Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

Irish Water is in a mess. We all know that. The Government is struggling to deal with the crisis and the fact that they cannot seem to get everyone into a room and come to a decision is not helping. There is to be a decision this week, then its next week, the amounts vary, the idea of a referendum continues to be talked about. Understandably the government want to get it right, but the fact is that they will eventually have to take a bit of a hit and hope approach anyway and the public are less likely to agree with it each day that passes.
The longer it goes on, the more people talk. Public representatives are no different. Last week on the ‘Late Debate’ on RTE radio, Senator John Whelan made a stunning accusation. He suggested that the Government had been misled by Bord Gais about Irish Water. The suggestion was that TDs had voted for it but had been ‘sold a pup’. This accusation has pretty serious implications. Understandably RTE distanced itself from the comments.
In the aftermath a few questions arise. Public representatives may say things under pressure but what if this is a commonly held belief in the corridors of power? That would cause a major issue. If people in the government parties believe they were outwitted by Bord Gais then how could the ordinary person be expected to trust the new Irish Water body?

There is of course a simple possible explanation: that Senator Whelan spoke out of turn with no evidence whatsoever to back him up and is a lone voice in his belief or wildly mistaken. If this is the case then the government could be expected to deal with it by giving him a ticking off and immediately expressing their trust in Bord Gais in all their dealings with the government.
I asked this of the Labour party twitter account but got no response. Joanna Tuffy is a TD who bravely engages and discusses issues and she should be noted and respected for that. I asked her if she felt the government was misled and would she express full confidence in Bord Gais and all its dealings with government. She did not feel she had enough information to answer the question however and ‘I don’t know’ was as far as we could get.

I emailed the Government Press Office last Thursday asking them to clarify the matter and whether they agreed the government was misled or whether they would express full confidence in all Bord Gais dealings with the government. I received no reply. I emailed them again last Friday and they have still failed to respond.

I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer asking if he would distance himself from the accusation that the government was misled and if he would express confidence in Bord Gais dealings with government. He too failed to respond. Later that evening in an interview the Minister said that he would not ‘necessarily go down the line of saying that anyone was misled, because I wouldn’t think that’s appropriate.’ That is hardly the ringing endorsement that one might expect. Surely a minister should be saying that the Government was not misled in any way shape or form? The language hinted at some kind of doubt and that the wording of the accusation was just inappropriate rather than plainly wrong.
I emailed Minister Alan Kelly’s press officer putting this to him and again asking him to say categorically that the Government was not misled and that they had full confidence in Bord Gais and all their dealings. Still I was met with silence. How hard can it be to say you trust the people you are working with on the biggest project the government has before it?

I also contacted Senator John Whelan and asked him if he would wish to retract the comment or say he stands over it. Unsurprisingly after two emails I still got no response there either. After a while if you keep ignoring something then perhaps it will go away and people will doubt it ever happened. If no one asks the question then you don’t have to answer and once it’s not asked ‘live on air’ we will be fine.
So I experienced what it is like to become the invisible man. There are no answers. I wouldn’t mind but all I wanted them to do was fully back their own project and team in simple terms. Makes you wonder….

Update: After I posted this blog earlier a twitter friend Anne-Marie (@thecailinrua) asked Senator When for his thoughts on the blog. He responded with the following ‘I think Delores O’Riordain was recruited by Govt to get #water off front pages and @jonnyfallon should write a blog about that.’

We both asked him for a straight answer to which he responded ‘last week alone I was on midlands 103, RTE news and Late debate and answered all questions put to me as I always do’

I responded by reminding him that the questions in my email remained unanswered and asked ‘Do you stand over the allegation that Bord Gais misled the govt? yes or No?’

As things stand I have not got a response

Update 21/11/2014:As the government announced its revised Water Charges scheme Government TD’s and Senators hit Social Media in an effort to sell it. This prompted another opportunity to ask John Whelan about this. I asked him ‘Yes or No did Bord Gais mislead the government on Irish Water?’ He replied “Yes – I said we were sold a pup and today it is being put right by @AlanKellyLabour as any reasonable person would agree”

So it is now quite clear that John Whelan stands over his assertion. Despite repeated attempts and opportunities the Minister and the Government press office have still not replies to questions and this can only be taken at this stage as an acknowledgement that Whelan has a point or at least some support in his view. No Government source has been willing to express complete confidence in Bord Gais and their dealings with the Government on this issue.

I contacted Bord Gais (Ervia) about this and asked them for their view. Their response focussed mostly on the work they were attempting to do and how they hoped to gain the trust of the public. The first paragraph vageuly alluded to the question of who misled who. I include their response in full below. However, the Irish people are left in a most unsatisfactory position. Clearly some issue has arisen between Bord Gais and The government at a senior level. Some breach of trust must have happened as no side seem to be in a position to deny this. It is startling that an organisation that is now so dependent on gaining trust starts its life with doubt hanging over the very agreement it was based upon.

Bord Gais Statement:
Bord Gais put in a proposal to government in late 2011/early 2012. Detailed project plans and budget were agreed with the government subsequently and since then, the company has worked closely with the Government to meet milestones and deliver to a challenging timeline.

Obviously we cannot speak on behalf of the government. For our part, we welcome yesterday’s government announcement, which provides greater clarity and certainly to the public. The challenge that Irish Water faces in transforming water services in this country is considerable. In addition, the timeline set for the utility’s establishment was very challenging, and Ervia CEO Michael McNicholas has acknowledged this in interviews since yesterday’s announcement. He acknowledged that Irish Water had not yet won public trust and confidence, and apologised for that. We have made considerable progress in many areas since our establishment. For example by next summer, boil water notices will be down from over 20,000 to just 5,000; 12,000 people in Roscommon will soon have clean drinking water; and major waste water treatment projects are now in construction in locations including Youghal, Carrigtwohill, Clifden, Bunclody, Killybegs, Clonakilty and Waterford. We acknowledge we have not achieved all we need to achieve, and we are fully focused on winning the confidence of the public and making vital improvements to our water infrastructure.

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One thought on “Irish Water – Answers seem to be the hardest thing

  1. Martin Connolly on said:

    I must refer you to Russell Brand. Leaving aside the very dubious Irish accent, he’s got matter the Irish Water/ government/vested interests; double taxation sewn up. Basically we’re the laughing stock of the world, yet again.

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