Plea for water dispute resolution
Crunch negotiations between unions and management to resolve an industrial dispute that has left thousands without water in Northern Ireland should not break up until a deal is struck, a Stormont minister has insisted.
Bosses at government-owned supply company Northern Ireland Water are holding talks with union leaders at the Labour Relations Agency in Belfast as almost 8,000 properties remain without supply.
Out-of-hours repair services are not being carried out as normal due to the continuing work-to-rule action by staff over proposed changes to their pension scheme.
Counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry in the west of Northern Ireland are the areas worst affected by supply problems, with customers having to collect water from temporary tanks, with some even being forced to boil snow.
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, who has ultimate responsibility for the arms-length company, was called to answer an urgent oral question on the crisis in the Assembly.
"The consequences of the industrial dispute have been unacceptable for customers over the past two weekends and in particular during this last week," he said.
"For my part I am disappointed that the parties have not yet brokered an agreement and I am sorry the public are bearing the unacceptable brunt of that failure."
He claimed talks which he took part earlier today had been "positive".
But he added: "It is my clear view that unions and management should remain at the Labour Relations Agency until this is thrashed out and resolved and I have made that clear to the parties involved when I met them earlier.
"Now is the day and now is the hour resolve these issues speedily and to the full resolution of these issues."
In fiery Assembly exchanges, the minister faced criticism from rival members, including claims that the west was being unfairly discriminated against when it came to provision of services.
He defended his handling of the situation and rejected any suggestion that NI Water treated parts of Northern Ireland differently.
The minister added: "I am not going to be kicked about by parties here who think that just because elections are coming that this is a convenient issue to be used as a political football.
"I am on the side of the householders without water. I am on their side to have that water restored as quickly as possible - I hope everybody in this House has that same commitment."
The dispute centres on NI Water's bid to roll out public sector pension reforms that have already been implemented in other state organisations in the region.
Staff are resisting the moves, claiming their monthly pension contributions are set to soar.
A spokesman for NI Water said 7,750 properties still remained without supply and warned that other customers may experience disruption later today.
The latest issue is due to problems at Lough Bradan Water Treatment Works in Tyrone.
"NI Water fully recognises this is a frustrating experience for our customers, and can assure them we are doing everything possible to restore water supplies," he said.
"NI Water would like to once again thank our customers for their continued patience whilst this problem is being resolved.
"We appeal to customers to use water wisely and help conserve the remaining water supplies.
"NI Water has mobilised all resources at its disposal to deal with this latest incident, however, due to the limited resources available to us, as a result of industrial action, our response has been restricted."