SURELY the time has come to resolve, once and for all, the issue of how we are to pay for our necessary water services? The prospect of the water charges issue being allowed to bring down a government appears absurd, when one considers that the deficiencies in our public housing and health services are infinitely more serious for and important to people.
Yet again, it has become a political football, which is calling various parties’ bluffs on the matter, most notably Fianna Fáil when they tried to embarrass Fine Gael leadership contender and Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney by pushing him hard to introduce legislation abolishing water charges. However, the Minister was not for turning and was adamant that he was not going to defy the advice of the Attorney General that such legislation would contravene European Union directives and expose Ireland to the prospect of heavy fines for doing so.
Fianna Fáil have been changing their position on the necessity for water charges to sail with the populist winds and their flip-flop on the issue leading up to last year’s general election helped them recapture some of the seats they had lost in 2011, while Fine Gael – by sticking to their principles about keeping water charges – did themselves huge electoral damage. Despite still being the party with the greatest number of seats, but only just, it led to them only being able to form a minority government with a handful of independents and dependent for its survival on an unprecedented ‘Supply and Confidence Agreement’ with their fierce tribal rivals, Fianna Fáil, in whose gift it is to bring down the administration at any time of its choosing.
After all the brinksmanship of the past two weeks over the water charges issue, it seems that now is not the time to collapse the government, because neither of the two parties have the resources to fight an election, which they conveniently maintain the people of the country do not want at this stage. So the water charges issue has been kicked into touch again.
Having been the party who agreed to the introduction of water charges as part of the programme for government from 2007 to 2011 with the Green Party, and then having had their hand forced on the matter by the EU-IMF-ECB troika, Fianna Fáil have subsequently gone completely the other way, advocating their permanent abolition at meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. This fits well for them right now because there is no way enough support can be mustered in the Dáil to support the re-introduction of water charges.
Fine Gael are taking a principled stance that some form of separate water charges should be imposed – which would exclude households who use their water responsibly and stay below a certain threshold – but this cannot be properly quantified without using water meters, which are also an emotive topic and they have not been installed across the whole country, so such charges could not be applied fairly. Paying for water services out of general taxation would not be fair on people who already have to pay for their own private water supplies, so there is no easy answer.
By not having charges for public water supplies, there is no financial incentive for consumers to embrace water conservation. There are so many conundrums, but one thing is certain, the supply of potable drinking water does not come cheap and, whatever way it is done, it has to be paid for either through ring-fenced direct taxation, which could mean an increase in income tax rates, or the increasingly less-likely scenario of separate water charges.
One way or the other, the political parties urgently need to agree how it will be done and end this exceedingly-tiresome debate that has dragged on for far too long.