NI Water: As brought to you by Slugger O’Toole and others…

I’ve been away for a few days and this story has been rolling on without me taking such a close interest in it. It has been an extraordinary few months. For me it began with a tip off on Friday 2nd July that I should get a hold of footage of the PAC meeting from the previous day.

Thanks to prompt service from the Beeb the democracy live footage was available that evening. I sat down to watch it after putting the kids to bed at about 9.30, interstitially, between late night housework and later with a glass of red. I stopped watching just before 3am in the morning.

I worked most of the rest of that weekend putting together my first thoughts on it for Monday morning. If this was a scoop, it seemed of little interest to anyone in media, bar, I suspect Jamie Delargy of UTV, who’d already put in weeks on following the story the full extent of which is still in the process iof coming to light.

It was different matter on the inside of this story. And within days we were ruffling feathers, when we published Dixon letter. The BBC also had it, Correction: and Martina Purdy broke at 8am on the sixth. At that stage I don’t believe they understood its fuller significance as part of an attempt to undermine the PACs investigation of DRDs IRT.

Much of what followed on our part was a forensic investigation of the publicly available evidence combined with increasingly wider contacts with some of the main characters inside the drama. We built a timeline based on what evidence we could be sure of… And early on we concluded the NEDs had been wronged, not on the basis of allegations, but on the basis of verifiable evidence

Many in our wider audience, I suspect, were confounded by our interest in what even to me before the PAC meeting had been a pretty obscure story. But a small number of our commenters both on site and on their own blogs helped keep the story alive by bring in new information. BelfastJJ’s material threw important light on a number of otherwise inscrutable internal processes. Having different people firing in FOI requests and following their own hunches no doubt helped keep the pressure on. Others kept pressing with questions and opening new angles.

In the meantime – but completely separately – Jamie Delargy was coming to similar conclusions. When Sam McBride at the News Letter came back from his summer holidays, he called me and proceeded to get stuck into an investigation under his own terms.

The rest will become a matter of record.

My concern was not so much to the break the story (people should not discount the challenge facing UTV in bringing these matters into a coherent whole) but to try to track the many threads and build a wider provenance to it when it did break.

It is crucial the committees and the media get to understand why this rash course of action was embarked upon. And to track down the truth about procurement inside NI Water (and DRD). It is obvious now that people with even high level financial expertise generally don’t understand the complexity of contractural instruments. Witness: the nonsense of that £28 million figure.

For this Jamie Delargy (and his boss at UTV Michael Wilson, with whom I have previously crossed swords over the axing of the Insight programmes) deserve huge credit for leading the way in spectacular order. It suggests a model of ‘contingent journalism’ which I hope they will not only continue but to continue to invest in.

This story was never about the NEDs themselves. It was always (though I admit this was not always obvious to outsiders in my copious blogging out of the last two months) about a very serious case of misdirected process in government.

Now the shamelessly commercial bit. As Eamonn has pointed out, this was a non profit making project. My personal aim was to provide an example of slow journalism, as opposed to the kinds of elevator pitch, stand alone story.

I think we have proven a point. Good high quality journalism costs but it also sells. And modest blogging can have powerful effects. For all the strangeness of those monkish first blogs, this has become not the biggest *political* story of the year, but the most significant since it goes right to the heart of the job we expect our elected representatives to do in return for their generous salaries, not mention our trust.

All of this has been free and will remain free for as long as there is a Slugger O’Toole (even after we go, there’ll be a free copy in the British Library to refer to.

So before I brazenly ask for donations, I want to ask that small proportion of our audience who have had serious value from Slugger in the last few months to consider how much value before they decide how much to give.





In the meantime, for opeds, radio, TV, research, book deals and/or documentaries, send me a decent proposal.

For workshops, training, consultancy and digital mentoring, contact Paul Evans.

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  • Mick – Slugger has done a great job in keeping all lines of enquiry together.

    I must agree at the start i wondered what the hell is this all about – but once you blow the dust of the top we all started to see the tangled web of lies and cover ups !!

    http://politicsni.wordpress.com/

    Lets now see how clean the appointment process of the new NED’s was ?

    Still answers to be got surrounding everything to do with NIwater and various others

  • sammymehaffey

    I tried to make a donation but no matter whether i clicked on Donate or Visa it just went to top of page.

  • Jay

    Same here ^^

  • Sammy, Jay – it’s fixed now. Sorry about that.

