State must answer fire safety questions

The case for a widespread audit of Celtic Tiger-era buildings has never been as strong, writes Michael Clifford.

State must answer fire safety questions

THE events of the last week strengthen the case that the State is involved in a major cover-up over how things operated during the building boom. The cover-up involves a gamble that nobody will be killed or seriously injured, at least until the next election, after which it might be somebody else’s problem.

The cost of coming clean could run into hundreds of millions, probably impacting on the capacity to distribute goodies in the next budget or two.

Last weekend the Department of Education released details of a fire safety audits in five schools. All were in breach of fire safety standards. It had been a job to get the information out of the department. For some reason, the Department of Education was reluctant to let parents know whether their children were at any risk should a fire occur in any of the five schools.

The affected schools were Gaelscoil Clocha Liatha in Greystones, Co Wicklow; Mullingar Educate Together, Westmeath; Powerstown Educate Together National School, Dublin; Belmayne Educate Together National School, Dublin; and St Francis of Assisi National School, also in Belmayne, Dublin.

All were built by Co Tyrone based company, Western Building Systems, in 2008. This company has pulled in €40 million from state contracts in recent years, building schools and the rapid build houses that are currently in vogue.

The problems with the schools goes back to 2014, when an architect was called into another school – Rush and Lusk Educate Together in north county Dublin – following concerns about the quality of building work. WBS built this school also in 2008.

The architect found that should a fire occur, it was possible that the building would collapse in 20 minutes. Remedial work was ordered by Dublin Fire Brigade and paid for by the department to the tune of €800,000.

And that was that. No bells went off in the department. Nobody wondered aloud as to whether there was any chance in the world that there might be a problem with other schools built by the same company at the same time. Joining dots might have invited trouble, might even have opened up an appalling vista. So everybody left well enough alone.

Then, over a year later, along comes Irish Examiner reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith with the story about the story about the hushed up problems at Rush and Lusk Educate Together.

Naturally, this alerted parents in the other schools, who began exerting pressure to discover whether their children were at risk. The department eventually commissioned fire safety reports into the five schools. These investigations commenced in January 2016 and were finalised six months later.

Since then there were numerous attempts by interested parties to gain access to the reports, that they might be informed of what level of risk the schoolchildren were exposed.

Fiachra Ó Cionnaith reported in the Irish Examiner this week that Educate Together was denied access to the reports seven times. Elsewhere, it emerged that the principal of another of the affected schools, Gaelscoil Clocha Liatha, also had repeated requests for sight of the report turned down.

A number of Freedom of Information requests received the same answer. Go away, this is not the kind of stuff that mere citizens or parents are entitled to know.

It was only with the intervention of the Information Commisisoner, following an FOI request from the Dublin Inquirer newspaper, that the department finally caved in. The reports were published eight days ago and showed a whole range of fire safety deficiencies, including a failure to meet the sixty minutes fire resistance threshold.

On foot of that, the department is to conduct a fire safety review of 25 schools built in the last two decades. A question arises as to why such a review was not ordered in June 2016 when it was obvious that there was a problem in the five audited schools. Just as a question arises as to why those schools were only audited when the problems in the Rush and Lusk school were publicised in the media.

Could it be that there is an unspoken yet widely understood policy in state bodies that this issue must be played down lest it opens up the appalling vista that a large chunk of what was built during the boom falls short of required fire safety standards?

The schools report is the second major example in recent weeks of the State’s approach to this matter. The report into the fire in Millfield Manor in 2015 in Newbridge, Co Kildare, was finally published a fortnight ago, some 16 months after it was completed.

During that period, different reasons were given by the department or government figures for the delay. A freedom of information request from Sinn Fein’s Eoin O’Brion was refused. Then, when it was published, it didn’t address the kernel of fire safety problems in timber frame estates such as Milfield Manor. Looking too closely at this issue might also prize open the appalling vista.

Two years ago, a report detailing major deficiencies in a timber frame development in Ratoath Co Meath was highlighted in this newspaper. The report into Riverwalk Court had been with Meath County Council for nearly a year, until, days after publication of the story, they got cracking on attempting to address their statutory duties.

Can all these cases be coincidences? Can they be attributed to poor standards or shoddy work in the public sector? Or is there a tacit understanding that when it comes to building in the recent past everybody must tread softly, for they tread on the thin skin of an appalling vista.

A statement last week from Western Building Systems illustrates the State’s vulnerability on this matter. WBS believes that everything was honkey dorey when the building was completed and handed over to the department.

“We believe the buildings mentioned in the reports met all relevant fire safety and building regulations at that time on the basis that all of the required building and fire certifications of compliance and completion were issued by the architect and by the client without any note of the defects included in the recently published fire-safety reports.”

And that is legally correct. Certificates in a light-touch regime were issued. Inspections in a light touch regime were kept to a minimum (at one stage there were more full time dog licence inspectors than building inspectors in the State).

Now, rather than facing up to the past, the State and its agencies are hoping against hope that any problems can remain buried behind the walls of Celtic Tiger-era dwellings.

That may well turn out to be a prudent strategy from a political standpoint. There is, however, no getting away from the reality that it is also a potentially catastrophic gamble.

The case for a widespread audit of Celtic Tiger-era buildings has never been as strong.

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