The Government’s decision to hold a referendum aimed at ensuring that water supply is retained in public ownership is a positive move which should pave the way for a more rational debate in the future about how water services are delivered and paid for.
One of the red herrings in the acrimonious debate that led to the abandonment of Irish Water’s plan to introduce a graduated system of household water charges was the claim that this was a first step towards the privatisation of water.
The amendment to the Constitution being proposed by the Government should put an end to this argument once and for all and allow for a mature debate on how the State can best comply with the EU water framework directive.
The Government decision to act was triggered by concern about content of a number of Opposition Bills proposing a referendum on water
While some have voiced concern as to whether yet another change to the Constitution is necessary, it represents the best way of ensuring that the clear public desire to retain the supply of water in State ownership is protected.
Drafting will now begin on the amendment approved by the Cabinet this week which will stipulate that ownership of a water services authority must be retained by the State or a State-controlled body. The Government decision to act was triggered by concern about content of a number of Opposition Bills proposing a referendum on water, particularly a Private Members' Bill tabled by Dublin South Central TD Joan Collins in 2016.
Attorney General Seamus Woulfe advised the Cabinet that there were flaws in the wording of this Bill, including the risk that it would prevent Irish Water from entering into public-private partnerships. The pressure for a referendum has come not just in the form of Opposition Bills. In 2017, the Oireachtas committee on the future of water charges supported holding a referendum on the future of water services.
The referendum will probably not take place until the middle of next year at the earliest as the Government has also promised a referendum on article 41 of the Constitution, which refers to a woman’s place in the home. It would make sense to deal with both referenda on the same day.