By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Irish Examiner Political Correspondent
A former Fianna Fáil environment minister has contradicted his party leader by saying it is “nonsense” to chase people who are refusing to pay water charges, and that refunds should be given by the State.
Ex-TD Noel Dempsey made his comments just 24 hours before the cross-party Dáil committee on water charges tasked with addressing the controversy meets for the first time tomorrow .
Speaking on RTÉ radio as it emerged that Irish Water has spent a massive €5m on business strategists, lawyers, and PR experts since charges were suspended six months ago, Mr Dempsey said he was shocked by the ongoing spending.
Asked for his views on what should happen next, the former Meath TD — who held the transport, communications, environment, and education portfolios between 1997 and 2011 — said there is no point in trying to force non-payers to pay the debts and that refunds must be made.
“The notion that you can charge people who didn’t pay is a nonsense,” he said. People who did pay should be refunded. But that will probably be fudged.”
The comment is likely to surprise Fianna Fáil headquarters and comes as pressure grows both within Government and on the Opposition benches for refunds to be given to people who paid water charges.
While the party’s official position is that it wants to see a cost-benefit analysis of both refunds and forcing non-payers to repay the debt before deciding on what action to take, party leader Micheál Martin has made it clear he believes non-payers should be pursued.
Earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “I believe in people obeying the laws” and that the focus “should be on pursuing people who haven’t paid”.
It emerged at the weekend that Irish Water has spent over €5m on strategists, lawyers, and PR advisers, among other costs, in the six months since the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil saw the charges frozen. The company confirmed to a Sunday newspaper that despite effectively being in limbo since May it is still spending almost €3,000 a month on PR expertise.
In addition, it has paid €406,268 during the period to Ernst & Young for legal advice, and €123,570 to consultancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, among other expenditure.
The significant costs are likely to be discussed at tomorrow’s first official meeting of the Dáil cross-party committee on water, which has been tasked with examining the future of water services in Ireland and how they should be funded.
An independent Government-commissioned report last month concluded that the vast majority of people should no longer have to pay fees, although an unspecified number will still pay charges, yet to be outlined.
These recommendations must now be discussed by the committee of Government and Opposition TDs and senators, which has been asked to make its own recommendations to the Dáil by next March.
Anti-water charges campaigners say that if political parties are to adhere to their pre-election promises they should vote to scrap water charges completely next March.