  • DC

    Resign!

  • DC

    Mick

    I think some MLAs if not ministers should donate a small percentage of next month’s salary to you for doing a job they should have been doing right all along.

    I mean, I’m not paying twice both to you and to the state in taxes for a job the state should be doing yet you have bothered to do on their behalf.

  • Of course this story is still on going, but so far, as an outsider looking in, it looks like just another local kerfuffle which will eventually be made to go away and if this is the biggest story of the year in the north, most people will give a sigh of relief.

    The suspended senior civil servant will be found another birth somewhere else, possible across the sea, and it seems unlikely it will have bars across the windows. So far I see no sign of desperate people flying out of windows, or folk with a flashing blue light on their tail.

    I have not followed the fine detail of the story, but it seems to me, some of those at the center of the coverage, have lost the ability to spell the word corruption, if that is what we are talking about here.

    The only way the proverbial will hit the fan, is if a group of corrupt senior northern politicians and their accomplices decide to use this issue to highlight how clean they and the system they operate has become.

    Being the conservative bunch they all are, I doubt they will do this as it would mean chancing their arm with people who are not entirely under their control.

  • Investigator

    Well done UTV! A little birdy tells me that Jamie Delargy and Michael Wilson may have some questions to answer…

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/deluge-of-muddy-water-for-pac-to-wade-through-14921267.html

    “The IRT’s independence has been called into question — not least over the representations made to the three-person panel by Paul Priestly before it finalised its report.

    The IRT, in fact, also received submissions from NI Water’s board.

    Like Mr Priestly, the board suggested changes to the wording of the first draft.

    This is not unusual — official reports often go through a clearance process, with departments and others offered the opportunity to comment and make the case for revisions prior to publication.

    . This was not an “official” report in the very sense that it was allegedly independent..Witnesses do not get written copies, of the report. They are often called at short notice in person , and only get to read or scan through the parts relating to their submissions or “evidence”.
    Nothing else. Not the conclusions, recommendations or feck all else.They usually do not have their legal representatives present. They are not allowed copies.
    “Investigators” can ignore large parts of their submissions and “cherry pick” the details they want to focus on.
    All submissions may never make it into the final report.

    All in all, an unfair comparison with an “official” report…

    “So a new review would presumably have to examine all the representations and evidence the IRT considered, as well as the make-up, terms of reference and conclusions of the panel.”

    And they might have to ask for some more evidence, say *official” emails that had been deleted and which presumably had not been handed over to the investigation.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/murphy-in-war-of-words-with-sdlp-over-water-furore-14921707.html

    “Mr Murphy accused the party of being “inconsistent”, adding: “The SDLP tends to operate on the basis of today’s Press release and then tomorrow can be something completely different. And if they can get a headline out of it, they seem to be satisfied.” The four part-time NIW directors were dismissed in March over procurement practices at the company. Some £28m worth of contracts were awarded without Government rules on competitive tendering being followed.”
    Though obviously not as inconsistent as giving the Perm Sec his full support and “There was nothing going on behind my back”

  • alley cat

    Skint mate

  • Drumlin Rock

    Mick, just watched an episode of “Yes Prime minister” called “One Of Us” seemed quite fitting.

  • You couldn’t make it up Via Twitter

    “conormurphymp My PC has been invaded by Antilmalware Doctor which tells me it wants to protect me against attacks but acts like a virus itself. So angry! ”

    My reply

    i blame Mr Priestly – i suppose next you’ll be telling us, all the NIwater emails have vanished LOL

  • William Markfelt

    ‘So angry! ”

    So now you know why someone like Declan Gormley, who has has his reputation pissed on from a great height, and without any real foundation so far, feels.

    Conor,

    I know exactly how to get rid of this virus. My advice could come (on Slugger) for free. But I’m sure you’d want a second quote for the advice before hiring me.

  • “I know exactly how to get rid of this virus. My advice could come (on Slugger) for free. But I’m sure you’d want a second quote for the advice before hiring me.”

    😉

  • Pigeon Toes

    Ach I’m sure a call for “expressions of interest” might be enough… No competitive process needed.

  • William Markfelt

    Conor,

    You spoke.

    I can understand your upset and frustration about some of the events with your PC yesterday, especially when you and your colleagues suffering with viruses are left with no opportunity to use your computers.

    I offered my advice and I suggest that you should write to the makers of your PC. I offer a first draft of a letter you might send.

