Belfast Telegraph

Water saga 'no threat to coalition'

The Irish Government has moved to play down any threat to the future of the coalition after an unprecedented split between the ruling parties over a deepening water charges saga.

Fine Gael and Labour voted against each other - for the first time since the government was formed in March 2011 - in the Seanad, or upper house, on an Opposition proposal to hold a right-to-water referendum.

The schism laid bare tensions within the three-and-half-year-old partnership and heaped further confusion on to the public about the new utility bills.

It also followed attempts by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to dampen a declaration by the Tanaiste Joan Burton that the controversial tap tax will cost a family of two parents and two adult children less than 200 euro a year.

Under fire about the apparent revelation, Fine Gael leader Mr Kenny claimed his Labour counterpart Ms Burton made the remarks in a "personal capacity".

Ms Burton, social protection minister and part of an inner Cabinet responsible for steering the country's economy, revealed her predicted costs to an average family in the Dail while being questioned by Socialist TD Joe Higgins.

Both her own aides and government sources attempted to row back on the comments last night.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin insisted she could not have been speaking in a personal capacity, as she is deputy leader of the government and was answering questions in the parliament.

Ms Burton today defended her estimate for a water bill for average families.

"My personal hope is that for some of the family types who were being described yesterday that the cost of the bill including or net of the water support payment will come in around 200 euro or below," she said.

"And I'm very confident that the Taoiseach and I are very much on the same page on that."

Asked after her junior coalition party openly voted against Fine Gael in the Seanad if she believed the coalition is now under threat from the continuing fall-out, she replied: "I don't believe so."

The upper house had to be suspended twice during heated outbursts over the Fianna Fail motion demanding a referendum to ensure water is never privatised.

The proposal was passed by 37 votes to 15.

Mr Kenny again insisted the government had not made a decision on the price of water charges yet.

The so-called inner Cabinet, the Economic Management Council, which is made up of Mr Kenny, Ms Burton, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin, are to meet tomorrow to debate the imminent charges.

It is expected an announcement will be made within the next two weeks.

Pointing out that he was not directly involved in water charge discussions, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said he expected annual bills would be in the region of 250 euro for an average household.

Environment Minster Alan Kelly, who will attend tomorrow's talks, described his party leader Ms Burton's estimations yesterday as a "reasonable assessment" of what could be expected.

"I believe that we are working towards ensuring that all charges will be reasonable and fair," he said.

"I think what the Tanaiste said yesterday is a reasonable assessment. I support her in that.

"I'm quite confident that we will be able to develop a package that brings people with us."

Separately, Mr Kelly appeared to rule out the prospect of Revenue officials chasing people for unpaid bills.

The Government signalled it will revise the water charges after around 150,000 people took to the streets over the weekend in a wave of mass nationwide protests.

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