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Thursday 23 November 2017

Row over transition sparks fresh tension in Coalition

Prof John Fitzgerald, Economic and Social Research Institute. Picture: Damien Eagers
Prof John Fitzgerald, Economic and Social Research Institute. Picture: Damien Eagers

John Downing and Caroline Crawford

THE row over excess staff numbers at Irish Water has sparked fresh tensions between Fine Gael and Labour in Government.

Labour's Sean Sherlock, who is Minister of State for Research, insisted bosses must address public fears that there was 'a sweetheart deal' between councils and Irish Water on pay and conditions as part of the transition to the new national service.

But four Fine Gael ministers – led by Finance Minister Michael Noonan – strongly defended Irish Water and the new staff arrangements. Mr Sherlock, Minister of State for Research, said there must be transparency in Irish Water.

"If there was a sweetheart deal done between themselves and the local authorities in relation to pay, conditions and bonuses, then I think we need to shine a light on that," he said.

Several Labour backbenchers backed Mr Sherlock's call.

One backencher said that there was deep Labour frustration at Environment Minister Phil Hogan's "casual attitude" to explaining the issues and argued that "this is a Fine Gael project".

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton of Labour repeated her call for a more cost-effective Irish Water and not a "gold-plated" one.

The calls came after Prof John Fitzgerald of the ESRI revealed issues with staffing within the new body.

He said Irish Water needed as few as 1,700 staff but it risked having up to 4,300 between now and 2025.

Fine Gael ministers Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton strongly defended the arrangements for the integration of water services currently provided by 34 local councils.

Irish Water management also challenged the basis for Dr Fitzgerald's staff figures, and said they would ensure continuity of service while significantly reducing total staff numbers very quickly over the coming years.

Speaking in Brussels for a meeting of the eurozone group Mr Noonan moved to brush aside the controversy. "If you had a situation in a mythical country where there's no water service and you came in to set it up, you'd set it up with a lot less people," he said.

He added that over time the extra staff numbers from the 34 councils would be reduced.

But Labour TD for Louth Gerald Nash said there were concerns that beyond ensuring job security for council staff, Irish Water may be seen as conceding "excessive and self-interested demands".

"I certainly support an examination of this issue," he said.

Irish Independent

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