Nothing here for ‘ambulance chasers’ of Public Accounts Committee

Oireachtas environment committee had exhausted Irish Water issue during a five-hour session during the week

Irish Water chief executive John Tierney on his way to Leinster House for a meeting with the Oireachtas environment committee. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Irish Water chief executive John Tierney on his way to Leinster House for a meeting with the Oireachtas environment committee. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins


Members of the Public Accounts Committee were described as “ambulance chasers” by TDs on the Oireachtas environment committee for bringing Irish Water in for a second hearing in a week about its spending on consultants.

While that phrase, which Labour TD Kevin Humphreys is taking the credit for, might be a bit harsh, very little new information emerged at the PAC last night.

The environment committee had exhausted itself during a five-hour session on Wednesday, when Irish Water in effect killed the story off with maximum detail.

A briefing document supplied to TDs before the environment committee hearing listed off how much Irish Water intends to spend on consultants, and its rationale for doing so.

The fact that the details were widely published beforehand took the sting out of the environment hearing. Irish Water managing director John Tierney, having started the controversy with his interview with Seán O’Rourke, performed well, as did the colleagues from Irish Water he brought with him.

Once the minute spending details had emerged, the issue then turned into a “who knew what, when” issue, and whether Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan was aware of the detailed breakdown on consultancy spending.

Mr Hogan always insisted he was never told, even if his department may have known. His civil servants, unsurprisingly, backed up his version of events.

The second issue that emerged was that of performance-related bonuses, and the contractual arrangements in Irish Water which allow all staff, Tierney aside, to receive them.

Coupled with queries over Hogan’s level of knowledge, the bonuses switched the spending controversy into the political arena, with ministers expressing shock.

However, despite their protests, little is likely to change, since contracts have already been signed with almost 300 workers, with more on the way.

Hogan himself has largely kept a low profile in the past year after being a magnet for controversy during the first half of the Government’s term over issues such as the €100 household charge.

While some might feel it is unfair that he has been blamed for what Irish Water spent, the past week would strengthen his case to be moved to Brussels and the European Commission, if he so wishes.

On a side note, the current controversy has shown that the Public Accounts Committee is in danger of overreaching itself and cheapening its currency as the Dáil’s spending watchdog.

As well as its work on the top-ups scandal, which resumes today, the past few weeks has seen the committee suggest calling in the Limerick City of Culture, which has a relatively small budget of €6 million, as well as Irish Water, even though it appeared before one committee already.

As one observer put it, given the situation Irish Water found itself in, it would have had to turn up to the Oireachtas entertainment and social committee if asked to do so.

The PAC needs to stop running after every controversy like a dog chasing after a passing car, and pick and choose its battles wisely, otherwise getting “hauled in” will no longer carry any substantial meaning.

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