The Irish Times – Saturday, April 21, 2012. Harry McGee
The first serious blow against domestic charges was struck shortly after Fianna Fáil came to power in 1977. Its manifesto in that election had promised to abolish domestic rates, and it came good on the promise in the budget of early 1978. Deprived of this funding, local authorities became dependent on a central government fund and were described by critics as “toothless”.
In 1985, the then tánaiste, Dick Spring of Labour (pictured), partially reversed the decision when he facilitated the introduction of a local-authority domestic-service levy.
But in 1985, when local authorities tried to reintroduce water charges, they encountered varying degrees of opposition, at its most concerted in Dublin. Dublin Corporation and county council eventually decided not to reintroduce the domestic service and water charges, leaving an anomaly between the capital and the rest of the country, where everyone else was paying water charges.
The issue re-emerged in 1994 when Dublin County Council was split into three. A fresh attempt was made to introduce water charges in Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county-council areas. A campaign opposing the charge continued for more than two years, involving disconnections and court cases, some of which were successfully appealed.
The decisive moment came in 1996, when a byelection was held in Dublin West following the death of Brian Lenihan snr. While his son Brian, who has also since died, won the seat, he was only a hair’s breadth ahead of Joe Higgins, who stood as an anti-water-charge candidate and polled 23 per cent of first preferences.
In that byelection, the Labour candidate Michael O’Donovan got less than 4 per cent of the vote, and it was widely thought that then environment minister Brendan Howlin’s decision to abolish water charges (which were then flat charges) was in response to the byelection defeat.
He did so despite a report prepared for his department by consultants KPMG that recommended the introduction of meters.
Between then and last year’s general election, Labour has opposed water charges. In the Dáil debate on the Water Services Bill (which was long-fingered) Eamon Gilmore, then Labour’s environment spokesman, said: “The legislation is a thinly disguised attempt to privatise the water supply. Going hand in hand with that is a formula to get around the 1997 Act and reintroduce water charges by another name, be that a rent for the meter or a straight-up charge. It is our duty as an opposition to oppose this legislation.”
It sounds very like the argument currently being used by opponents of Irish Water.
The Green Party did want water to be metered but could not convince Fianna Fáil to include it in their programme for government in 2007. However, it was included in the revised programme in 2009. Subsequently, the introduction of meters formed part of the memorandum of understanding agreed with the troika in late 2010.
In its programme for government the Fine Gael and Labour coalition also stated that its objective was to install water meters in every household in Ireland.
For Labour, that represented a change, given the party had opposed the charges in opposition.