JUDGING by the initial reaction to the report of the Expert Commission on Domestic Public Water Services, which is about to be considered over the coming months by a Special Oireachtas Committee on Water Charges, it looks like very few – if any – will be paying domestic water charges in the foreseeable future. The Commission diluted the issue further by suggesting that people only pay for ‘excessive’ use of water, but failed to quantify what the threshold levels for this should be, amounting to another convenient fudge.
Whatever recommendations this Oireachtas Committee makes – be it to abolish water charges completely or to retain them in some form – the government is likely to be firmly caught between a rock and a hard place over whether or not to refund the one million Irish Water customers who have already paid their water charges or to hang on to their money and go after those who refused to pay.
The government is, of course, entitled to pursue the defaulters for what is owed, but the legal and political costs of doing so would be enormous and would only serve to further exacerbate the controversy over water charges that has kept coming back to haunt various governments who have tried to introduce and enforce them. Being in charge of such a fragile minority government, very few in Fine Gael – apart notably from Cork South West TD Jim Daly – have the appetite for going after those who did not pay their water charges, given the populist attraction of doing the opposite. Of course, the latter scenario is not fair on those who abided by the laws of the land and paid their charges and, whatever the financial cost, the easy option of refunding them would put the issue of the charges to bed for now – but it won’t solve how we are going to pay for both drinking and waste water treatment and the maintenance and improvement of the networks involved into the future.
Refunding those on public water supply systems who paid their water charges would put them back on a par, financially, with those who refused to pay, even though many people do not want these refunds as they feel that the law is the law and should be obeyed – which is the point that Jim Daly is making when advocating penalties for and pursuit of those who refused to pay. Whether or not one agrees with his stubborn stance on the issue, one has to admire him for sticking to his principles, even though it will likely cause him further electoral damage down the line.
A lot of his party colleagues – many of them at a much more senior level than him – are inclined to countenance giving in to the populist pressure to refund the water charges already paid. With Fianna Fáil somewhat ambivalent about their stance on the matter, Fine Gael people fear that they may become isolated if they try to take the high moral ground on this deeply-divisive issue and become the main fall guys in this debacle, which of course was largely of their own making.
Even refunding those who paid their water charges is likely to cause further discontent among the people with private water supplies who still have to pay the cost of providing and maintaining their own wells or being members of group water schemes, as well as those who have to treat their waste water with septic tanks. This cohort of people scattered throughout rural Ireland has no choice but to pay and must be envious of those who can so readily avail of public services.
If, in future, we revert to paying for our water needs out of general taxation, it will mean that the people with private supplies will be paying on the double. They will have to be compensated somehow with tax credits for the costs they incur in providing their own water supply and treatment facilities.
What the EU bureaucrats will make of the report of the Expert Commission will be interesting, as they are unlikely to be best pleased by its contents. In the meantime, we await the deliberations of the cross-party Special Oireachtas Committee, which may have to recommend leaving the door open for some minimal form of charging for water – that the majority of people won’t have to pay – in order to be seen to comply with the various EU directives on the matter.
This, of course, would further incense proponents of abolishing water charges completely and, with the populist wind at their backs, the cycle of protests would start all over again, creating a rather untenable position for the government, which could lead to its collapse. So, it’s likely to become an all or nothing scenario for water charges.