Would the reported Fine Gael & Fianna Fáil deal on water charges go far enough?

With details of a possible arrangement emerging, how would it tally with the pledges made ahead of the election?

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File photo of Right2Water protest. Image: RollingNews.ie

As talks continue between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over a possible arrangement for a minority government, it is clear that the issue of water charges remains one of the major obstacles between the two parties.

It is now believed that both parties have agreed to put a hold on water charges, until a new system with generous allowances is put in place.

It is also understood that the controversial utility would change to a public utility, rather than a commercial one.

While there has been no confirmation of the deal, if an agreement is reached it would prove a significant breakthrough and likely lead the way towards the formation of a new minority government.

In their election manifesto, Fine Gael reaffirmed their commitment to Irish Water, stating, "we will keep water charges at their current level until 2018. Any rise in average charges after 2018 will be limited to, at most, the overall rate of consumer price inflation". The reported deal would mark a notable departure from that position.

In contrast, Fianna Fáil pledged to "abolish Irish Water and create a new slimmed down agency to deliver the national water investment programme" as well as "ending the failed water charges regime". While it seems unlikely any arrangement with Fine Gael will go that far, any compromise from FG will be seen as something of a win (however minor) for Micheál Martin's party - if not necessarily by the other opposition parties.

Water charges were a major policy issue for several other political groupings during the recent election campaign - unsurprising, given the huge turnouts seen at anti water charge demonstrations over the last few years. In their manifesto, Sinn Féin said they would "abolish domestic water charges and dismantle Irish Water" and hold a referendum "to enshrine the public ownership of Ireland’s water services".

The Social Democrats said charges should be abolished, with Irish Water reconstituted as a public body. The Anti Austerity Alliance, meanwhile, also called for the abolition of charges and Irish Water, with water infrastructure funded through the central taxation system.

AAA TD Paul Murphy spoke to Pat Kenny about the potential arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and whether or not it goes far enough.

"Unfortunately the deal that's going to be done, if it's done, will be something that's politically expedient for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael," he argued.

"From Fianna Fáil's point of view, they're trying to get off the hook of the fact that they stood for election on the basis of abolition of Irish Water and suspension of water charges for at least five years. And it will be less than that - I think that's what's indicated - and they'll have a bit of breathing space with suspension. Then they'll come back in with the charges.

"They may start with... an allowance, but then the allowance will go down. I think that is inevitable. The example of the bin charges is a powerful example. We went through this entire experience before. For that reason I think the anti water charges movement will not accept the idea of charging for water or the continuation of Irish Water as an entity," he added.

The details of any deal will certainly be key, and reveal the cost of any new arrangement. It has been suggested that the cost of completely abolishing Irish Water would be €7bn to the State, while the Department of the Environment has estimated that the net cost of scrapping charges would be around €210m a year. 

However, the Social Democrats and others have previously estimated that, under the current system, "even if everyone paid their water bill, the money collected would do nothing other than cover the costs of the water meters and the costs of billing". 

If the deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is agreed, it will certainly be seen as a significant development. However, it seems very unlikely indeed that it will mark an end to one of the most contentious political issues of recent times.

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