Northern Ireland: Politicians and water charges – the truth

Since the announcement from direct-rule Ministers that water charges are to be imposed in Northern Ireland, the local political parties who shared power in the Assembly have fervently blamed each other for allowing water charges to be introduced.

The arguments vary widely. The DUP criticise the UUP’s pro-Good Friday Agreement stance as a contributing factor to water charges. The DUP also publicly blame the IRA for water charges. The UUP then blame the DUP for the collapse of the Assembly and allowing direct rule Ministers to bring in water charges.

Meanwhile, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have been taking bites out of each other in letter columns of newspapers. Sinn Fein have re-labelled the water tax as the ’Durkan tax’ after SDLP leader Mark Durkan. But, how and where was it agreed to introduce water charges?

On 2 May 2002, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair announced in Belfast the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative (RRI). First and Deputy First Ministers, David Trimble and Mark Durkan, had negotiated this deal on behalf of the Assembly Executive with the government, which would provide an extra £200million extended loan. The RRI however would only allow the Assembly to borrow extra cash from the Exchequer on the condition that it privatise public services and raise extra revenue from raising rates and introducing water charges.

Following the announcement of RRI, a consultation process on the Review of Rating Policy was initiated by the Assembly Executive, with responsibility being shared between the Department of Regional Development and the Department of Finance & Personnel. Both Departments, headed by Minister Peter Robinson (DUP) and Minister Sean Farren (SDLP) respectively, issued a consultation paper in May 2002 (they didn’t wait long!) which was agreed by the Committee for Finance & Personnel, chaired by Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy, and by all the Ministers in the Executive.

In this paper, proposals to increase rates and the introduction of water charges were presented. The last set of "Key Issues" deals with water charges. In this section, it states that people in Northern Ireland do not pay for water. It also states that people in Northern Ireland do not pay as much in taxes as people do in Britain. It continues to say that the RRI "could include water charges as well as the revenue from a reformed rating system". The paper finishes with a question for consultation – "If, following consultation, it is agreed by the Executive and the Assembly to move towards the introduction of water charges, how might any water and sewerage costs be distributed among domestic consumers?" The paper then finishes with a list of options on how people should pay water charges.

Nowhere in the "consultation" paper did it allow for people to oppose the introduction of water charges. This means that the UUP, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein who agreed this consultation paper in the Assembly Executive, all agreed in principle to introduce water charges. A UUP document at the time stated "It is widely recognised that NI has the lowest household rates in the UK. Central government is no longer prepared to sustain subvention at current "Barnett" levels unless the Executive takes steps to address the rates imbalance with the rest of the United Kingdom. Water charging is the largely accepted way of doing so."

Not only in the Assembly Executive are the main local parties guilty of agreeing to water charges, but at local council level there was acceptance of water charges. Many District Councils replied to the document, but none categorically opposed water charges. For example, Cookstown District Council agreed with the position of the working group it established, which was made up of local SDLP, SF, UUP, DUP and IUP Councillors, that water charges should be based on the valuation of property.

In Sinn Fein’s reply, they state they are in favour of "the establishment of a self-financing Public Water Corporation or alternatively through the creation of an independent non-profit distributing entity (similar to Welsh Water)". They go on to say "If water charging were implemented, it would have to be done in a transparently progressive manner". How can water charges be implemented in a "transparently progressive manner?" Water charges are a double-tax. Sinn Fein should also look carefully at how Welsh Water have privatised the water service!

While the local parties shed crocodile tears at direct-rule Ministers imposing water charges, they need to answer their role in agreeing water charges when the Assembly was up and running. Their record shows that in building the We Won’t Pay Campaign we should put pressure on the politicians, but we should not rely on them. We will continue to expose the true nature of the main parties. Their masters are the same masters that New Labour serve – big business.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2004