Where Did It All Go Wrong?



From top: Irish Water CEO John Tierney, 2014; Dan Boyle

Whoever thought setting up Irish Water was an answer to anything must have asking themselves a pretty stupid question.

Dan Boyle writes:

Recently a national protest against homelessness was held. It was attended by hundreds. I would have gone had I been more aware. It is a subject that truly shames us all, and not just the political system.

I have a feeling that when it becomes possible to write the history of this time in a more rounded sense, the amount of anger and energy that has been used on the issue of Water will be seen with some incredulity.

There are those who will claim that water was a binding factor. That it was a clarion call for all the injustices to be found in our society. Some more have convinced themselves that without the issue, and the engagement that has resulted from it, political change on any issue wouldn’t be possible.

And as an issue it has spawned a myriad of sub issues, which of themselves have revealed deep flaws in our democratic structures, as well as our systems of administration.

Whoever thought setting up Irish Water was an answer to anything must have asking themselves a pretty stupid question.

The model of recruiting those shown to be incompetent in their previous roles showed a particular kind of genius. The need to engage consultants by the wagonload underscored a thinking way beyond we ordinary folk.

The barely concealed attempt at fattening up a public utility for the subsequent pleasure of the private sector, added further grist to the mill.

As anger-inducing as these issues were of themselves, they were never the banner items for the dozens of protests that were attended by thousands.

The main point of contention transmitted from these events was that the ‘principle’ of directly paying for water was somehow abhorrent.

The government’s strategy didn’t help of course. It left what it believed to be the easiest issue to be sorted last. It, and especially its key Ministers, seemed to lack any sense of self awareness of a population already pulverised by a series of cack handed policy decisions.

Still public anger remained diffuse. It was never the case that direct payment was ever the issue that most consumed. Unfortunately it became the shorthand for what was was any or a combination of the issues I have mentioned above.

Here I need to confess. I have not paid my water charges either.

I have not done so partially because I have had little confidence that the administrative infrastructure would last, but mostly I was part of that very small subset that wanted to see water metered and directly paid for.

It was the €100 bribe that pushed me over the edge. I imagine each person can speak of a different breaking point, such has been the level of incompetence that has been shown.

Had we been a more mature democracy each of these issues would have been dealt with differently. We still have a lot of growing up to do.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle


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65 thoughts on “Where Did It All Go Wrong?

  1. They Tried To Make Me Go To Rehab

    I totally agree with every word of this – fair play Dan

    Regarding this though and serious questions now

    “The model of recruiting those shown to be incompetent in their previous roles showed a particular kind of genius. The need to engage consultants by the wagonload underscored a thinking way beyond we ordinary folk”

    – Is that not every government department in Ireland, ever? We all saw the types of loons in charge of the national broadband scheme, the IFRSA, and the Central Bank staff without degrees in economics.

    What did you try to do about this systemic failure of administration when you were in power Dan?

    1. Dan Boyle

      Some things. We insisted the Governor of the Central Bank shouldn’t come from the Department of Finance; and that the Financial Regulator should come from outside the State. We introduced public appointments through an Oireachtas committees.

      1. They Tried To Make Me Go To Rehab

        Great, thanks for this Dan

        I wasn’t aware you guys had done that.

        To be fair I think your reforms of the planning laws were a failure but at least you tried. Maybe we’ll see some long term impact but it didn’t work in the short term. People always find ways to kick stuff down the road.

        I also have mixed feelings about the car tax. I understand the principle of it but it was very regressive in practice and mostly affected the poor in a negative way.

  2. phil

    What did it for me was being personally aware of some people who got jobs in IW…. One was a useless councilor, who was promised a job in IW if he would step aside in the next election, there was a caveat, he had to pass an exam in business studies, which he has still failed to do…

  3. classter

    ‘Whoever thought setting up Irish Water was an answer to anything must have asking themselves a pretty stupid question.’

    I’m not sure what Dan is referring to here but setting up Irish Water is a pretty sensible idea – metering & charging for water, a central utility, etc. are positives imo.

