Thursday 23 October 2014

Water chief manages to stay afloat on a day of anti-climax

Published 15/01/2014 | 02:30

John Tierney,Chief Executive of Irish Water (right)  and John Barry, Bord Gais, arriving for the Oireachtas Environment committee meeting at Leinster House yesterday.  In background is Lero Varadkar,TD the Minister  for Transport. Photo: Tom Burke.
John Tierney,Chief Executive of Irish Water (right) and John Barry, Bord Gais, arriving for the Oireachtas Environment committee meeting at Leinster House yesterday. In background is Lero Varadkar,TD the Minister for Transport. Photo: Tom Burke.

IT'S pretty clear Irish Water has made a bags of its communication over the past week. But it went some way towards making up for it yesterday.

TDs came into yesterday's Environment Committee meeting girding their loins, promising to demand answers to tough questions. They wouldn't put up with any flim-flamming or evasive responses that hid behind "commercial sensitivities".

But the anticipated verbal 'waterboarding' never took place. Far from it. It proved a massive anti-climax.

Irish Water did what it should have done weeks, and perhaps months, ago. It got its defence in first. It did so in the shape of a comprehensive 28-page document sent to deputies hours before the hearing began.

It was headed 'Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht'. It was more like 'Everything you ever wanted to know about Irish Water but were afraid to ask'. Or -- as Fianna Fail would no doubt claim, given their fury over unanswered parliamentary questions -- that the Government didn't want you to ask.

The submission dealt with everything: a breakdown of the tens of millions paid to consultants (or "service providers/technical experts", as management prefer to describe them); a €30m contingency fund on top of the €150m set-up fee; the process used to award contracts; the synergies Bord Gais were able to provide and, crucially, those they weren't able to; a month-by-month account of its dealings with the Department of Environment on the cost of the project and a strong presentation of the economic and social case for a new state company providing water services.

Irish Water purged its soul to the committee. In doing so, it effectively decommissioned the weapons TDs had been primed to fire. There was no grilling about who got what and how much they got. It was all in the submission. And there really wasn't much of substance left to put to Irish Water.

The contrast between managing director John Tierney yesterday and in two recent radio interviews couldn't have been more stark. On radio, he lacked authority and was on the back foot. Yesterday, the former Dublin City Manager was confident and unruffled.

You could visibly see the body language of the Irish Water delegation relax as proceedings went on.

They put a decent case for the expenditure on IT systems, dismissing the notion that the existing Bord Gais systems could simply be used for Irish Water with its 1.8 million customers, €11bn in assets, 2,000 water and waste schemes and 50,000km of network.

It was also a smart move to benchmark what seems an eye-watering €85m spend on consultants against even larger amounts spent by water companies in the UK on IT systems and the €4bn invested here on waste water treatment since 2000 -- with mixed results given our record of non-compliance with EU standards.

It begs the question why Irish Water didn't make that case before now. Considerable damage has been done to the credibility of the fledgling company. That's unfortunate because the idea we should continue with the old, dysfunctional, decentralised water network is a nonsense.

It says something for the quality of political debate in this country that there wouldn't have been a peep of protest if we had done so. That's despite the €100m invested in water conservation systems since 2000 with little if any impact on leakage. Reform, sadly, always attracts more political flak that doing nothing.

Other questions arise. The spotlight might now shift from Irish Water back to the Government. The opposition complained yesterday that basic questions on Irish Water have remained unanswered up to now. Barry Cowen was right to point out the Irish Water executives were only before the committee because Mr Tierney "answered a question that a radio journalist asked that we couldn't get an answer to in our parliament".

It's impossible not to be deeply cynical about the Government's promise to retrospectively apply Freedom of Information to Irish Water. Why is it suddenly a good idea?

And questions should be asked as to why so many ministers were "surprised" last week at the high level of consultancy fees paid out by Irish Water. It's quite clear from the company's submission yesterday that the Department of Environment was kept fully briefed on costs, including consultancy fees.

Imagine how Fine Gael and Labour would have responded if Fianna Fail in government had used a similar "surprised" line.

Talk about muddying the water.

SHANE COLEMAN IS POLITICAL EDITOR WITH NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

Read More

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice