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How we could be on course for a referendum on water supply

The aim would be to retain public ownership of any company charged with responsibility for the supply of water services

Image: Shutterstock/sonsam

JUST OVER A year ago, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that he “doesn’t see a value” in having a referendum on the ownership of Irish Water. 

The government had conceded, and water charges were effectively scrapped. 

At the time, Varadkar said a referendum was not urgent, stating that there was “no possibility of the privatisation” of Irish Water.

He added:

“It’s impossible.

“Who is going to buy it, nobody. It’s hardly relevant anymore…

“It won’t make a blind bit of difference.”

Water supply and ownership 

Fast forward 14 months, and the Cabinet today has given its approval for Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy to contact the Attorney General (AG) to draft amendments to Joan Collins’ Bill on the issue. 

The Independent4Change’s Bill proposes a referendum to amend Article 28 of the Constitution as follows:

The government shall be collectively responsible for the protection, management and maintenance of the public water system. The government shall ensure in the public interest that this resource remains in public ownership and management.

The Bill was passed by the Dáil and was backed by the Right2Water campaign and affiliated trade unions.

Collins has previously explained that there are two aspects in the water charges movement – the issue of payment and the issue of ownership.

‘Water is the new gold’

“To get this in the Constitution will close this down… water is the new gold, we have to protect it,” said the Dublin South Central TD last year. 

The possibility of having a referendum on Irish Water was first put on the agenda when the Oireachtas Committee charged with producing a report on water charges agreed, unanimously without a vote, that a referendum should be held to include the utility in public ownership in the Constitution.

Today, Cabinet approved consultation with the AG to amend the Bill put forward on public ownership by Collins.

A government spokesperson said there are concerns within the government the Bill, in its current form, stating it is “problematic” and could have unintended consequences, particularly to group water schemes. 

It is believed the aim of any text would be to retain public ownership over any body charged with responsibility for the supply of water services. 

It’s understood that considerable progress has been made to date, with a lot of work going on in the background to progress the measures.

The government spokesperson said the government is “anxious” to progress on water supply was a key issue contained in the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil as well as it being a “reaction to the wishes of the Dáil”.

However, despite what has been approved today by Cabinet it is not yet clear when or if a referendum could be held as that depends, in the first instance, on when the Attorney General returns with any proposals and whether government approval on the drafted amendments can be reached. 

Those pushing for a referendum want the matter to expedited with view to holding a referendum in conjunction with the local elections next year.

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