After a ten hour marathon session of the Oireachtas Water Committee last Tuesday, Fianna Fáil finally caved into Fine Gael on water charges.
In a series of votes, Barry Cowen and his team opposed proposals which only days before they enthusiastically supported.
As u-turns go, and Fianna Fáil have had a fair few on water, this was pretty spectacular.
To understand the fractured and at times farcical goings on at the Water Committee you have to go back to 2014 and the rise of the Right2Water movement.
People had endured six years of bruising austerity from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Cuts to services, increased taxes and the indignity of billions of euros of taxpayers money being paid out to rotten banks and greedy bond holders generated widespread anger.
The introduction of water charges by Phil Hogan was the last straw. Allan Kelly’s arrogance added fuel to the fire. An allegedly compliant people finally started to protest. The scale of mobilisation was unprecedented. The Right2Water movement was born.
Contrary to the claims of its critics Right2Water is not an anti tax movement. At its core is the defence of water as a vital public service; opposition to its commodification and privatisation; and a credible and costed proposal for tackling the decades of neglect and underfunding of that service by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
The movement was not just an expression of opposition to austerity but a positive counterweight to the policies that caused the economic crash – namely financialization, speculation and greed.
One of its many achievements was to force Fianna Fáil to change their long standing commitment to water charges and service privatisation. Ever attuned to popular opinion the party who first introduced the charge in 2010 gave clear manifesto commitment in 2016 to scrap the charge.
The strength of the Right2Water movement on the streets and the presence of 38 Right2Water TDs in the 32nd Dáil prevented Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from reaching a deal on water during the coalition negotiations.
So they kicked the can down the road with an Expert Commission and a Special Oireachtas Committee.
The deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was clear. Each party reserved the right to hold different positions on any legislation that emerged from this process. But the Government made a clear commitment to “facilitate the passage of legislation (whether it be a money bill or otherwise) for the implementation of the recommendations in relation to domestic water charging supported by the Oireachtas (including abolition, a reformed charging regime or other options).”
The continued popular mobilisation by Right2Water had a direct baring on the work of the Expert Commission. Their report surprised many for its acceptance of the policy proposals and political reality of Right2Water.
This influence was carried through into the Water Committee. Although we only had a quarter of its members, we carried the weight of the hundreds of thousands who campaigned against the charge.
The dynamics of the Committee were clear from the outset. Fine Gael and Right2Water had defined positions from the outset. Fianna Fáil kept their cards close to their chest at first. In the final weeks they opposed, then supported, then opposed again and then finally supported the Fine Gael position.
The main sticking point was a proposal for a volumetric metered charge for so called excessive use of domestic water. Fine Gael said this was required under EU law. Right2Water believed the proposal was nothing more than a Trojan Horse for the future reintroduction of universal water charges.
During private sessions at the end of March Fine Gael, faced with an emerging majority against their proposal, appeared to concede. Minister Coveney tweeted approval.
Leo Varadkar’s sharp rebuke, delivered in the pages of the Sunday Business Post, forced Fine Gael to reconsider. Their members returned to Committee looking to unwind the previous weeks progress.
Caught between an divided and intransigent Fine Gael and a focused and mobilised Right2Water, Fianna Fáil had to make a choice.
The final draft report concluded on Wednesday April 5th –after seven straight hours in Committee- reflected the Right2Water position.
Charges were gone. Mandatory metering was gone. Domestic water services would be funded through general taxation and government borrowing. Refunds were proposed. Equity for group water schemes was proposed. A raft of conservation measures were included. Importantly a referendum on public ownership was promised, to prevent future privatisation.
The report was sent to Senior Council for a final check and given the all clear in writing by Thursday morning.
Fine Gael had lost the argument. Their water policy had been defeated. Right2Water’s alternative had the support of a majority on the Committee.
Faced with defeat in the Dáil and possibly in his leadership bid Minister Coveney threw the dice one final time. He sent a strongly worded letter to the Committee at 11pm on Friday April 7th. The sub text was clear, ‘Set democracy aside, give me what I demand or I will force an election”.
While the initial Fianna Fáil response was hostile, the reality of stagnant poll numbers quickly sank in. Micheal Martin had two choices – stand up to Simon Coveney and risk a general election or rip up their manifesto commitment on water charges, throw Barry Cowen to the wolves to keep the Confidence and Supply Agreement going. An so he caved in.
The final report has a lot of merit and the broad Right2Water movement can rightly take the credit for that. But we wont sign up to water charges through the back door so our campaign will continue.
But with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael now claiming victory on the detail of the charge for so called excessive use a battle is looming over the legislation to give effect to the reports recommendations. The never ending debate on water charges has some way to go yet.
First published in the Sunday Business Post 16.4.17