FOR ALMOST FOUR years the issue of water charges has dominated the headlines.
It was the sticking point that held up the formation of a government, so it was kicked down the road with an expert commission report and the setting up of an Oireachtas committee tasked with reviewing the future funding of water in Ireland.
Now after 22 meetings, and much back and forth, the Oireachtas committee made up of 20 TDs, finally published their final report today.
Tonight, TDs in Leinster House are debating the report.
One of the key questions people have about the report is – will there be refunds to those who paid?
The committee agreed that those who have paid and those that have not paid should be treated equally.
Therefore, refunds are on the cards for those that paid their water charges.
How that is going to be done and the cost of it are the big questions, but the committee has said consideration must also be given to how much the State paid out on the water conservation grant.
Fianna Fáil has urged the government to set aside money for water charge refunds in this year’s Budget.
Prior to Irish Water bills coming through the letter box, householders were urged to sign up to the water conservation grant of €100.
The committee agreed the water conservation grant should be deducted from any refunds given to householders.
So how much was paid out?
Figures released last year to Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen show 887,010 householders – slightly more than half of those eligible – claimed their €100 grant.
The total cost of the water conservation grant was €94 million, according to the Department of Social Protection.
The total administration costs were €5,782,035.42, bringing the total cost to €94,483,035.
The issue of costs was raised tonight in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen, who said he wanted to put some context on the debate.
“The government actually lost money on domestic water tariffs. In 2015 only 53% of bills due were paid. €100 million was spent on the water grant. €41 million is due in interest repayments over the year and another €25 million on admin costs.
“On this basis the state actually lost €22 million in total on its water charges regime in 2015. Water charges have actually cost the state money,” he said.
Love-in at FG parliamentary party meeting
Ahead of tonight’s debate, there was a love-in at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, with Minister Simon Coveney hailing victory for the return of water charges (for those that waste water).
However, there was no such love between Coveney and Cowen in the Dáil chamber this evening.
In what was almost a face-off, the pair stared across the chamber floor at one another.
While Coveney thanked the committee and Fianna Fáil, in particular, for signing up to the deal, he said it was a “victory for sensible politics”.
Delicately tiptoeing around the blazing row that ensued between the two largest political parties in the last week, one that possibly brought the country to the brink of an election, the minister said:
I am very pleased that the report has come back on track now.
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen who has come in for harsh criticism for his party’s u-turns on their water policy, was not going to be so polite.
“The water charges regime introduced by Fine Gael and Labour was a complete and utter failure. By any metric it had failed to achieve its objectives,” said Cowen, reiterating the term used by Fine Gael’s chief whip Regina Doherty that it was a “catastrophe…a cock up”.
But it wasn’t just Fine Gael that had criticism levelled at them.
Cowen had harsh words for the former Environment Minister, Labour’s Alan Kelly.
“Deputy Kelly, still spinning from the number of u-turns he introduced as Minister, continues to suffer from an angry form of Stockholm syndrome, a political Patty Hearst.”
Despite the report being done and dusted, he wanted to clarify why Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had fallen out, in his opinion.
I am confident that what we have now agreed is essentially the same deal that was settled on two weeks ago. The agreement saw Eoin O’Broin and Minister Coveney clamouring over each other to claim victory on the airwaves and social media so that should hold true again today.
Our fear over the past two weeks was that Fine Gael were shifting the goalposts around the threshold level and creating a gap to allow water charges in through the back door. That was the fundamental basis for the dispute.
However, there is no fear of this, said Cowen as the “agreed report closes off such a back channel for water charges by specifying the thresholds levels and clarifies the average use per person”.
“This isn’t about political point scoring,” Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan reminded the two parties.
Meanwhile, Solidarity-PBP’s Richard Boyd Barrett took the time to define what the word populism means to politicians still in the chamber past 9pm.
Looking towards his Fianna Fáil colleagues, he said: “It’s saying what suits you, when it suits you.”
Whatever damage the last couple of weeks has caused to the relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Cowen said it was now is the time to settle the issue and to “heal the political divisive wounds that have opened up”.
This country faces into uncertain times, the choppy seas that await us in Brexit or our housing crisis demands real leadership. We need to show the political maturity and sense to agree a new framework for water.
Tomorrow the Dáil will vote on the committee’s report. It is then the job of the minister to draft legislation, which is expected to take about six weeks.