Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Northern Ireand ministerial row erupts over floods response

East Belfast surfboard superhero rescues flood victims. Image submitted by Conor Dunn

The floods crises led to a Stormont minister disappearing an Executive colleague has claimed.

Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy claims his Rural Development counterpart Michelle O'Neill “vanished” during the flood alert.

But the Sinn Fein minister slammed Mr Kennedy’s overture as “political showboating”.

The row is now likely to spill over into the next Executive meeting, which is expected to receive a ‘task force’ report on how flooding across the country was dealt with.

The investigation by the Performance, Delivery and Efficiency Unit (DARD) — commissioned after heavy criticism of the current floods reaction force which also includes local councils and the Department of Finance which runs the floodline — is now with ministers.

Mr Kennedy told Ulster Unionist party colleagues: “We witnessed flooding this summer, I was on the ground myself, yet the Minister for Flooding, Michelle O'Neill, who has responsibility for the Rivers Agency, where was she? Well, she vanished, no doubt perhaps out of modesty.

“There was, not for the first time, a tried and tested Sinn Fein wall of silence.

“I believe Rivers Agency needs better ministerial leadership so I am saying give it to me, so when there is a next time we will be in a better position to respond.”

Ms O’Neill hit back: “I do not feel the need to respond to cheap political show boating at a party conference.”

In June, MLAs accused the Regional Development and Finance departments as well as the Rivers Agency and local councils of a “systemic failure” which lead to a complete lack of co-ordination — heightening the misery for thousands of households.

The Assembly was told a capital injection of at least £30m must be found to tackle infrastructure deficiencies in the short term. The Executive agreed to fast-track an already-announced £10m scheme.

Mr Kennedy, who is due to answer questions on the PEDU report at the Stormont committee which monitors his department, added: “Take it off Michelle O’Neill and give it to me. Provide me the funding to tackle flooding and let me get on with the job.

“Then we can start to prepare longer term, for better flood defences and more effective flood alleviation schemes.

“Because of the years of under-investment and missed opportunities, at least we will be better prepared to respond.

“Nobody would have to go looking for Rivers Agency or the Minister responsible because I would be out front.

“Just as there will be no quick fix — nor should we be resigned to a future of regular floods and damaged homes.”

Committee chair Jimmy Spratt, DUP, said: “We can’t go on with this tug of war between departments, with one passing the buck to the other.

“We need a joined up approach so that all the needs of people on the ground - from sandbags onwards - are being met.”

Story so far

There were more than 700 flood-related call-outs in the greater Belfast area alone during flash floods. There were also serious flooding incidents in other areas as far apart as Cushendall, Armagh and Holywood in north Down. At the height of the midweek downpour many roads — including main routes — were impassable and about 1,000 homes were left without power.

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