For the opposition, Irish Water is the gift that keeps on giving — even more so when that gift involves an internal Government row about giving €100 to people refusing to pay their charges.
Over the past 24 hours Irish Water has caused yet more havoc for the Coalition after reports that the “water conservation” grant — seen by some as little more than a bribe — would only be given to people paying their bills.
The suggestion was quickly shot down by Environment Minister Alan Kelly, Tánaiste Joan Burton, Transport Minister Paschal Donohue, and others, but the controversy has at the very least given the opposition two fresh areas in which to attack the Government in the final months before a general election.
Despite the plan being denied by senior members of the Cabinet, it is clear that Labour and a section of Fine Gael backbenchers are no longer seeing eye-to-eye on a key matter of policy.
And when, depending on who you listen to, that policy relates to either wasting taxpayers’ money on a grant given to people refusing to pay water charges or taking money away from struggling would-be voters, it is yet another no-win situation for the Coalition and an open goal for an opposition constantly waiting to pounce.
Under the current water conservation grant, anyone registered with Irish Water before the end of June is entitled to receive a €100 fee to help them conserve water.
The fund was introduced last autumn during the first of the Coalition’s multiple U-turns on Irish Water as it attempted to convince people to sign up while smoothing over Phil Hogan’s less-than-subtle approach.
Over the subsequent months, Labour and Fine Gael were at pains to stress the €100 was not a bribe but rather an incentive to use water more responsibly — an explanation that led on to the then-unmade Eurostat decision on whether Irish Water is a private firm.
After the EU group’s ruling that Irish Water must remain on the exchequer’s books, and its swipe at the grant in particular, it appears a number of Government TDs have now given up on the argument — this time with one eye on the safety of their own Dáil seats.
Fine Gael TDs Eoghan Murphy, Paul Connaughton, Brendan Griffin, and Ray Butler, along with Senator Catherine Noone, have all raised concerns and “deep unease” over people who are registered with Irish Water but not paying bills receiving the fund.
That deep unease undoubtedly relates to would-be Fine Gael voters who are more likely to pay their bills, as most members of the public would be more than happy to receive €100 for no reason, more than the wider population itself.
It is no surprise then, that on the same evening as the comments were made, media leaks suggested the grant — for which people are being told how to apply from today — will soon be limited to billpayers only, following a Fine Gael pushback.
The argument, while controversial, has a certain logic if the Government is willing to finally admit the grant is little more than a bribe to pay Irish Water bills.
However, it provoked a sharp denial from Labour ministers who insisted no changes are planned, prompting Fine Gael to follow suit.
[Saying 'no changes are planned' is not a lie because no changes are needed. Legislation already exists to connect the paying of bills as a condition of receiving the bribe – in the form of the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 (water charges section) – Fliuch]
Labour headquarters was adamant the first it knew of any proposed changes was through the media. One figure questioned “if it was a co-ordinated attempt by Fine Gael”, although its Coalition colleague rejected this, saying it is only a matter for the Department of the Environment.
Whether the latest Irish Water controversy is about nervous backbenchers speaking out of turn, a genuine dispute within the Coalition over the €100 grant, or a hidden new plan slipping out into the open, it is not good news for Government.
While Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin were reluctant to clarify whether they would take away the money from families or be happy to give it to people refusing to pay the charges — preferring to claim the Government does not know where it stands — the problem currently lies solely with the Coalition.
But then, when it comes to Irish Water, doesn’t it always?