A company that pays thousands to PR companies, then concedes it has “communications issues”.
A body described as “an abject failure” — by the junior minister charged with setting it up.
Yes, it has been an annus horribilis for Irish Water, with public opinion firmly against the utility before it has even issued its first bill.
The latest controversies surrounding PPS numbers, registration deadlines, and fearful tenants, are just some of the waves of discontent that have battered Irish Water in the past 10 months.
-January: The new year had just begun when it was revealed that only four of Irish Water’s senior management team of nine were drawn from outside local authorities and Government departments. Then, in an interview with RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke, managing director John Tierney revealed that Irish Water spent some €50m in consultants’ fees in 2013. It would later emerge that the majority of the fees were paid to Accenture, Ernst and Young, IBM, and Oracle.
Mr Tierney further drew Coalition politicians’ ire when he told the Public Accounts Committee that 299 staff at Irish Water may get bonuses averaging €7,000. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Arnett would later claim that the company would not be a part of a “bonus culture”.
“There are no bonuses in Irish Water,” she said. “We have a performance-related pay structure approved by Government that is in place in other utilities.”
-February: Mr Tierney defended the reported €20,000 spend on a new logo for Irish Water. The utility had also defended paying for a “laughing yoga” workshop for staff.
-March: Siptu warned Irish Water that several main contractors and sub-contractors working on its water meter installation programme are not honouring agreements in relation to rates of pay and other benefits due to workers.
-April: Residents in Cork and Dublin began protests at the installation of water meters.
-May: The company proposed a 30,000 litre-a-year free allowance for families, but, soon afterwards, a former CEO of Northern Irish Water said such an allowance would run out after less than four months.
“If you look at the average daily consumption per person, it is usually set at around 150 litres per head per day so, for a couple living in a property, that will give 100 days of free water,” Trevor Haslett told Morning Ireland.
“Above that, I guess they will be paying either through a meter or through this assessment, which is based on occupancy.”
-June: The High Court granted a temporary injunction preventing Irish Water from installing a water meter at a Co Meath home after its resident claimed the plastic containers used to house the meters were inferior and could cause injury or damage. It also emerged that Irish Water spent €55,000 on a gym for its Talbot St head office.
-July: The Coalition was accused of misleading the public after a draft price plan published by Commission for Energy Regulation proposed a cost of at least €279 for a family of two adults and two children, up from the €240 charge previously proposed, and a 21,000 litres-a-year free allowance per child instead of the 38,000 litres promised by Government.
St Vincent de Paul aired its concerns at the proposed costs, and claimed Irish water charges will be among the highest in Europe.
“This establishes a culture of high charging which could have serious implications after 2016, recognised as the end of the transitionary period,” said Brendan Hennessy, SVP social justice officer. “It also represents the end of the time limit of Government’s subsidy to Irish Water.”
-August: It was revealed that Irish Water’s €1.9bn.
running costs over the next two years would work out at more than twice the average costs of water companies in England and Wales, though the utility said such comparisons were unfair.
“As part of the price control process, Irish Water has been compared to UK utilities that are over 25 years old,” said Irish Water. “Therefore these utilities are 25 years ahead of Irish Water and have already achieved the very efficiencies that Irish Water has been established to achieve, but it has taken 25 years to do it. So comparing the two at this stage is not a like-for-like comparison.”
-September: Opposition TDs queried the need for the public to give Irish Water their PPS numbers.
“It is necessary in the interests of property owners and in order that the allocation to households can be determined,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil.
-October 7: The pressure on Irish Water intensified. Mr Kenny was forced to admit that Irish Water had suffered “teething problems” and issues with communications after it was described as “an abject failure” by the former junior environment minister who oversaw the establishment of the utility.
Louth Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd, who lost his junior ministry in the summer reshuffle, said the public was not adequately informed as to how the new utility would be rolled out.
“There’s no bad time for telling the truth, and this is the truth,” Mr O’Dowd told RTÉ. “We need to speak out more about these issues so we get the change; there is time to change, there is time to sell the messages, there is time for people to come on board and to be sold the messages.
“People don’t understand what’s going on, some people are being intimidated to send back forms, they don’t realise that if they don’t fill in the forms that they won’t actually get the reductions for the free allowances.”
-October 11: Organisers of an anti-water charges protest in Dublin said there was a considerably higher turnout than the 30,000 estimated by gardaí and claim as many as 100,000 took part in the march.
-October 14: The budget contained provisions for a new water support payment of €100 a year to some social welfare recipients and a tax credit worth 20% of a household’s annual water bill, capped at €100 a year. Opposition parties claimed it was a response to recent protests, and the measures came in for criticism as the support payment is not available to approximately 190,000 short-term unemployed. Furthermore, the tax credit is not available to the 280,000 who are employed but do not earn enough to pay tax.
-October 16: Irish Water conceded that it may extend the deadline by which 2m households are supposed to have registered with the utility, including the controversial inclusion of PPS numbers with their details. The current deadline is October 31.
-October 17: GMC Sierra Ltd, one of the companies employed to install the devices, secured permission to serve legal proceedings on a number of people that the company claims are interfering with workers installing meters.
Irish Water moved to clarify the confusion surrounding rented properties and explained that the landlord is not liable to pay for water bills in the event that the occupier or tenant has not registered their details.
Controversy flared once again, however, when it was revealed that tenants on the Rental Accommodation Scheme were written to by some councils, warning that those who failed to pay their water charges would be evicted. The letters led to opposition party claims that low-income families were being threatened.
-October 18: Significant turnouts at regional protests in Cork and Ennis indicate that a nationwide protest earmarked for Saturday, November 1 will see thousands more voice their opposition to the charges.
-October 19: RTÉ reported that senior staff at Irish Water and its parent company Ervia, formerly Bord Gáis, may earn annual bonus payments of up to 19% as part of their reward scheme, and that awards are not limited to those who meet or exceed targets, but also include staff who get an official “need improvement” rating.
Junior minister Simon Harris denied newspaper reports that the Government plans to overhaul Irish Water’s management.
Coalition TDs, though, are fearful that the behemoth created by this Government will be its legacy, despite promising signs that the economy is improving.
Recent by-election gains by anti-water charges candidates, stormy parliamentary party meetings, and rumours of management clear-outs at the company all suggest Irish Water is a problem that isn’t going away any time soon.