or reject this Bill is put at the feet of Independent senators”.

I am not going to be bullied into a situation where the Government try to force a piece of legislation through the Seanad before Friday.Somebody has to call a halt to the nonsense of this 12th-hour rush.

Craughwell said the legislation was “struggling in the Dáil”. He added that ministers using “threatening language” showed “the height of disrespect” to the Seanad and “does not help one little bit”.

So, where do other Independent Senators stand? Most appear to be undecided, telling us they won’t be making their mind up until after the debate.

Stop the threats

Former Fine Gael member Fidelma Healy-Eames said if the Bill is to be passed, Government ministers need to stop ‘threatening’ Senators.

Healy-Eames said the coalition’s attempt to push the blame for higher water charges onto Senators is out of line.

I’m sickened by the threats … remove the threats or get out of Government.

She said there needs to be an “honest and open” debate on the issue and called on Environment Minister Alan Kelly to answer the questions that will be asked of him.

Healy-Eames said her decision on how to vote will be heavily influenced on whether or not the Government “can show it’s possible to maintain a flat charge [post-2019] and at same time, retain the plan to fix infrastructure”.

‘A very, flawed stupid policy’

Senator John Crown told us he’s “leaning against” the Bill, but will wait to see the revised version before he makes a final decision.

He described Varadkar’s comments as a “stick to beat people with” in the hopes of passing “a very flawed, very stupid policy”.

“I take exception that somehow [higher charges are] our fault.”

Crown, who represents the National University of Ireland in the Seanad, noted that some Labour senators have said they oppose the Bill, stating: “It will be interesting to see if they vote with their conscience or the whip.”

It’s too close to call but my guess is that the university senators will largely vote against it.

Three other independent senators we spoke to – Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone and Mary Ann O’Brien (all nominees of the Taoiseach) – said assurances from the Government that Irish Water will remain in public ownership will play a large role in how they vote.

O’Brien said it “doesn’t take a genius to figure out” the setting up of Irish Water has been “a disaster from start to finish”.

She said she understands that water infrastructure needs to be improved but won’t vote for the Bill unless there is an absolute guarantee the utility will never be privatised.

“My own personal obsession with water is that is should be part of the Constitution that it could never ever be privatised,” O’Brien told us.

Zappone said the outcome of the vote was “too hard to predict at this stage” while van Turnhout stated: “A week is a long time in politics … I imagine it will pass but I’ve no idea.”

Senator Rónán Mullen said he is “considering the issue very carefully”, particularly the the sections of the Bill relating to issues such as privatisation, data protection and conservation measures.

David Norris was the only Independent Senator who told us he definitely won’t be backing the legislation.

Originally published: 2.43pm

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