Irish Water has had a great fall

On Monday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government will shortly take decisions on Irish Water that will provide greater clarity about the utility and the charges the public will face. The mind boggles.

The genesis of this company goes back at least two years. Surely, the necessary decisions had been taken before the Government committed itself to tens of millions of euro in expenditure? If it didn’t, and that seems to be the case, then we are in far bigger trouble than we thought. It basically means this Government rammed the formation of a semi-state utility down the throats of the electorate, having first rammed it down the throats of the representatives of the people in parliament. Worse still, ministers rammed it through without knowing what the hell they were doing and now, they still need more time to make ‘decisions’ and get ‘clarity’ on what those decisions mean.

There is a view abroad that the organisation was set up so that it could be privatised down the road, and perhaps even make a lot of money for those boys and girls ‘lucky’ enough to be employed, particularly in the most senior levels. On the face of it, given the evasive answers when privatisation was discussed and even now Government’s reluctance to lock out the possibility, it would be easy to get the impression it was destined for privatisation.

Given what has happened to date, it would seem that the lads who set up this company thought there would be plenty of takers for a company, however badly it was structured, that would monopolise Ireland’s water or they simply did not have a clue how to set up a commercial entity.

On the former, who could blame them? A look at privatised water in the UK sets an appalling example to the rest of us. On the latter, usually commercial entities rely on their customers for their existence. On that basis, you would think that anyone setting up such an entity would focus on the customer, captive or otherwise, how to get him/her on board, and would address the issues that were going to arise when folk were going to be asked to fork up more money again.

Irish Water must be one great company to work for. The unions did a great job, but then why wouldn’t they when it was ex-public sector mandarins or near mandarins talking to the same guys they’d been talking to forever.

When a company in the real world would be getting its product properly ‘packaged’ and its customer-facing issues addressed, Irish Water was busy looking after the in-depth bells and whistle needs of its future employees. What with pay levels above the norm, bonuses for almost turning up, hefty car allowances for middle and upper management, and training to do a job you were employed to do a short few months ago, there can be no meaning other than Irish Water is an employee-focused company. Unfortunately, that’s not what we, the taxpayers, want or need.

Government ministers have been saying, repeatedly, over recent days that Irish Water is there to stay. That is a profound mistake. It’s had a great fall off the wall and has broken into many pieces. And like Humpty Dumpty it cannot be put back together again. Like Humpty, it will always look like something that has been patched together. It just will not work. As Fergus Finlay said on Tuesday: “Taoiseach, you and your government have made a complete dog’s dinner out of charging for water.” Alan Kelly’s threat to bring in the Revenue underlines the fact that they could even make things worse — for themselves in particular.

Ditching Irish Water does not mean the very many good people within Irish Water have to be dumped by the wayside. It is not their fault that the whole thing was ill thought-out and that its senior managers appear to not be up to the task. People’s suitability needs to be assessed in accordance with the needs of the company and not the other way around.

Again, as Fergus Finlay said, “unless you want to go down in history as a government that achieved important national objectives, and then got flung out on its ear, you really need to listen to the people.”

The question is: Does Enda or his ministers have the cojones to do what needs to be done?


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