Our thanks go to Wikipedia and all those who contributed to this short synopsis of the Irish water controversy since the mid 1970s. We included the numbered links to the excellent references in the original article.
It may be pertinent or it may be one hell of a coincidence that this contentious history starts just a few years after Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1st January 1973. Indeed history will verify that European bureaucrats and international financiers have for the past 40 years been involved in putting political pressure on Ireland to charge domestic users for water. This pressure culminated in the Banking Crisis of 2007-2008 which eventually led Brian Lenihan on behalf of the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition signing a bailout agreement with the EU/IMF, the European Troika on 16th December, 2010.
Top prize must go to the quote by John Gormley, Green Party. This quote epitomises political expediency practiced by all relevant parties in the modern day history of Irish water supply
"In 2008, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, Green Party leader and former Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1994–1995 during the water charges conflict, said that domestic water charges would not be introduced during the lifetime of the government."
We hope the Wikipedia page will be updated soon and if so that more emphasis be put on 'The Water Services Act 2013', legislation which gave legal approval for the creation of Irish Water Ltd, water charges and metering. If this information is added it will be interesting to see whether anything will be said about why none of the opposing political parties deemed it not necessary to call for it abolition.
History since 1977
The history of water supply in Ireland since the mid-1970s was dominated by controversies about whether there should be charges for domestic water supply. Domestic water charges were first abolished in 1977, only to be reintroduced by some local authorities following legislation in 1983 authorising them to do so. Domestic water charges were then prohibited by legislation in 1997 following an anti-water charges campaign from 1994 to 1997. This resulted in a legal prohibition of domestic water charges at national level.
First abolition of domestic water charges
Domestic rates, which financed the cost of water services were abolished for the first time by a Fianna Fáil government, following the 1977 general election. In the same period, an increase took place in Income Tax and Value Added Tax. The revenue from these increases, and from borrowing which was very high during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was to be used to fund the local authorities, which had previously relied on domestic rates for their funding. From then on the central government paid a "rate support grant" to Local Authorities.
However, in 1983 the then Fine Gael-Labour government decided to cut this grant and passed legislation to allow councils to levy service charges. This was perceived by some as "double taxation", since the previously increased taxes remained at their high levels. Opponents also argued that rates were unrelated to consumption and that there were insufficient provisions to protect the poor.
Dublin fight against water charges 1994–1997
Many councils decided to introduce water charges, while others such as Dublin initially decided against introducing them. After water charges were introduced in Dublin in 1994, an anti-water charges campaign was initiated and included demonstrations and a boycott of the new charges. The city threatened to cut the water supply to those who did not pay. After lengthy court battles, some non-paying users were cut off, but the non-payment of water charges continued. On 19 December 1996, on the eve of general elections, the Minister for the Environment Brendan Howlin from the Labour Party of the Rainbow Government of Fine Gael–Labour Party–Democratic Left announced that the water charge was going to be replaced by a new system in which motor tax collected in each area would be the source for local council funding.
Second abolition of domestic water charges
Domestic water charges in Ireland were thus prohibited under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997, passed in May 1997 shortly before the June 1997 general elections in which Fine Gael lost to Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern. However, given popular discontent the new government chose not to pursue domestic water charges. Instead, it embarked on extensive consultations which resulted in the 1998 water services pricing policy. The policy banned cross-subsidy of domestic services from non-domestic charges. For non-domestic users, the policy required the recovery of average operational and marginal capital costs of water services from these users. It also foresaw the metering of all non-domestic users by 2006. Domestic operational costs were to be paid for through a local government fund, and capital costs were to be financed through the capital programme of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
As a result, according to one critical observer, "a generation of people is growing up without realizing that water is expensive to deliver". According to a water industry source, Irish households use more water than UK metered equivalents. Investment costs are rising as water is accessed from further afield and from water bodies that are potentially sensitive fish habitats.
