Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Is paying for our water a pipe dream?

Gail Walker, Belfast Telegraph

So there we have it. Northern Ireland is a Third World country. As we watched in growing disbelief images of people queueing for hours, clutching their pathetic plastic containers for water shipped in from "proper" countries where things actually, you know, work, the feeling of anger was unmistakable.

Of course, the truth is we're not a Third World country. Things work - most of the time. And if they don't, we work our way round them. If we are looking for analogies, Northern Ireland is closer to the old Eastern bloc: an infrastructure literally crumbling away, a political class lost in fantasy and a people who have little or no faith in their supposed "leaders".

All that's missing are the black marketeers, cryptic jokes and an underground resistance. But give it time, give it time ...

Yes, Northern Ireland Water fully deserves to be taken to task. Their response to the crisis was spectacularly inept, deepening, not alleviating, people's distress.

But, as they say, a fish rots from the head. It's all very well for Robinson, McGuinness, Murphy et al to berate NIW, announce inquiries and "understand" people's pain. They are, however, also supposed to be our leaders - so why don't they lead?

Except that would involve a radical change of political culture here. You know politicians actually accepting responsibility. When it comes to the big picture, they can blame the real politicians at Westminster and when it comes to the small picture, they can blame the "little people" below them. Schweet ...

But the grim truth about our water infrastructure has been staring them in the face for some time now. The cast iron pipes under our feet are not the work of our fathers; no, they are the work of our fathers' fathers and, in some cases, our fathers' fathers' fathers. Decades of chronic underinvestment - partly due to the Troubles - means we don't have the PVC pipes enjoyed by the rest of the modern world.

In other words, our water and sewage system is knackered. But even at this humiliating crisis do we hear any substantial "big" talk from our leaders about how to fix things?

Nope, it's easier to berate NIW for not having enough people manning the phones, to feel our pain, accept responsibility without blame or blame without responsibility blah blah blah.

And to make empty gestures, of course. As the pipes have run dry, has any major figure called for a reversal of the Executive's "flagship" decision to delay implementation of water charges?

The Institute of Civil Engineers - who may just know a thing or two about the subject - had earlier recommended doing just that, saying water charges would release funds to allow NIW to begin addressing shortcomings.

But that wouldn't be popular with the voters, would it? The Nolan Show would be jumping with "Outraged of Banbridge". And, well, we know the mantra of elected representatives, don't we? "I am their leader. I must follow them."

So don't expect anyone to ask serious questions about how we're going to raise the cash to replace our creaking pipes. No votes in that. Let's blame NIW and patch it up 'til next time.

Or how about privatising NIW? After all - apart from Scotland - every water board in the UK is in private hands. Lessons to be learned there? I am not saying these are "solutions".

Frankly, I don't know. I'm merely saying that in any serious polity these are the issues which should be bothering our represenatives. But that, of course, is exactly what we don't have. Serious politicians. So, emote, finger point and inquiry away, lads and lasses - that won't fix the flaming pipes.

It's a society supposedly obsessed with the past, but it's all selective.

There'll be less time spent worrying about Victorian waterpipes over the next few years than about how many fireworks we should have to mark the Somme versus the Easter Rising.

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