Flannery pours cold water on Government

Once a key adviser to the Taoiseach and director of the scandal-hit Rehab Group, Frank Flannery speaks out in a wide-ranging interview with Political Reporter Juno McEnroe

As the Government faces dissent from its own TDs and a public backlash over water charges, a former key advisor to Enda Kenny has spoken openly about the Coalition’s woes.

Frank Flannery says the model for Irish Water had radically changed since it was first thought up and that a long-term fixed water rate for homes should have been agreed from the start.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish Examiner, he talks about his work for Rehab and the pressure he faced to co-operate with a probe into the charity group by the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee.

In March this year, Mr Flannery dramatically quit as an election strategist for Fine Gael and as a director for the Rehab Group.

The double resignation came after calls, including from Mr Kenny, for him to come before PAC and answer questions about pay, pensions, and consultancy work he did for the charity.

Now, several months on, and ahead of a new weekly political online radio show he is co-hosting, the veteran spin doctor talks candidly about the political family that is Fine Gael and the crisis facing Mr Kenny over the water charges debacle.

So, how is life on the outside?

“You’re not responsible for the fuck-ups, nobody’s looking at you anymore. However, you get pretty frustrated that the fuck-ups are occurring, one after another,” explains Mr Flannery.

The water charge regime had been badly explained, says the former party strategist. “There was no necessity to make meters the first thing you did, that could have come down the line. The concept initially should have been the fixed charge — without a shadow of a doubt — and you work up towards metering.”

He says Irish Water should have tackled the broken pipes and contaminated water concerns first. “And then stop putting in your meters later on... and take your time, you can put those in in two or three years time.”

Irish Water came out of the New Era policy document outlined by Fine Gael in its five-point plan when it was in opposition in 2009.

Mr Flannery reveals that the model for the company significantly changed since it was first drafted. “It wasn’t seen as adding to the taxation base of the country. It was about setting up a top quality water supply, effectively washing its face in terms of costs. I think it should have been left like that.”

He says then-TD Simon Coveney, party advisor Andrew McDowell, and another adviser, Sean Faughnan, worked on the original structure, but the model was later redefined into a “troika revenue-raising machine”, like the property tax.

A fixed affordable charge until 2018 would give the next government “breathing space” before further decisions are made, he says. “You want the next phase of decisions to be largely of the next parliament, not this one, and each party can lay out what they want to do then.”

In the meantime, though, the Government should lead a nationwide debate on the issue, he claims.

Despite a large proportion of blame going towards Phil Hogan, the former environment minister, for the botched strategy over Irish Water, Mr Flannery says Mr Kenny is equally to blame.

“The methodology of implementation would have been a matter for the Taoiseach. A government minister doesn’t decide on the strategic implementation policy of very large companies.”

Questions over Mr Flannery’s role as a consultant for Rehab and matters pertaining to his pay and pensions were raised by PAC earlier this year.

Former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins is taking legal action against the committee over its investigations into her management of the charity and its financial affairs. Mr Flannery says he is not party to the action and “not going down the legal route at this stage”.

But he resents the way he was treated. “I think I was treated wrongly in only one respect and that was the public declaration that I should go before the PAC, it was totally wrong.

“Not solely by [Mr Kenny], but he was key. If he said something else, everyone else would have said something else. That was wrong.”

Mr Flannery defended his consultancy work and role with the group.

“It was a moderate fee for the amount of time and work I put into it. While I was doing that, I was available to them for any bit of work they wanted, which occasionally had a bit of government relations in it but not much because Rehab did its own.

“And occasionally I’d advise them on commercial activities they were involved in, occasionally I’d advise them on the lottery activities.

“I did very little lobbying, the main thing I was paid to be their international representative. I ran their international portfolio.”

Why did he not appear before PAC and answer questions about his pay from Rehab?

“Why would I allow myself to be bullied? [The committee] wanted me in because I was director of elections for Fine Gael, that’s why they wanted me in. It was totally political.

“I gave 33 years of my life to [Rehab]. Very few people had built up a company from 80 people to 3,500 people. Anything I did in politics was just a sideshow, it was a hobby for me.”

Mr Flannery says he is still contacted by politicians for informal advice, but that he has no plans to return to his role as an electoral strategist for Fine Gael.

“It suits my business wonderfully not to be involved in politics because when you’re involved in politics you’re always in danger of people saying you’ve a conflict of interest here.

“If you’re not involved in politics, that question doesn’t arise. I can go very freely to any minister or talk to a civil servant and say: ‘Can you answer this question or what can you do about this.’ ”

Tomorrow, Frank Flannery talks about how long Enda Kenny should stay in power and who should be the next leader of Fine Gael

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