Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ed Curran: They'll always find enough water to wash away blame

Cliodhna Maguire aged 6 from Belfast , takes a drink of water from a water tap at Olympia

The water crisis was a disaster waiting to happen. It was only a case of when.

The coldest Christmas in living memory was bound to deliver the fatal blow to a service hopelessly underfunded for decades and desperately found wanting in political and managerial oversight.

In any other society, heads would roll and the cull would start at the very top - in the Northern Ireland Executive where the buck really stops. Indeed, in any normal society, the Stormont Executive would be tottering on the brink of collapse by now.

That it isn't, and that it continues to survive a system of ineffective governance, is down to one plain fact: Northern Ireland is not a normal society. Whether we like it or not, we are hoist with our own peculiar political petard.

We have had the spectacle of the First and deputy First Minister, along with the minister responsible, joining forces to condemn the management of Northern Ireland Water as if they themselves bore no responsibility or culpability for the dreadful mess visited upon so many tens of thousands of people.

I'm sorry, but their efforts to detach and absolve themselves of any blame do not hold water. The fundamental question in relation to Northern Ireland Water is whether it has sufficient financial resources. No less than the First Minister himself, Peter Robinson, is the very architect of no water charges.

Of course, no one wants to pay water charges, but what is the alternative? Martin McGuinness did himself no service with his trite and disparaging remarks about "well-heeled" economists and observers who advocate water charges.

The legitimate arguments for water charges are not deserving of his dismissiveness - especially since we all know the Executive is playing to a May election gallery and may well change its tune once the votes are counted.

One word holds the whole Stormont charade together - peace. Because we cherish this so much we put up with Stormont's dithering, indecisiveness and now a breathtaking level of incompetence over the water service.

The overall responsibility for this most essential of public services rests with Stormont and, in particular, the minister, Conor Murphy. If he had any conscience, he should walk away now.

Within the Executive there are ministers who should have resigned or been sacked since 2007. But none has and none will be because the system protects them all.

When it suits them, Stormont ministers take responsibility. They take the credit when there is good news to be imparted. However, when problems arise, everyone but a minister is to blame.

Devolution, we now know, holds everyone to book except the exclusive political brethren who inhabit the Stormont estate. The whipping boys, the scapegoats of the Executive are senior public servants in virtually any area of government.

This time around it's Northern Ireland Water bosses, but anyone who cares to examine the dubious record of the Executive will see that, when the going gets tough, there is always an education board, a health trust, or some other public body or official to blame - but never ever our political leaders.

The water crisis reminded me of the aftermath of the Christmas gales a decade ago when tens of thousands of homes across Northern Ireland were left without electricity. My home was one of 10,000 which still had no power after five days. And then, as now, people were literally left in the dark, not knowing if, how, or when, services would be restored.

However, NIE learnt a hard lesson then which I would have thought should have been copied across Stormont by now. New procedures for communication were put in place.

As a result, NIE appears to have coped with crises ever since in a manner which was not apparent in the past week with the water service.

Stormont can change the management of Northern Ireland Water, but we can only change Stormont through public pressure for reform. I suspect the level of public disillusionment is such that, if there were an election tomorrow, political apathy would be more manifest than ever.

Democracy and devolution can only work properly if local ministers are held to account and know their jobs are on the line if they fail. That is not happening in Northern Ireland.

The people have run out of water, but the politicians continue to drink from Stormont's fountain of comfort.

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