    I have had a go at a draft. No doubt you will wish to tailor it to your own style and to reinforce any particular points you wish to make.

    Best regards

    Will,

    William Markfelt, Permanently Drunk

    Department S

  • Pigeon Toes

    Mr Markfelt,
    I have now deleted this from my system and suggest you do likewise. You may have noted from all the questioning yesterday, that someone is leaking our correspondence.

    Perhaps if we are quick they won’t notice. I might also suggest that we use our personal email addresses in future, as they are not subject to FOI.

    Larry
    PS Might be an idea to get yourself checked out for stress. Might come in handy in the not to distant…Meeting Petey for coffee later

  • William Markfelt

    I’ve always hated the revisionism applied to Abba, to reinvent them as pop classicists.

    Ultimately, it boils down to two meat and veg and two camel toes, all with dodgy haircuts, in spandex.

    But spotting ‘One of Us’ reminds me that the lyrics run:

    You were, I felt, robbing me of my rightful chances
    My picture clear, everything seemed so easy
    And so I dealt you the blow
    One of us had to go
    Now it’s different, I want you to know

    One of us is crying
    One of us is lying

    I now elevate Bjorn to the status of sage, prophet and seer, almost Dylanesque (or Nostradamus-like) in his capacity to pen lyrics that look into the future and see the NIW shambles laid out before him. And all from the vantage point of an icy fjord.

  • medillen

    I keep reminding you all, including Mick, before you continue popping your champayne corks and calling for apologies and exonerations. More has yet to come out about the shinanigans, I will say it, corruption, at NIW. To such an extent that the discrediting of an independant panel will not cut it.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Medillen
    Then that gives Larry, Paul, Peter and co some other very big problems….
    Why were the PSNI not called in?

    I think Larry explicitly stated at PAC that there was no evidence of “fraud” or “kickbacks”.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘the discrediting of an independant panel will not cut it.’

    I’d love to hear your analysis on the independence of Peter Dixon.

  • medillen

    Indeed.

  • Pigeon Toes

    I should imagine that if an IRT, DRD official or whomever discovered such corruption, and then covered it up, they might find they might find themselves in a whole heap of bother…

    Medillen
    Are you saying that was what the IRT *did* find, and kept it quiet until now?

    That’s a wild accusation….

  • wild turkey

    PT

    ach but ‘expressions of interest’ is so yesterday and redolent of outmoded dating techniques. wouldn’t you agree. in the lean mean naughties a ‘conversation with a purpose’ would fit the bill…. as long as somebody actually pays the bill.

  • mopp head

    William – have you any connecton to the blog.
    http://totalitariania.blogspot.com/
    The analysis seems very similar. If not, fair enough. If so, maybe you should declare your interest. just a thought

  • jon the raver

    Mick – I think the next progressive step for this story to take is to link it in with Mike McKimm’s story on the beeb about the horse mussels and the EU – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11043645

    This highlights the problems with government adminstration and the complete isolation government departments think they can live in.

    DOE and DoA – couldn’t agree on way forward so the taxpayer pays !

    WE live in a world now where the departments themselves and their respect civil servants compete against each other and work in the same world of spin their political masters revel in – only the civil service has the expertise, the know how and backing from us to quietly sweep it all away – see Priestly’s email’s regarding IRT !

    It’s become clear through the NIW story that the the entire civil service needs – to borrow a terrible term – root and branch reform from the top down !

  • Pigeon Toes

    Wild Turkey

    Those conversations “with a purpose” can be a very important way of helping others who may have broadly similar views and experience as yourself.

    Otherwise, as someone very recently joked “You’re stuffed” 😉

  • ”shin-“, Medillen? Is that a Fraudian slip 😉

  • “To such an extent that the discrediting of an independant panel will not cut it.”

    So what has Conor been doing for the past three and a bit years, medillen? Sitting behind a big desk with his feet on the table, sleeping?

  • Pete Baker
  • Drumlin Rock

    The other EU “fines” should also be looked at, it easy doing cheap headlines of “greedy farmers” but the truth is closer to sloppy administration once again.

  • Mike Scott

    Has anyone examined the issue of where all the information is coming from? Apart from the emails etc released under FOI, which we can take as absolutely above board and accurate, are there emails which have come from the sacked NEDs or from other sources within NIW or DRD and which have been used to advance the story? In which case can we abolutely sure they haven’t been doctored in some way? It wouldn’t be difficult at all.

