Dáil Sketch: Taoiseach in hot water over monster merger
‘Those in council water departments around the country know where the leaks are buried’
“Taoiseach, if you turned up at a multi-billion merger and said ‘we’re not going to see any cost savings for the next five years and we’re locking in the workforce for the next 12’, you’d be fired on the spot. But not here.” Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA
And Enda gazed and still his wonder grew, that so many small heads could carry all they knew . . . It’s the maps, you see.
The men and women of the council water departments around the country have them locked into their brains. They know where the leaks are buried. We need their knowledge, which is why none of them will lose out in the long term when Irish Water is up and running.
Because, unlike the setting up of the HSE, it has nothing to do with politics. The birth of Irish Water did not mirror what happened with the HSE, insisted the Taoiseach yesterday. Although, from the outside, it may look like it.
He wanted to be clear. This is not a case of institutional Groundhog Day, as some on the opposition benches would like to style it. Or Groundwater Day, in the case of the newly formed Uisce Éireann. But the Taoiseach couldn’t convince Wicklow’s Stephen Donnelly.
“It’s the HSE all over again. It’s Fianna Fáil all over again” he protested. “Here we go.” He had already explained why to the House, pointing out that the Government never missed a chance to criticise how Fianna Fáil made a hames of setting up the HSE.
“They had an opportunity in 2005 to establish an efficient and effective health service and they blew it for political gain. And instead, they created a bureaucratic monster.
“And now, Taoiseach, your Government is doing exactly the same thing with Irish Water. You’re setting up a new monster – another one that going to waste billons of euro of taxpayers’ money.”
He said people would be overcharged for their water “to bankroll this waste” by “locking in the cost of the entire existing workforce for the next 12 years.”
Claims of overstaffing were roundly rejected by Enda. Irish Water would be in fighting shape in a decade, he argued. This would be achieved through natural wastage – people retiring and leaving and the like. Although as the Taoiseach talked vaguely about reducing existing numbers by half down to about 2,000 employees, we wondered if he was considering hiring snipers to pick off workers who were knocking on a bit.
Under the barrage of facts and figures from Donnelly – “I come from the commercial sector and I’ve worked in mergers” – Enda stood his ground. He is totally opposed to waste. However, the only waste he wanted to talk about concerned water leaking from burst pipes. The money, it seems, will look after itself over time.
But all Donnelly could see, having outlined his business credentials to his fellow TDs, was the Government approving continued inefficiencies in the service.
“Taoiseach, if you turned up at a multi-billion merger and said ‘we’re not going to see any cost savings for the next five years and we’re locking in the workforce for the next 12’, you’d be fired on the spot. But not here.”
The Taoiseach bridled at the suggestion that he would be responsible for creating any sort of monster. What he and his Government were doing was “addressing the challenge of the future.”
Which was very true. Across from where he was sitting, the few Labour TDs in the room noisily indicated their agreement. Enda had hit the nail on the head. He could talk about the scourge of leaks all day and how it was vital that the people with the maps in their heads be retained so they lead the new utility to the gushers, but it was really all about the challenge of the future.
Just as it was in the days of Fianna Fáil and the HSE: the Coalition is mindful of the challenge of future elections. Who wants to see anybody lose a job? That’s the issue.
Perhaps Stephen Donnelly had been drawing on his days as a management consultant, mused the Taoiseach, and thinking the Government should immediately sack 2,000 workers. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Donnelly said he wasn’t suggesting this at all, but locking staff in for 12 years when they weren’t needed for that length of time wasn’t the solution either. Enda put it up to him: “Go down to Wicklow tomorrow and call all those staff together and say: ‘Donnelly is on the warpath, he wants you sacked’.” Donnelly raised his eyes to heaven.
“It’s the HSE all over again” he sighed. The immersion switch goes on in the Dáil these days anytime Irish Water is mentioned. Things get very heated. It got too much for the Ceann Comhairle as the arguments boiled over time again yesterday.
“Stay quiet, will ya!” shouted an exasperated Seán Barrett. In the end, he threatened to resign if deputies continued to flout the rules by speaking way beyond their allowed time during Leaders’ Questions. “I’m not going to spend my time getting upset every day.”
It could have been worse. At least he didn’t have to referee the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. They met in private to consider the vexed question of the Garda whistleblowers and Alan Shatter’s intervention on the issue yesterday.
The scant reports escaping from their in-camera meeting suggested that the authorities should have had the St John’s ambulance on standby outside the doors.
In the end, they decided to hear the whistleblower’s story, in private session, on Thursday.
That’ll please the Garda Commissioner and Alan Shatter.