Irish Water issue ready to boil over as Government loses patience

Quickening of pace towards changing Irish Water has taken many by surprise

A water leak which followed water meter installation works in Sandymount, south  Dublin. Irish Water has not been communicating effectively to people at the most basic level: on the phones and the doors.  Photograph: Frank Miller

A water leak which followed water meter installation works in Sandymount, south Dublin. Irish Water has not been communicating effectively to people at the most basic level: on the phones and the doors. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

From the start of the year it has been obvious Irish Water was going to be one of the biggest headaches for the Government, not just for 2014 but for the rest of the Coalition’s term of office.

After scandal upon scandal, the noises from central government have suddenly become all the more ominous for those at the top of Irish Water, both its board and its senior management team.

Stories in two Sunday newspapers effectively said there would be a move against the top of the organisation soon in an effort to try to defuse what is rapidly turning into a politically toxic situation.

Ministers were aware of the problem, but a number of issues have recently jolted the Coalition into action, once the budget was out the way.

The intervention by former junior minister for the environment Fergus O’Dowd – who said Irish Water had “abjectly failed” – gave government TDs carte blanche to start piling in on the semi-State.

They had good reason to be critical. Irish Water has not been communicating effectively to people at the most basic level: on the phones and the doors. It has also frustrated TDs attempting to pry answers from it.

Pay scheme

The Government also took fright at the sheer scale of the recent water charges protest in Dublin city centre, and the fact that the byelection results announced on the same day were such a repudiation of water charges that even Sinn Féin found its weak positioning on the issue exploited.

Yet the quickening of the pace towards changing Irish Water in recent days has taken many by surprise, and the Government seems intent on answering some outstanding questions.

The answer to the question of the Irish Water board is simple: it was always intended to be a temporary board, pending the merger between it and Bord Gáis, now Ervia.

A spokesman for Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly said the board would be reconstituted, with more members selected from areas such as finance, consumer affairs and the legal sector.

The answer to the questions surrounding managing director Tierney and his management team are more difficult. Tierney was given a three-year contract when he took up the post of managing director in January 2013. It would take a very generous redundancy payment to get rid of him, making it more likely – if there is to be some move – of a shift to elsewhere along the senior ranks of the Civil Service. Tierney shows no signs of giving in, however.

Fall guy

Fianna Fáil

It was its own internal squabbling over exactly how much Paddy was expected to pay – with Fine Gael effectively bouncing what it saw as a foot-dragging Labour Party into agreeing an average charge of €240 – which delayed the entire process.

Consequently, we had the Irish Water packs going out to households asking for bank details and PPS numbers without a final decision on the exact rates to be charged.

Serious questions must also be asked of Irish Water’s parent company, now renamed Ervia from Bord Gáis. It won the contest – ahead of others such as Bord na Móna – to take on the task of bringing in the new system of metering and charging.

If it is true, as it undoubtedly is, that Tierney has been absent from the public debate since his disastrous outing on Sean O’Rourke’s RTÉ show earlier this year, when he said €50 million had been spent in consultants, then it is equally true that Ervia executives have also been absent.

Rose Hynes is chairwoman of both Irish Water and Ervia, and Ervia CEO Mike McNicholas sits on both boards too. They are technically answerable to Government on Irish Water, yet we have heard very little from them.