Stormont ministers have been warned that they will face “large-scale opposition” — including a non-payment campaign — if they impose a new tap tax on hard-pressed households.
Water charges are now very much on the agenda of the four-party Executive in the light of growing pressures on public spending.
Well-placed Stormont sources are indicating that the introduction of household water bills in 2011 is looking increasingly “inevitable”.
However, that timescale would see charges being introduced in Assembly election year.
Each of the Executive parties fought the last Stormont poll on manifestos opposing a tap tax blueprint drawn up by direct rule ministers
They have repeatedly deferred the introduction of charges since the restoration of devolution in 2007.
The costs of postponement are mounting up — MLAs have been told ongoing deferrals will cost the Executive an estimated £1 billion over the period 2010-2013.
The hints on charges from senior Stormont sources are not being well received by the organisations that spearheaded campaigns against the direct rule tap tax scheme.
These included the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the umbrella body for the union movement here. It was poised to support a non-payment campaign in 2007 in league with protest groups like Communities Against the Water Tax.
Opposition campaigners argue that households here are already paying for their water through their rates. ICTU assistant general secretary Peter Bunting told the Belfast Telegraph: “Any attempts to force families to pay separate water charges will be resisted with the same vigour as was displayed two years ago.
“Any politician who is contemplating these unjust charges ought to remember that those expected to pay will be more than passive consumers, they are voters and citizens who will have their say at the ballot box.”
Manus Maguire, coordinator of Communities Against the Water Tax, said: “Nothing has changed since 2007 — we still pay for water through our rates.
“The four Executive parties were elected on an anti-water charges ticket. There is still massive opposition to separate water charges — as they well know.
“If they try to force this through in 2011, that will give us a year and a half to organise a large-scale non-payment campaign.”
The issue of water charges was examined by an independent expert panel set up under devolution in 2007.
It recommended that households be charged through an additional component on their rates bills.
The Government-appointed panel also found that people here had been paying some £160 per household per year through their rates for water and sewerage services.
But it said that money raised through the rates did not cover the full costs of these services.
A major factor driving the tap tax plans has been the need for a multi-million pound investment in upgrading water and sewerage services to meet European Union anti-pollution standards.
What parties said about tap tax
Parties were opposed to water charges in their 2007 manifestoes
Sinn Fein: The party fought the 2007 Assembly election on a manifesto which listed “no water charges” as one of its priorities.
In an election platform article for the Belfast Telegraph in February 2007, Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney wrote: “If we get a fresh, enhanced mandate Sinn Fein will go back into Stormont and block water charges at every opportunity.”
Asked about this pledge last year, Mr McCartney pointed to the independent panel on water charges set up under devolution.
He stated: “If people read the Sinn Fein manifesto, they will be very clear as to what our position was. We said no to double charging, that there should be an end to the direct rule regime and that there should be an open, transparent debate on how we move forward. The independent panel was the way to do that.”
DUP: Peter Robinson responded to tap tax plans tabled by a direct rule minister in March 2003 with the comment: “With water charges of around £400 per household a year being considered it is essential that the costly bureaucracy associated with the Belfast Agreement is slashed before people are asked to pay more for services they are already funding.”
The DUP leader and First Minister made similar remarks in a speech just last week, saying: “As Finance Minister I approached the first budget of the new Executive with the simple premise that Northern Ireland householders should not be asked to pay more while the public sector remained inefficient. That remains my position.”
The DUP's 2007 Assembly manifesto said there “does not need to be a significant increase in the overall tax burden”.
UUP: The UUP's 2007 manifesto called for a capping of tap tax bills at £100, while a “fairer, more sustainable” alternative was devised under devolution.
Senior UUP MLA Fred Cobain had taken a tough line on water charges, saying in May last year: “People will feel betrayed.
“If water charges do come in, they are actually being betrayed.”
Mr Cobain also said: “These are the people who before the last election were telling the electorate to say no to water charges.
“These are the people who were elected on this slogan.”
SDLP: In its 2007 manifesto, the SDLP said: “The SDLP opposed water charges in Westminster and will continue to do so in the Assembly.”