Michael Brennan, the Business Post political editor, has written a fantastic book, In Deep Water, that chronicles the fiasco of the failed attempt to introduce domestic water charges across Ireland, from before their introduction in 2014 to after their suspension in 2016. It describes the creation of the national water utility “Irish Water”, which took over water service responsibility from 34 local authorities (since consolidated to 31).
The precision in the writing means that not a word is wasted across the just over 300 pages. This is a political thriller of where water and society meet, which deserves to be widely read. It will appeal to readers on both sides of the water charges argument that gripped Ireland like no other issue in recent years.
Brennan goes for short chapters, which provide a compelling parallel narrative featuring all of the key players including politicians, Government advisors, civil servants, utility staff and anti-water charge protestors. Every one of the 61 chapters packs a punch. It provides a compelling insight into how Government functions and interacts with wider society.
The book leaves little doubt that reform of the water sector in Ireland was needed. The chapter “A Neglected Water Service” provides a shocking and infuriating tale of inefficiency under the previous Council regime, with reports of “useless” wastewater treatment plants, raw sewage discharges and lack of knowledge of the location of the water and sewerage networks.
One of the most jaw dropping passages in the book described the unexpected death of a council water technician in Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary. He was the only person who knew the location of the water pipe network. It was never recorded on a Geographical Information System (GIS), as is standard practice across the World. I have personally worked with utilities in several African towns with more sophisticated water network mapping than Carrick-on-Suir.
Reading the book, I was struck by the frequency of the words “panic” and “rushed”. So many flawed decisions with far reaching consequences for Ireland’s water infrastructure were made for blinkered political reasons. Civil servants too often saw their job as unquestionably following Government policy, ignoring advice that countered it.
For example, a patently ludicrous “cost benefit analysis” was prepared to justify the roll out of universal domestic metering. Brennan interestingly highlights that it was prepared by anonymous civil servants, which is apparently a common practice. This surely cannot be right. No one with knowledge of the issue would have appended their names to such a document.
The books gives the lie to the notion that “hindsight” is necessary for understanding the challenges of reforming Ireland’s water sector. Good advice was available at the time. The Government chose not to take it.
While the water engineer in me was sorry to see water charges defeated, this book shows why (at least part of) the Irish citizen in me is glad.
The book details positive aspects to their failure, which should be acknowledged. There was an extraordinary comradery among the anti-water charge protestors who had suffered seemingly endless austerity. Brennan refers to the rediscovery of the Irish tradition of meitheal, where neighbours come together to bring home the harvest. A vivid example is given of a Cobh resident who was suffering from depression. The protests gave him a sense of purpose and social inclusion.
Another positive aspect of their failure is the apparent end of the Government obsession with “off balance sheet” spending, what I would argue was the “original sin” of the whole fiasco. It was the Government that underinvested in Ireland’s water infrastructure for decades. Their failed attempt to get Irish Water off the Government’s books was an attempted abdication of responsibility by multiple Government departments.
“Abolish Irish Water” became a populist cry during the anti-water charge protests. Yet I struggle to understand how anyone who reads this book with an open mind could continue to argue that Ireland doesn’t need a national water utility. Setting it up was the right thing to do.
Former Irish Water Managing Director John Tierney, who declined to be interviewed for the book, was vilified throughout his tenure. In the book he is shown as an honest public servant who commanded the loyalty of his staff while trying to do a very challenging and stressful job. His reluctance to being interviewed is perhaps illustrative of his inability to adequately communicate the utility position during the crucial early stages of the establishment of Irish Water.
The story is not over. Something Brennan only alludes to in the book, but has written about elsewhere, is the tension that exists right up to the present between the Council water workers and Irish Water.
John Tierney was recruited as Managing Director due to his Council background and his apparent ability to get the Council workers on board. This does not appear to have been achieved. The reasons why would make for an interesting afterword.
Michael Brennan, 2019, In Deep Water, How People, Politics and Protests Sank Irish Water. Mercier Press. ISBN-13: 978-1781176580.
Joe Dalton blogs @ Joe's Water Blog
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