Daniel McConnell: Panel must get to bottom of who knew what and when
Published 15/01/2014 | 02:30
Last Friday, at the height of the controversy, Environment Minister Phil Hogan went on his local radio station to express his surprise at Irish Water boss John Tierney's revelation that the agency had spent €50m on outside consultants.
Then last Sunday, junior minister Fergus O'Dowd went on RTE's 'This Week' programme and declared that the first time he heard the €50m figure was when Mr Tierney was on with Sean O'Rourke's programme the previous Thursday.
"I was not -- I was never aware of the €50m figure until I heard John Tierney announce it on radio," he said.
Yesterday, Irish Water bosses performed credibly during a marathon session of the Joint Oireachtas Environment Committee by dumping the controversy squarely back in the laps of Phil and Fergus.
In considerable detail, Mr Tierney and his key officials detailed how, from as early as September 2012, they had told the department that they needed to use outside consultants and by March of last year, Irish Water had outlined in detail why and where such consultants were needed.
Their €80m spend on consultants was made clear and approved by the department.
Then how could the €50m figure possibly have come as a surprise to Phil and Fergus when the controversy erupted? Or were they just not kept in the loop as to what was going on in Irish Water?
The whole scenario reflects poorly on them, particularly at this embryonic stage of Irish Water's life.
The significance of this controversy is that it places Irish Water on the back foot at a time when it desperately needs the public's confidence.
Given the sorry state of the water system in Ireland, obtaining such confidence at a time when you are introducing fees was always going to be an uphill struggle. This controversy has made that task all the more difficult.
The revelations at yesterday's Environment Committee now place fresh importance on this evening's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. This is because here we will hear not only from departmental officials but also from the regulator.
While Michael McCarthy, a former member of the PAC and current chairman of the Environment Committee, likened tonight's hearing to an exercise in ambulance chasing, it does present the opportunity for the public to get clarity as to who knew what and when.
The sad reality is that all of this could have been avoided. Irish Water was slammed by angry politicians yesterday who had tried without success to illicit information from the company only to see Tierney cough up said information to a journalist on a radio show.
But Mr Hogan and Mr O'Dowd must also tell the Dail what they knew and when. As we are paying for all this, taxpayers deserve nothing less.