    It was the execution which was terrible.

    1. edalicious

      I think that’s the point he was making. Not any Irish Water but specifically the Irish Water that we’ve ended up with.

    2. 15 cents

      why? we’ve had water forever and it’s worked fine. why do you suddenly have a desire to pay way more than you already are, as well as pay what you have been paying on top of that? for the same thing you’ve had all your life. and anyway, its more about the future plans of IW, basically turning water into a sellable product rather than a human right, for the private sector to make money off us. i dont know why you want to buy into that.

      1. Rob_G

        “we’ve had water forever and it’s worked fine.”

        – when I started to type “boil notices…” into Chrome, it was autocompleted ‘Cork’, ‘Mayo’ and ‘Roscommon’. Ireland’s water services have been underfunded for decades.

        1. 15 cents

          yea and all those issues, and burst pipes and old pipes etc. wouldve been fixed twice over using the money that has been pumped into IW.

          1. mildred st. meadowlark

            And *that* is my main issue with it. That, and the fact that the money and taxes paid prior to IW were never used for the purposes of maintaining a functioning water system.

          2. Andy

            Yesterday it was once over.
            Today it’s twice over.

            Irish Water cost €500mm to establish yet you’d use half that (a mere €250mm) to complete the €5.5bn works needed through 2021.

            You are saving this country billions.

            Either that, or you’ve no idea what you’re talking about.

    3. ahjayzis

      Setting up a centralised national water body is sensible – setting up this semi-state as a balance-sheet-fiddling exercise, in-built bonus culture, a sweetheart deal to lock in excessive costs and directed by men found totally incompetent with public money was bound to wind people up. If you were going to privatise water, this is how you would do it, also.

      One body = sensible. Irish Water has made that sensible idea toxic for the next decade or two.

      1. Declan

        Ah now, the idea was good. By removing it off the Govt’s balance sheet you can free up borrowing for other capital projects (hospitals, schools, roads) and even day to day spending. More importantly, it would mean water had a dedicated funding stream : ) and the monies previously paid by Government could be redirected to other current services. It side steps the problem the politically, hospitals and schools will always win out in budget estimates versus water (and all those things we don’t see).

        The application of it in the form of it’s set up should be separated from the idea.

        1. They Tried To Make Me Go To Rehab

          the idea of it was complete crap – you are an utter moron

          an off-balance sheet exercise that fooled nobody least of all the EU moneylenders

          1. Declan

            Your an angry man and if you think it wouldn’t work then go and speak to the EUROSTAT folks

        2. Andy

          Separating it’s implementation from the concept would involve people holding 2 thoughts in their little heads at the same time.

          Never going to be a runner.

    4. panga panga

      what has happened to the €27 BILLION raised since we STARTED PAYING FOR WATER SINCE 1997 THROUGH INDIRECT TAXATION??
      and as for the ‘metering for conservation’ crap…only 7% of leakage is Domestic
      the other 93% is due to the deliberate withholding of funds for the infrastructure by EVERY Government since 1997
      Where is that money??????
      so NO WAY, I WON’T PAY TWICE!!!

      1. Rob_G

        “what has happened to the €27 BILLION raised since we STARTED PAYING FOR WATER SINCE 1997 THROUGH INDIRECT TAXATION??”

        – we spent it all (and then some) on other stuff. IW was set up with the idea that all the money raised by it would be spent only on water services.

  4. 15 cents

    it was the straw that etc. etc.
    constant cuts. being told we’re exceeding our repayments expectations, being told we actually have more money left over .. yet feeling no benefit at all, and then being shackled with yet another financial burden in the form of water tax, to feed the private sector. we’re being treated as a cash cow for europe and enough is enough. Our gov. are not just incompetent, but they show an absolute contempt for us. From a snarling Noonan making up lies like we’re gullible children, to an even snarlier Kelly saying they’d go into our bank accounts to take the money off us. And there’s no saviour in sight. It seems it always be FF/FG, and they’ll always be the same. Its severely depressing to live under this government. They have gross inadequacies across every department, and it seems too broken to fix, with no one to fix it anyway.

