Irish Water: Our favourite disasters and U-turns

From consultants and bonuses to protests and Eurostat, it’s been a torrent of crisis

Minister for the Environment  Alan Kelly speaking to the media with John Tierney and Elizabeth Arnett of Irish Water. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly speaking to the media with John Tierney and Elizabeth Arnett of Irish Water. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Since before Irish Water was an apple in Phil Hogan’s eye, it has struggled to keep itself out of hot water and barely a week has passed since the beginning of last year without it making headlines for the wrong reasons. Here’s just a few of our favourite Irish Water disasters and mistakes and U-turns.

In November 2010, the Fianna Fáil-led government published a memorandum of understanding on the conditions of the €85 billion EU-IMF bailout.

It said water charges would be introduced in 2012 or 2013 by which time metering would be installed across the State.

It said the responsibility for water would be transferred from local authorities to a new water utility. Only a bit of what it promised came to pass.

Irish Water was indeed set up but the metering programme was not quite as speedy as we had been led to believe. Without metering from the get-go the whole notion of water conservation was quietly shelved – despite what the ridiculously named “water conservation grant” might have you believe.

In May 2012, a spokeswoman for the minister for the environment Phil Hogan rubbished claims by the Opposition that the Government would introduce flat-rate water charges.

Flat-rate charges are now the norm – although it is possible to “beat the cap” and pay less than the flat rate – if you don’t shower and only flush the toilet every second day.

In April 2012, the contract to run Irish Water was won by Bord Gáis Éireann, a company which is probably still mourning its win. Phil Hogan promised that 95 per cent of all homes will have meters by the end of 2014. That didn’t work out either.

O’Rourke interview

The chief executive of Irish Water John Tierney decided to do an interview on Today with Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ radio. This was not the best idea he ever had.

The interview was as robust as you might expect and O’Rourke was as masterful as he always is. Tierney was not quite so masterful.

In fact he tied himself up in knots and admitted that €50 million of Irish Water’s setup costs was spent on “consultants”. The C word has followed him ever since.

The hapless Tierney wasn’t done. He then appeared before an Oireachtas environment committee and estimated that Irish Water would spend €85 million on consultants by the end of the year. At the same hearing it emerged that Irish Water staff could receive bonuses of up to 10 per cent of their salary. The B word joined the C word in stalking Tierney.

The same year a planned standing-order charge of €50 had to be eliminated as it was seen to erode the benefit of allowances for households with children.

Almost exactly a year ago the Commission for Energy Regulation revealed details of water charges indicating the average cost for a household of two adults and two children would be €278. The news had already been widely leaked. Metered rates were to be set at €4.88 for 1,000 litres of water. That charge lasted fewer than three months before being dropped.

Bonuses

Things reached boiling point in October when it emerged that Irish Water staff would get bonuses even if their performance was classified as needing improvement.

Irish Water got tangled up trying to tell people its bonuses were not actually bonuses before announcing that its (not really bonus) payments for 2013 and 2014 would be suspended. The unions were less than delighted and the matter is currently before the Labour Relations Commission.

At the end of October the deadline for signing up to Irish Water came and went without there being a mad rush among the general population to register. The Commission for Energy Regulation had no choice but to grant a one-month extension to the sign-up period for Irish Water customers. A flood of new sign-ups did not materialise.

Tens of thousands took to the streets in protest at the charges and on a quiet Saturday in November in Jobstown, Tánaiste Joan Burton was trapped in her car for more than two hours by anti-water charge protesters after attending a graduation ceremony.

An unedifying row broke out between the Government and Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Paul “Gandhi” Murphy who claimed trapping a person in their car for two hours while banging on the roof screaming “peaceful protest” was a peaceful protest.

Another deadline passed at the end of November and another U-turn was announced when Minister for Environment Alan Kelly – who had replaced Hogan after he fled to Europe – said a revised water-charges package with capped costs would now be imposed.

PPS numbers

Plans Irish Water had hatched to harvest PPS numbers was also dropped. The utility said it wanted to match free allowances with children and it promised to comply with all data-protection legislation and treat the information well. No-one bought it.

Independent Catherine Murphy raised the issue in the Dáil and said people had “huge concerns about handing over PPS numbers to what is in effect a private company”. The PPS plan was dropped.

Irish Water’s contractors – including the almost as controversial Denis O’Brien-owned Siteserv – encountered difficulties installing meters with protesters blocking access. Burton marvelled at all the “expensive” phones and cameras the demonstrators had ignoring the fact that a phone with a camera can be had for less than 10 litres of water.

It emerged that fewer than half the 1.5 million people who were supposed to pay in the first round of billing actually did. Then it emerged that the company had messed up direct debits for 3,000 people who wanted to pay and failed to collect the payment. It also billed people who were dead for many years and that was just the start of an error-strewn billing cycle.

And now Eurostat has ruled that State funds spent on Irish Water must remain on the exchequer balance sheet until 2020. The ruling is a severe blow to the Government’s strategy on water investment, and means a hoped-for boost to the 2016 budget figures will not now emerge.

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