Water Services Bill 2003
The Water Services Bill 2003 was presented to the Oireachtas by then Environment Minister, Martin Cullen of Fianna Fáil. The bill was designed to consolidate Ireland's existing body of 15 different enactments into a single act, and to transpose EU water legislation. Cullen called it "the first root and branch consolidation and modernisation of water services law for more than 120 years since the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878", adding that "like the Victorian sewers which we have upgraded or replaced, this Bill replaces Victorian legislation with a new modern legal framework." The bill covered the management of water supply and sanitation, not wider environmental issues surrounding water resources.
In September 2004 Cullen's successor, Environment Minister Dick Roche, also of Fianna Fáil, defended the proposed bill in Dáil Éireann. There he was faced with charges that the bill was a "Trojan horse to introduce privatisation and domestic water charges". The Opposition also criticised the lack of a statutory right of access to water in the bill, lack of public participation in the review of proposed strategic plans, calling the bill "a thinly disguised attempt to privatise the water supply" as well as "a formula to get around the 1997 Act and re-introduce water charges by another name." Ultimately, the bill was not passed.
According to one commentator, if the Water Services Bill, 2003, had been passed earlier and implemented effectively, people would not now have had to boil their drinking water in Galway in 2007 because of an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis.
2007 Water Services Act
In May 2007, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition enacted the Water Services Act 2007. As well as updating and consolidating existing legislation, the Act also:
- introduced a licensing system to regulate group water schemes
- assigned the EPA with responsibility for supervision of sanitary authority water supplies
- strengthened administrative arrangements for planning the delivery of water services at national and local level
- placed duties of care on water services users regarding water conservation; prevention of risk to public health and the environment; and the protection of collection and distribution networks.
Fianna Fáil-Green Party government (2007–2011) policy
In 2008, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, Green Party leader and former Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1994–1995 during the water charges conflict, said that domestic water charges would not be introduced during the lifetime of the government. He also said water shortages would be a key issue that Ireland would have to grapple with in the future. The Minister said there were other ways of tackling potential shortages which have already left some larger urban areas – particularly Dublin – struggling to meet demand during prolonged dry spells. The main focus of government policy would be to reduce the leakages from main water supply pipes.
In October 2009, however, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party agreed on a Renewed Programme for Government, which pledged to introduce domestic water charges based on a system of a free allowance per household, with charges only on usage in excess of the allowance. In October 2010, the administration's 'National Recovery Plan 2010–2014' pledged that metering would form part of charges. Metering was to be introduced by 2014. As part of the EC-ECB-IMF Programme of Assistance to Ireland, agreed in November 2010, the Coalition agreed to the introduction of domestic water charges in 2012/2013.
Fine Gael-Labour government policy (since 2011)
In March 2011, the new Fine Gael-Labour government's Programme for Government (2011–2016) contained commitments to a water policy similar to the previous government.
In January 2012, the Minister of Environment, Phil Hogan, announced a six-week consultation on a planned fundamental reform of the water sector. Following that, a metered domestic water charges would be introduced and a new public utility, Irish Water, would be established and take over responsibilities for drinking and waste water services from the local authorities. Independent economic regulation, through the Commission for Energy Regulation, would oversee the new utility's running costs, infrastructural investment plans and the design and level of domestic and non-domestic water charges.
In July 2013, Irish Water was legally established and began a national metering programme, incorporating 1,600 jobs pre-existing during the three and a half-year programme. The company was expected to initially install meters for approximately 1.05 million households. Domestic water charges were scheduled to commence in October 2014, with households receiving their first bills in Quarter 1 2015, with bills paid for usage in arrears.
From 1 January 2014, Irish Water would become the national water services authority, assuming all responsibilities for water services from local authorities except for those relating to certain rural water services and inspections of wastewater treatment systems. Ireland's 34 local authorities were to continue to provide some drinking and waste water services on behalf of Irish Water through a service level agreement.