  5. Pip

    Same tipping point here Dan – the ridiculous grant did it for me too, in the unintended direction.
    I’m not that cheap!

  6. Paddy

    Now that the entity IW is basically dead, it’s time for a referendum on the ownership and delivery of this natural resource. One only has to look at Nestle and their commercialisation of water.
    What we see now though is that FG have failed to deliver up this massive money-earner to a menacing private entity, they have now re-jiggled their plans to privatising as much as possible of the health service to the same end. Why?

  7. Clampers Outside!

    “The model of recruiting those shown to be incompetent in their previous roles showed a particular kind of genius.”

    100% ! Never a truer word spoken, gross incompetence is rewarded in political circles! Fact.

    1. ahjayzis

      They then promoted Phil. People wonder why even if we think IW on paper is a good idea, we don’t trust these thundering bastards to implement it.

  8. some old queen

    The ‘We will bill and you WILL pay’ authoritarianism of it all roused people on an emotional rather than logical level. The attempted physical forcing of meters invoked a reaction which has since spawned a number of political careers and became a lightning rod for a range of other issues.

    I don’t believe Irish Water will survive now for one simple reason. Nobody holds a grudge like the Irish. No amount of rebranding, restructuring or kicking it down the road is going to convince the general public that it is fit for purpose. This isn’t helped by those at the top level inside where self preservation appears to be the main priority of course.

    Nothing is going to change until it is put to a referendum. Nothing is going to change until it is taken out of the political domain and the privatisation issue is put to bed once and for all. Of course there are plenty on both sides who do not want it to be taken out because as a football goes, there is plenty of capital to be made. But none of that is going to fix the 50% leaks now is it?

    1. 15 cents

      i disagree with “Nobody holds a grudge like the Irish” .. FF completely broke the entire nation, and were only out of office for one term over it. And as soon as they got back in, they went back on their pre-election promise of gettin rid of IW.

  9. edalicious

    The €100 bribe was just BIZARRE. I actually can’t fathom how they thought that would be a good idea, especially since they were paying it out to people who hadn’t even paid their bills too.

    1. 15 cents

      shortsighted, childish plan by the gov., like dangling a carrot in front of us, thinking we would be so dazzled by the 100 quid that we’d forget that we’d then be signed up for a life time of bills. its insulting that they thought we’re that stupid.

  10. Pip

    May be stating the obvious, but we must always remember that anything that costs lots of money, makes lots of money – for someone with the right connections.

  11. Steve

    Very disappointing Dan.

    I’ve admitted on this website that I work with engineers in Irish Water – all of whom I’ve found competent and good to work with. Tried to bring a facts to the debate.

    Last week you got on your high horse with your post about commenters with the cloak of anonymity mocking / abusing you.

    Using this platform to make sweeping statements about IW staff being incompetent is in my opinion, equally as morally corrupt and shallow. As a person who previously worked in public life, with civil servants, council staff etc. , you should know better.

    Shame shame shame on you.

    1. 15 cents

      quite a scathing comment for someone who clearly didn’t misinterpreted what was said. He wasn’t talking about the engineers, he was referring to the administration and management of IW.

    2. mildred st. meadowlark

      Steve, reread the article without the big offended head on you.

      Your point is the equivalent of this:

      “I’ve worked with the people at Coca-Cola for many years! They’re all good people! Coca-Cola is a good company!”

      We all know Coca-Cola are the devil. Nasty, sugary, exploitative assholes. That doesn’t make the many people who work for them bad people. It makes them people who need money.

    3. ahjayzis

      John Tierney and his posse are incompetent. Your average local authority engineer is I’m sure very professional and knowledgeable, I’m also sure they wouldn’t take offence at their bosses being called out for making an abject hames of the establishment of the company.

