Fixing leaks priority vows minister
The Northern Ireland minister who oversees the region's crisis-hit water system has said fixing leaks - not securing resignations - was his immediate priority as he apologised for the chaos that has seen thousands of homes run dry.
Conor Murphy's comments came after senior executives at the Northern Ireland Water (NIW) company held a special three-hour board meeting and later promised to step up their efforts.
Officials confirmed 4,400 homes remain without water supply but promised to deal with most of the remaining leaks within days after arctic weather conditions crippled the water supply system.
Regional Development Minister Mr Murphy, whose department is responsible for the NIW, said the terms of an independent probe into the episode would be agreed within days, but the first task was restoring running water to homes and businesses.
"On behalf of the Executive and this department, I want to apologise to people for the abysmal response there has been to real problems and distress that people have faced over the last week," he said.
"The reality is that the people who have to take us through this issue are the people who are currently based in NIW. It would be irresponsible to try and change horses mid-stream."
But Mr Murphy said the impending investigation would identify where blame lay for the crisis: "And people will be held accountable."
As temperatures plummeted to record lows, pipes froze, and when the rapid thaw followed after Christmas there was a massive number of bursts. Tens of thousands of people right across Northern Ireland were hit by water loss at the height of the difficulties.
NIW's interim chairman Padraic White emerged from the board meeting at the organisation's Belfast headquarters and said chief executive Laurence MacKenzie had not resigned, despite growing pressure, but he agreed a fully independent review of the episode should take place.
With hundreds of staff working to repair leaks, he added: "We expect to see a gradual improvement over the coming days. People have encountered huge hardship. The lack of communication caused huge anxiety. We are hugely conscious of that."