Irish Water debacle far from unique in political context

Controversy has all hallmarks of previous arrangements brokered FF governments

Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment speaks to media as Irish Water controversy continues. Photograph: Alan Betson/Irish Times

Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment speaks to media as Irish Water controversy continues. Photograph: Alan Betson/Irish Times

Wed, Jan 15, 2014, 17:14

The case of Irish Water and its consultancy costs isn’t unique in the political context but this type of process controversy is the first to have affected this Coalition since it came to power in 2011.

And there are strong echoes in the details of arrangements that were brokered during the three terms of Fianna Fáil led governments.

The first element was the extravagant monies (invariably many millions) of euro that were paid out to consultants or service contractors for services, some of which were intangibles like training or the catch-all ‘change management’. The second was the political response from the Minister who was caught in the eye of the storm - a seemingly impossible mixture of standing over everything while still distancing themselves from the costs involved.

Phil Hogan’s comments that his job was not to micromanage how Irish Water spent his money was unfortunate politically and will take some explaining in the Dáil tonight, and possible some backpedaling. Sure he got the Commission for Energy Regulation to run the rule over the expenditure but €180 million (and €85m in consultancy costs) isn’t loose change. The rule of ministerial responsibility is cruel but absolute: the buck stops with you and that means everything should be known. As Albert Reynolds once remarked, it is the little things (and he meant details in that case) that trip you up.

There is precedent. There was the Bertie Bowl, a project for a National Stadium and campus that bloated out of control very quickly with a projected budget topping €1 billion. Much of the political focus was on the role of consultants to the project particularly a clause that made their fee a percentage of the overall budget. Thus, the more the stadium cost, the greater the fee would be.

Then in the second term of that Government there was PPARS. This is the closest comparison to Irish Water because it stemmed from the amalgamation of a multiple of agencies into one. In that case it was the eleven health boards being merged into the HSE. PPARS was the payroll and human resources project that would integrate all the different and disparate systems being used by the health boards.

But what started off as a €9 million project ballooned quickly and within a very short space of time the budget was heading northwards of €140m. There were difficulties. For one, it was impossible to estimate the overall staff numbers in the HSE. Then there were different employment grades, different networks and systems, different conditions of work, different kinds of leave days and special leave, different bonuses and overtime rates in each of the old health boards.

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