FERGUS FINLAY: This Government is at risk of drowning over Irish Water fiasco

AS SOMEONE who believes in the concept of a national water authority, and who signed up to pay water charges, it gives me no pleasure to admit my mistake, writes Fergus Finlay.

But it’s the truth. Irish Water is a public policy joke.

Who is most let down by that? It’s the people — perhaps half the population, if we can judge by the number paying their bills — who agreed (mostly reluctantly, I suppose) to support the principle and make an effort.

My wife, for example, bought a rain barrel to conserve water. It’s one of those things you can connect to the drain pipe from the gutters, so you can collect rainwater for things like watering your plants. We discussed other ways of conserving water within the house, because we thought it would be in the national interest if we could all “beat the meter”. But why would you bother doing any of that, in the face of this joke?

It’s actually a pretty unique public policy joke, and I’ll tell you why. We’ve had public policy fiascos before in Ireland, by the dozen. The annual reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General list dozens of the smaller ones, the bigger ones explode into public consciousness.

They don’t all cost money. The first divorce referendum in Ireland was a public policy fiasco. It was caused by lack of preparation and lack of coherence among its proponents (of whom I was one). But at least we learned those lessons in time for the next attempt.

In more recent years we’ve had the Beef Tribunal (and other tribunals), PPARS, electronic voting, huge overspending on projects like the Port Tunnel. At the extreme end of the league of public policy disasters, the bank guarantee almost wrecked our economy.

But what’s unique about Irish Water is that we’ve spent hundreds of millions to create a public institution that will serve virtually none of the purposes for which it was established. I don’t think we’ve ever done that before in Ireland. We’ve never embarked on a public policy process to do one thing, and ended up doing an entirely different thing.

There were several purposes behind the original concept. We need to conserve water. We need to invest in the necessary infrastructure. We need to adopt the “user pays” principle. We need to be able to borrow for all those purposes without adding to an already over-burdened central government debt.

None of them apply now. There’s no evidence that we’ve curtailed the waste. There’s no money for investment in the future unless the Government guarantees it. The person who wastes thousands of gallons of water will pay exactly the same as the person who is most frugal in its use — and the waster will get a grant in recognition of his conservation efforts! And the entire thing has to go back on the Government’s balance sheet.

So, all the purposes for which this benighted company was set up have been defeated. And it has itself acquired an unenviable reputation, which has never recovered from the disastrous first interview given by its CEO John Tierney a year and a half ago, when he announced that Irish Water (which most of us had never heard of at the time) had already spent €50m on consultants.

There were two things about that interview. First of all we had been given to understand that the reason Bord Gáis was awarded the job of setting up Irish Water was because they had the necessary expertise and skills in-house.

But even if that wasn’t the case, if John Tierney had said (and it would have been true) that they had spent the money on once-off, non-recurring start-up costs, without any reference to consultants, a lot of the ensuing controversy might have been avoided.

But instead of avoiding controversy, they seemed to wallow in it. More revelations about management pay, a widespread bonus structure, a payroll that guaranteed jobs and pensions for people who had come over from the local authorities with little to do, strange board appointments — one after the other they have piled up to undermine respect for the authority and what it is supposed to do.

It’s crazy. All over the world the principle of managing and conserving water — and paying for it — has been enshrined for generations. Water authorities do everything from running the water supply to recording the odd fish in their reservoirs. Did you know, for example, that the reservoirs fed by the Merrimack river in the north-eastern US have all sorts of odd species — the stunted hornpout, the Mad Tom, the tadpole catfish? In Ireland, the stunted hornpout could be put in charge of water management. It’s a pretty dumb fish, apparently.

To top it all, it now looks likely that this year and next, and perhaps into the foreseeable future, the arithmetic is craziest of all. If half the relevant population is paying €160, and the entire population is getting a grant of €100, the overnment will be paying out more than the utility takes in. That’s the ultimate nuttiness. By doing away with the charges and the grant, the Government would probably save money.

Someone needs to put their hands up here. This mess was created in the first place by Phil Hogan. (The Taoiseach should make a mental note to himself that he should never again guarantee someone a cushy job in Europe and then ask him to do an enormous job at home first.) But now the mess falls on Alan Kelly.

He has two choices. He and the Government can insist, right up to the general election, that it’s all grand and “it will be all right on the night”. Or they can admit that this is an entirely botched exercise. Neither is enviable, I accept that. But there’s never any disgrace in admitting that something is fundamentally wrong.

I’m not saying that I know what the right alternative is. It seems to me that it would be mad, and wildly expensive, to abolish Irish Water. But its image and reputation need to be rebuilt. The company would have been in a much stronger position if two things had happened before charges came in — metering should have been completed, and there should have been an initial programme of capital investment in repairing leaks and waste.

And charges would have been more acceptable if they had been designed around the “user pays” principle, with real incentives for conservation and an inability to pay mechanism. All of us would have had more confidence in the future if the Government had agreed to a constitutional referendum that would have guaranteed no future privatisation without the consent of the people.

Is it too late to do any of these things? If they can’t it will likely dominate the next election. I can already imagine some future reunion of the members of this Government, a nice dinner perhaps, when they’ll still be wondering what went wrong. I hope no-one there has to say “we did a lot, and we survived a lot. But in the end we drowned in Irish Water”.

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