As Brexit risk looms, parties say ‘50:50’ chance of new government
Exactly a hundred years after the 1916 Rising – and nearly ten weeks after a General Election – the fate of Ireland (or at least its government) is in the hands of these two men.
Caretaker Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has the largest number of seats of any single party, 60, while Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fail has 44 seats.
The key obstacle to agreement to Mr. Martin’s party supporting a Fine Gael-led minority government, according to Mr. Martin, is water charges and the deeply unpopular privatised body collecting them, Irish Water.
Nearly 40 years ago, in a giveaway manifesto designed to get back into power, Fianna Fail swept aside water rates and other means for local authorities to adequately maintain and invest in water facilities.
It meant water has been under the control of local authorities with neither the resources nor the expertise to properly maintain and develop the supply and treatment.
Irish Water was a key policy initiative of Mr Kenny’s outgoing government – demanded by Brussels – and charges were introduced in October 2014, averaging €240 a year for a household. The European Commission says Ireland’s poor water supply and wastewater treatment facilities are holding back growth, competitiveness, housing development and even the environment.
Irish Water had intended to borrow at least €5.5 billion to invest in the country’s water infrastructure.
Aside from the question of paying for water, resisted by some, one reason for the body’s unpopularity was the fear of cronyism associated with all of Ireland’s major political parties (especially Fine Gael as it was the lead party in government) – both in appointing unqualified party hacks to positions within Irish Water and in awarding contracts to party benefactors.
But this week Mr. Martin – who used the fringes of the Arbour Hill 1916 Centenary Commemoration on Sunday to meet for more negotiations – said there is a “50:50 chance” of agreement being reached on a government.
Fianna Fail wants water charges suspended for the duration of the next Dail in return for supporting a minority government from the opposition benches.
Fine Gael is proposing that the suspension last as long as it takes an independent commission on water charges to report back. Consensus had already emerged that Irish Water should be converted to a part-nationalised, semi-state body.
Mr Martin said: “I think the situation has to be resolved fairly soon. I think there will be further engagement and we’ll see what comes from that. The positions are very clear. We would hope we can bring about a resolution (this) week.”
Fine Gael’s acting Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan raised the question of what to do about Irish households who have already paid their water charges but believed compromise could be reached if that was the price of agreeing a government: “I don’t believe we can simply abolish Irish Water and scrap water charges. What about the €110 million that has already been collected? What about the people who have paid?
“I don’t accept the fact that scrapping water charges is in the best interest of the country. We are the only country in Europe without water charges. I do believe we can move towards a position of compromise on this issue, but scrapping water charges is not going to be the answer.”
“I’m saying that the principle of water charges and paying for water is something that must remain. If Fianna Fail is talking about a short-term arrangement that will facilitate a new dimension of paying for water then that is something that can be considered,” said Mr. Flanagan.
Mr. Flanagan’s cabinet and party colleague acting Jobs and Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton said: “There are negotiators who are looking to find some kind of solution to the charging regime. There are solutions that can be found if there is room for compromise on both sides.
“There are real issues around the charging regime and I think we need to find flexibility and compromise in the nature of that. New politics is about co-operation and compromise.
“This issue is going to have to be resolved on way or the other. We need to find a way of working that allows us to find a way forward.”
Meanwhile Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said his party was available for talks but found his offer rebuffed by both Fianna Fail – who called it a publicity stunt – and Fine Gael who said the party had expressly ruled itself out of such talks very early in the process.
Said Mr. Adams: “We would talk to Fine Gael, we would talk to Fianna Fail about a government formation but there are caveats to that.
“We talked to the unionists. We talked to the loyalists, we talked to the British government. We will talk to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.”