Admit you’re wrong and start again

Government and Irish Water

If Goldman Sachs, which announced third quarter profits up by 50% to €1.65bn last Thursday, was the decisive shareholder at Irish Water then the meeting to review the project and how the battle for the hearts and minds of its captive customers was going would be short and brutal. Heads would roll and, at a quickly convened news conference, the mea culpas would flow like an autumn river in flood. The new board would stand behind the new chief executive — looking at the cameras, not their shoes — as he or she announced that Irish Water was deeply sorry for the lack of clarity, its corporate haughtiness, and the ludicrous costs of establishing the quango and retaining superfluous staff.

That brave person would announce a rededication to Irish Water’s raison d’être — the provision of a reliable, cost-effective water service financed by justifiable water charges. It would place a new emphasis on the pressing need to do this quickly because current water systems are barely fit for purpose. The conference would close with a take-home message: an absolute assurance that the semi-state monopoly would not pay any performance related awards or bonuses of any kind to any employee.

That this is as unlikely as Pope Francis beatifying Ian Paisley is just an indication of how dysfunctional and unaccountable some of our public life is. But it would be unfair to Irish Water to have it stand in the dock alone. It is a child of good political policy and ambition and even if Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin tried to wash the Government’s hands of the comedy of errors in the Dáil the Coalition is, like it or not, responsible for the culture, standards, and behaviour of semi-states. If it is not who is?

Reports in The Sunday Business Post that Irish Water’s board may not survive the current difficulties because of political consequences is an indication of the high stakes involved, stakes that have gone far beyond any row over water charges or anything to do with them. Political intervention now seems inevitable because politicians seem set to pay the price of this spectacular cock-up rather than the officer class at Irish Water. This reality affords an unexpected opportunity but if experience is anything to go by that opportunity will be declined by the only people in a position to exploit it — our Government.

It is time Taoiseach Enda Kenny put his hands up and admitted the project has not met acceptable standards that we need to start all over again, especially as we will need a secure water service long after the youngest member of this Dáil has retired. This, after all, would be no more than the Government imposing its own reform agenda on itself.

One of the measures that might win badly-needed support for the project can be simply enough realised. A series of referendums are planned nest year and one more won’t make a difference. Let’s vote on changing the Constitution to ensure that Irish Water can never be privatised without a referendum. That way we know the project is ours and that Goldman Sachs won’t ever pick it up in a fire sale. Unless things change dramatically that prospect seems tragically likely.

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