  12. Dan Boyle

    It’s administrative competence I question. Top level management. I’m far from alone in that opinion.

      1. Steve

        @dan no you’re not , I’d be with you that one also.

        But it’s the type of generalisation / sweeping statement such as above that adds to the vilification of ordinary staff.

        I think an update (or even a redaction) to your post is in order.

        1. MoyestWithExcitement

          I think you’ve completely misread his piece. Nobody could think he was taking about engineers.

        2. edalicious

          I don’t think he did make a sweeping statement though, in fairness. He talked about IW hiring people who had previously been shown to be incompetent but he never said that all staff in IW are or were incompetent.

  13. Dan Boyle

    I’ve criticised incompetence. Anyone competent in Irish Water isnt covered by that criticism.

    1. Steve

      I’m buried in instances of where protestors / politicians / civil activists etc. in the past 2 years who (have rightly campaigned against the political farce) have managed to distinguish between IW senior management and ordinary staff.

      In fairness to RBB, he has recently started doing this. If only to keep the unions off his back / keep his “protect the workers” message on track.

  14. Nilbert

    Ground-breaking journalism here… how have we never heard all of these points many many times before?

    “I would have gone had I been more aware”, says it all.

    Also, “The main point of contention transmitted from these events was that the ‘principle’ of directly paying for water was somehow abhorrent.”
    and yet….
    “Here I need to confess. I have not paid my water charges either.”

  15. ollie

    Dan, people don’t trust governments.
    Your party in government is partially to blame for this. Your carbon tax on greenhouse gases for most alongside grants for electric cars for the few that could afford them was terrible policy.
    Your car tax changes, punishing those who can’t afford a new car while rewarding those who could afford to buy a polluting new diesel car likewise.
    Trevor Sargent promising one thing in an election and doing the opposite once elected, overseeing the Corrib gas project in power, objecting to same in election campaign, the 2010 carbon tax when people were losing their jobs and homes, promising to end use of Shannon airport by US military and backtracking when in power, review of the M3 motorway route abandoned when in power, I could go on and on with examples of why we don’t trust governments but I’m sure you get the picture. Politicians promise and then break promises, green part are as bad as every other party.

      1. bisted

        …ah here Ollie…you can’t blame Dan for all that…sure he wasn’t in power – he might have gotten an oul sinecure but no power. And sure didn’t the greens sleep through the crises and have to be woken now and again to sign things.

        1. Dan Boyle

          Again I’m shocked Bisted. I have never heard write in such terms before. What with you and Ollie being such original thinkers like…

  16. Eoin

    ‘The main point of contention transmitted from these events was that the ‘principle’ of directly paying for water was somehow abhorrent.’ Is this what you think about the protests or is this what you think the media SPIN was on the protests? Because the latter is true the former is utter RUBBISH. Irish Water was the brightest in a long line of sparks. It was the piece of oppression and classic cronyism that went just too far. A growing mistrust in your political peers here was the fuel. Try attending a protest once in a while if you want to find out what they are about. Though that’s probably not a great idea seeing as the Greens haven’t exactly helped the people of Ireland in ANY way.

    1. Clampers Outside!

      I attended quite a few protests…. both are true in my experience. Where do ya think ‘we pay already’ nonsense came from. Most protesters did not / do not want to pay directly from what I saw. So I stopped marching.

  17. Truth in the News

    A huge amount of money has been screwed out of the pockets of the people
    since 1977 when rates were abolished and VAT levels increased from 5 to 12.5%
    and from 12.5 to 23% and the later siphoning of of funds from the Motor Tax fund
    again for Water and Sewage + the money provided from Europe….there is something amiss about the management of the service, it any wonder the people
    revolted when they smelled the rat, the setting up of Irish Water was an extension
    to the farce, and to cap it all by putting Tierny in charge, after his running of a local
    authority and if the present junta and a half don’t grasp the nettle, the February
    debacle will be nothing to the next one, and incidently, Dan where has all the carbon tax gone, is it to prop Merkels banks…..?

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