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FactCheck: Has Fianna Fáil's position on water charges really been "consistent"?

They’ve been accused of a U-Turn on the issue, but Micheál Martin has denied it. What do the facts say?

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FIANNA FÁIL THIS week announced a policy of permanently abolishing water charges, and funding Ireland’s water system from general taxation, in their submission to the Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services.

On RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland, he rejected the accusation of a U-Turn by the party, claiming:

Our submission is very consistent with our general election position.

Is that true? Ciaran Sunderland in Co Louth asked us to check it out.

(Remember, if you hear a politician making claims about their record, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: Fianna Fáil’s policy on water charges is consistent with what they said during the election
Verdict: Half-TRUE

  • Fianna Fáil told FactCheck Martin’s specific claim related only to water charges, and not Irish Water
  • During the election, the party supported both abolishing and suspending water charges, therefore the claim is Half-TRUE
  • During the election, the party supported abolishing Irish Water. It now supports keeping Irish Water
  • Therefore, as a whole, Fianna Fáil’s current water charges policy is mostly inconsistent with its policy during the election campaign.

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can listen to the Morning Ireland interview in full here. And you can watch a video containing Micheál Martin’s comments on Monday, and a rundown of his party’s previous positions on water charges, above.

But for the purpose of this FactCheck, the claim in question, from Morning Ireland, is this:

Our submission is very consistent with our general election position.

The Facts

During the election campaign, and shortly before it, Fianna Fáil articulated essentially two positions on water charges.

  1. Abolish Irish Water and abolish water charges
  2. Abolish Irish Water and suspend, then reintroduce, water charges

Here is a selection of significant and illustrative examples of how the party’s public expressions on the subject vacillated between those two policies.

5 January: Fianna Fáil Environment Spokesperson Barry Cowen tells TheJournal.ie his party plans to suspend water charges, and says “they would come in eventually…possibly seven, eight, 10 years down the road”. (Suspension).

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

16 January: In his Ard Fheis speech, Micheál Martin says: “We will scrap Irish Water, and the failed, loss-making charge which funds it”. (Abolition).

(Starts 14.44)

Source: FiannaFailParty/YouTube

3 February: General election campaign formally begins

5 February: In a Fianna Fáil election campaign video, Waterford candidate (and now TD) Mary Butler articulates the commitment “We will scrap Irish Water and the loss-making charge that funds it”. (Abolition).

(Starts 1.49)

Source: FiannaFailParty/YouTube

11 February: Fianna Fáil’s General Election 2016 manifesto (page 5) commits to abolishing water charges and Irish Water.

We will…abolish Irish Water and water charges

There is no reference to suspension, reintroduction, a timeline or time limit, in the manifesto. (Abolition).

However, in a speech to launch the manifesto on the same day, Micheál Martin promotes a policy of suspension:

We will…abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges for the next five years. [Emphasis added].

17 February

Micheál Martin appears on the RTE Six One News, and has this exchange with presenter Bryan Dobson, where he appears to say his party’s policy is abolition, rather than suspension, of water charges:

BD: You’re saying you want to abolish Irish Water as a body, but replace it with something else, and you want to scrap the water charge. Is that basically your position?
MM: That is our position…

19 February

Two days later, Martin appears on RTE Radio One’s Today with Seán O’Rourke, and says Fianna Fáil would suspend water charges for five years, and then reintroduce them.

24 February

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Barry Cowen reiterates the view expressed to TheJournal.ie in January, that Fianna Fáil would suspend and then reintroduce water charges once infrastructure has been improved, after “at least 10 years”, and adds that the charge would be “in the region of €50 or €100″ per year.

9 March

In a statement, Barry Cowen says:

The Fianna Fáil position on water charges is clear. We will end them…Abolishing water charges will save ordinary families €800 over the next five years.
…Fianna Fáil is committed to ending water charges and saving ordinary families €800 over the next five years.

Despite Cowen’s contention, it is not clear what the meaning of these statements is. “We will end [water charges]“, would appear to be a definitive commitment to abolishing (i.e. ending, as opposed to suspending) them.

However, the phrase “over the next five years” could apply to the time period during which they would end (or rather, suspend) the charges, or simply the time period over which families could purportedly save a total of €800 from their abolition.

Later in March and during April, statements by Fianna Fáil and its spokespersons and TDs begin to coalesce around the position of favouring a five-year suspension of charges, with the abolition of Irish Water.

3 May

Screen Shot 2016-09-14 at 2.50.47 PM Source: Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil signs a “confidence and supply” agreement with Fine Gael, to:

Keep Irish Water in place (with added external oversight); suspend water charges for nine months; and establish an expert commission on water services.

12 September

Fianna Fáil’s submission to the expert commission on water services is leaked to the media. In it, the party proposes the permanent abolition (not suspension) of water charges, and the retention of Irish Water.

Unfortunately, FactCheck cannot publish the document at this time. We try not to use non-public sources, but since this submission will eventually (probably very soon) be made public, we are using it as evidence, in this instance.

We will update this article with a link to the document, when that happens.

It says:

Domestic Water charges should be ended and the revenue loss compensated by an increase in the exchequer subvention. Irish Water should remain solely in public ownership.

This is a clear call for the permanent abolition of water charges, to be replaced with funding from general taxation, and a call for Irish Water to remain in place, and in public ownership, albeit under enhanced external oversight.

However, as of this evening, the Fianna Fáil website still stated:

Fianna Fáil is committed to:
  • Abolishing Irish Water
  • Suspending water charges

Conclusion

21/3/2014. Fianna Fail Ard Fheis Source: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

It is clear that Fianna Fáil expressed two different positions on water charges throughout the general election period.

  1. Abolish Irish Water and abolish water charges
  2. Abolish Irish Water and suspend, then reintroduce, water charges

The position set out in their submission to the expert commission is, in brief:

  • Keep Irish Water (with external oversight) and abolish water charges.

Therefore, Fianna Fáil’s current policy on water charges is mostly inconsistent with the policies they set out during the general election campaign.

However, Fianna Fáil told FactCheck that Micheál Martin’s claim on Morning Ireland, that “Our submission is very consistent with our general election position”, referred specifically to water charges, and not Irish Water.

This is a reasonable clarification, since the question Martin was answering did, indeed, relate exclusively to the policy of abolishing water charges.

And later in the interview, he admitted that the party’s position on the future of Irish Water had changed.

Accepting, as we do, that the Fianna Fáil leader’s claim was relating only to the abolition of water charges, we rate the claim Half-TRUE.

This is because the party at times articulated this position during the election campaign, and at other times supported a suspension of the charges.

However, Fianna Fáil’s overall water charges policy (on the charges themselves, and the future of Irish Water) has been inconsistent since the beginning of the election campaign.

And the overall policy outlined in their submission (keep Irish Water, abolish water charges) is mostly inconsistent with the two positions set out by Fianna Fáil during the election.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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