Simon Coveney to appoint new water commission chief within days

Housing Minister Simon Coveney expects to appoint a new water commission chief by this weekend, as he goes to Brussels to stop the EU fining Ireland for suspending water charges.

Mr Coveney expects there will be no shocks when he meets environment commissioner Karmenu Vella to outline how Ireland intends to comply with EU law while also freezing water charges.

Government sources insist plans for the independent expert water commission are still on track, despite chairman Joe O’Toole resigning this week over his views about charges.

Mr Coveney said yesterday that he had wanted Mr O’Toole to stay on but that “he had no alternative” “given what happened”.

Fianna Fáil and other parties had questioned his position following remarks he made, including to the Irish Examiner. In an interview, Mr O’Toole criticised left-wing politicians, said he supported the polluter pays principle, and suggested that there was “bundles of money” to invest in Irish Water.

“I think he would have done a very good job,” the minister told Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ. However, his views created problems, as “water is such a sensitive issue”.

Joe O’Toole
Joe O’Toole

“He did make a mistake in being overtly forthright in his views… The water commission has to have the confidence of the two big parties who put it together,” said Mr Coveney, referring to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The minister said he now expects to appoint the replacement chairperson before the weekend.

Meanwhile,a spokesman for Mr Vella last night told the Irish Examiner that “the position of the commission was made clear in Mr Vella’s reply to a question from MEP Marian Harkin”.

This reply, which it highlighted, said Ireland had adopted “established practices” around water charges in 2003. There are disputes over whether this means Ireland has to pay water charges and whether it is entitled to a get-out out clause when it comes to complying with the water directive.

The commissioner’s spokesman said Mr Coveney had sought the meeting “to clarify the necessary next steps for implementing the Water Framework Directive”.

Meanwhile, Ervia, the parent of Irish Water, has had four members appointed to its board. These include Keith Harris, currently non- executive director and chair of the audit committee of South Staffordshire Water as well as Fred Barry, former chief of the National Roads Authority. The two other members appointed are Christopher Banks, who was board commercial director at Scottish Water from 2002 to 2014, and a former CEO and chairman of Tesco Ireland, Tony Keohane. Mr Keohane will appear before the the Oireachtas Committee on Housing before his formal appointment can be finalised, said Mr Coveney.

Mr Coveney’s office said the process for the appointments was conducted in line with the procedures for making appointments to State boards through the public appointments service.

Elsewhere, the energy regulator has launched plans to assess Irish Water’s performance and to allow the public grade its work.

The monitoring system will cover a number of areas of performance of Irish Water — customer service, environmental performance, quality of service for water supply, security of water supply and sewerage service.

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