Nothing has changed on accountability front


Openness, transparency and accountability ought to have been essential elements of the “democratic revolution” promised by Fine Gael and Labour when they took office nearly three years ago. Not a bit of it. As the Irish Water scandal shows, our politico-bureaucratic system remains as murky as ever. Thus, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was either deluding himself or, worse still, misleading the Dáil when he told deputies on Wednesday that “this is a public utility in public ownership. Therefore, there is nothing that should be secret about it and there is nothing that will be secret about it.’’

Similarly, Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd’s response to claims that Irish Water’s establishment costs had been deliberately withheld from the Dáil that this was “simply not the case” does not stand up. When TDs Kevin Humphreys and Barry Cowen asked about the amount of money it was spending on consultancy services, the written replies they got last November from Mr O’Dowd himself were classic pieces of bureaucratic fudge – that the expenditure involved, including details of consultancy costs, was “an operational matter for Bord Gáis/Irish Water, as these costs are not being funded from the exchequer”.

The usual practice is for such answers to be prepared by officials in the Department of the Environment and approved by its secretary-general, Geraldine Tallon, who is the department’s accounting officer; it is her role to account to parliament for the spending that takes place under her watch. But because the money was coming from the National Pension Reserve Fund, the Department was able to sidestep the questions being asked by deputies and give them the mushroom treatment, as it’s known in Leinster House. So much for “accountability”.

The idea of setting up Irish Water was Fine Gael’s from the start; it was in the party’s general election manifesto and a key element of its “New Era” programme. Yet its establishment has proceeded on an ad hoc basis; unlike the ESB, which was set up under the 1927 Electricity Supply Board Act, Irish Water has been dragged into existence by the miscellaneous 2013 Water Services (No.2) Bill, which was then rushed through the Dáil so that the new utility would be in a position to take over some €11 billion in assets from 34 local authorities on January 1st. But even before it had any statutory standing, Irish Water managed to spend €100 million in just 12 months.

We know from the Poolbeg incinerator saga how consultants were able to milk Dublin City Council for extravagant fees under former city manager John Tierney. Similar excesses have applied with Irish Water. And there is no sign that Phil Hogan, who has benignly presided over it all, will face any adverse consequences. Nothing has changed.

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