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Referendum on water ownership could be held in early 2020, says minister

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said wording for the referendum should be ready in the autumn.
Jul 16th 2019, 6:06 AM 14,862 31

A REFERENDUM TO ensure the water system is kept in public ownership could be held in the first half of 2020, according to Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

In correspondence seen by TheJournal.ie between Murphy and the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, the minister states “it may be possible to facilitate the holding of a referendum in the first half of next year”.

He adds that this would be subject to further consideration and agreement by Government, as well as agreement by the Oireachtas on the proposed wording put to the Irish public in a referendum on the ownership of the Irish water supply.

The minister adds:

My view is that, if the Bill proceeds through the Houses of the Oireachtas, any referendum arising should not be held as a stand-alone poll, but in conjunction with another referendum.

Earlier this year, the government was accused of delaying the holding of a referendum on the future ownership of the water system after the proposal, which was introduced by Independent TD Joan Collins, was passed by the Dáil and considered at Cabinet.

Private Member’s Bill

Last year, Cabinet approved the priority drafting of amendments to a Private Member’s Bill tabled by Collins in 2016 on water ownership.

It proposed holding a referendum that would insert text into article 28 of the Constitution which would keep in public ownership any company or authority responsible for the supply of water services.

Writing to the committee yesterday, the minister said since the Government’s decision last November to proceed with the planned referendum, officials from the Department have “engaged intensively with the Attorney General and with staff from his office and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to develop proposed amendments to the Bill”.

“In drafting an amendment, we need at the very minimum to avoid there being any negative impact on group water schemes and existing private water services arrangements,” said Murphy, adding that this was one of several concerns he had about Collins’ Bill.

Wording to be put to the people

The letter outlines that in recent weeks, progress on putting together wording for the referendum, that would satisfy both government and the opposition, has been made.

The Attorney General’s Office has now written to the department with updated proposals for a draft wording. These are now being legally reviewed and tested.

“An appropriate basis on which a constitutional amendment proposal may be advanced is now beginning to emerge. This approach appears to address the issues identified in my communication and engagement with the Committee and its members to date. I am working towards having revised amendment wording ready for Autumn 2019,” said Murphy in the letter.

In addition, the minister states that the decision by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) on what to charge for excessive use of water is expected to be announced “in the coming days”.

In January, Cabinet decided the threshold for excessive use is to be set at 1.7 times the average household use, with the average consumption per person determined to be 133 litres per day.

As well as discussing the proposed referendum on water ownership, it is understood that an inter-departmental steering group to oversee the separation of Irish Water from the Ervia Group has been set up.

In the committee correspondence, the minister also addressed the issue of the C&AG having a role in auditing Irish Water. With Irish Water still under the umbrella of the Ervia Group, there is no scope for this, said the minister.

“I stress that this is the current position which will change following separation. Providing such a role for the C&AG would necessitate amendments to Irish Water’s governing legislation and to the C&AG legislation. There is of course sufficient time to do this,” he said.

The Water Advisory Body (WAB) which was established in June 2018 to advise the minister on the measures needed to improve the transparency and accountability of Irish Water is due to report shortly.

In 2017, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that he “doesn’t see a value” in having a referendum on the ownership of Irish Water.

However, with pressure placed on government last year, Cabinet agreed to put down amendments to Collins’ Bill.

Collins has always stated that there were two aspects in the water charges movement – the issue of payment and the issue of ownership.

“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.

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