Sinn Féin disputes claim water charges cannot be removed

The EU directive on water makes it clear that there is no route to abolishing water charges, the leaked assessment claims

Sinn Féin disputes claim water charges cannot be removed

A GMC|Sierra worker during water meter installations in Glasnevin, Dublin | Image: Brian Lawless / PA Archive/PA Images

Sinn Féin is disputing a leaked legal opinion claiming Ireland cannot roll back water charges.

After seeking legal advice, Irish Water was warned that there is no way to abolish charges and provide water for free. 

However, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan said this was not the case, and called on Irish Water's parent company Ervia to publish the legal advice it in full.

"We have it in black-and-white from the Commission, regardless of a legal opinion or not, saying that there's no obligation on Ireland to use individual consumption to be fully in compliance with the Water Framework Directive (WFD), said Boylan.

Water charges are seen as a stumbling block to potential coalition talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who hold opposing positions on payment.

Reports at the weekend suggested that the deadlock may push the country towards a second election, but Anti-Austerity Alliance Paul Murphy believes that the promise of Michael Martin and his party to abolish water charges might not come to pass

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, Murphy said "I don't trust Fianna Fáil as far as I can thrown them [...] the only way to ensure abolition is to do two things. One is to step up the boycott and the second thing is we need a massive, united demonstration on the streets". 

As a result of the legal advice given to Irish Water, Fianna Fáil's position on the matter is no longer tenable, and speaking on Newstalk's Lunchtime show, Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the UCD Sutherland School of Law Gavin Barrett explained that it was something that all political parties should have known already. 

"The WFD was introduced a number of years ago at European level with the idea of regulating water supplies in Europe and ensuring pollution be minimised and security of supplies.

"One of the tenets of the WFD is the idea that the polluter or the consumer essentially pays and that there must be some relation between the consumption of water and paying for the cost of that water". 

Barrett argues that there is no excuse for all parties involved in the negotiations to claim ignorance on this front "because it has been obvious for quite some time that this was the case". 

"They should have known it," added Barrett "that is certainly the case [...] it was open to anyone to get a copy of the directive, we all know the WFD is out there, it was open to any of the political parties to read it, and I was simply astonished myself with the attitude of many of the political parties going in there and behaving as if European Union law simply didn't exist". 

Barrett outlines that there had been a way for countries which had an "established practice" of not charging for water included in the WFD, but since the adoption of legislation on the matter, there is now no way to roll back that would not leave Ireland in violation of EU laws. 

The consequences of such a breach are serious, as it means that Ireland could be prosecuted by the Commission in front of European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, as Barrett explains:

"There are specific provisions for very hefty fines and indeed, running penalty payments; in other words payments on a daily or weekly basis as a result of you continuing to break the law. There really is no way out in relation to this".

Another suggestion was that there could be a suspension of charges while the new government or coalition finds a way to deal with the issue, and possibly abolish Irish Water.

However, this is yet another dead end, as Barrett states that "there's no provision for suspending your compliance with EU law, you're either in compliance with it or you're not".