    There could be an absolutely viable and alternative narrative out there.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘are there emails which have come…from other sources within NIW or DRD and which have been used to advance the story?’

    The short answer is yes.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “which we can take as absolutely above board”

    Can we?
    With redactions, and the now proven to be deleted sequences, I think the “above board” responses coming from either NIW and/or DRD is highly questionable.

  • Mike Scott

    It would be interesting to see in full the emails which featured on the UTV show, the ones which the camera panned over very quickly. Maybe UTV will publish them on it’s website?

  • Hi there

    Do you take brown envelopes and where should they be dropped off.

    yes this is a serious question

  • William Markfelt

    People can and do this.

    I know of one person who, ten years ago, turned up at a business in which he was a ‘silent partner’. He collected £250 in cash, every week, and went away again. The colour of the envelope isn’t known. The business was a success because of the many, many small works orders (no need for tenders) he tossed in their direction, some of which were for work that didn’t actually exist and for work that was never done.

    Another current senior manager in a government agency got around the tendering process by breaking down what should have been a large, tendered price into numerous small orders and then giving the work directly to a favoured contractor who would not normally have have expected to be even thinking of doing that work. I can only presume that there was a ‘thank you’ involved for that, illegal in itself as well as the abuse of the tendering process. Whether the ‘thank you’ was in the shape of a bottle of Scotch or what, I don’t know. Sometimes, the approach seemed to be ‘I know you’re off on holiday, here’s £100 for your son’s spending money’, on a nod and a wink that ‘I’m not paying you directly’.

    And sometimes the likes of golf features highly, with ‘site meetings’ being scheduled for a Friday afternoon, on work time, and the green fees and post-match drinkies paid for by contractors on a nod and a wink basis.

    No brown envelopes there, just a sort of low-level corruption where there’s an expectation (and, in the main, delivery) of work for the ‘hospitality’ involved.

    Moreover, I have names of many of those involved, details of conversations where people might be ‘encouraged’ to participate.

    I was personally ‘invited’, once upon a time, to ‘invest’ in a pyramid scheme that was set up down Bangor direction a few years back, and involved a number of people, in positions of authority and whom you’d presume were sane, rubbing their hands at the thought of the great rewards it would bring. In hindsight, I’d take that one to be a cartel of people in suits and ties (who would get a laundered kickback) seeking investment from people who got their hands dirty for a living (who would lose their investment). I politely declined the invitation but work I was getting (fairly) from the person involved subsequently dried up. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

    And I know of instances where honest businessmen have been eased out of contracts for being beyond corruption, to be replaced by those willing to play a specific game.

    So, to answer your question, people do exchange envelopes filled with cash, but in the manner in which a lot of work is done electronically these days, with paper shuffling between banks, that’s likely to be a harder game to play and thus the largesse involved is of a much more subtle, ‘in kind’ variety.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘There could be an absolutely viable and alternative narrative out there.’

    Yes. And as soon as the figures involved can cobble together a new version of events, I’m sure we’ll hear that narrative in full.

  • William Markfelt

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1647715.stm

    This is what I was invited to participate in.

    A ‘money tree’. It wasn’t called a ‘pyramid scheme’. That name obviously comes directly from my own deep prejudice, lol.

  • mopp head

    Can I repeated my unanswered question to William Markfelt:
    have you any connecton to the blog.
    http://totalitariania.blogspot.com/
    Its analysis and yours seem very similar. If there’s no link, fair enough. If so, maybe you should declare your interest. Just a thought

  • William, I was introduced by a journalist recently to a little ploy that is in place between ‘Fred’ and one of our twenty-six munificent local councils. It works like this. The people who put work Fred’s way have an upper limit of, say, £150 before the project requires clearance at a higher level of management. The wheeze is to pay Fred just under the limit for services that might range in value from, say, £40 and £400.

    The NIAO checks the council’s books but probably not in the degree of detail that would pick up on this particular scam.

  • From the NIW website

    Executive Team Minutes

    In this section you will find links to Executive Team minutes from April 2007 (when Northern Ireland Water was first established) to date.”

    November 16, 2009 minutes – the day of the ‘autocratic’ outburst by the NIW CEO – and subsequent minutes have still not been published despite the promise made two weeks ago that they ‘should be published the week commencing 23 August 2010’. Time is running out and there’s still no word about the publication of the Board minutes.

    Was the decision to discontinue the minutes an autocratic one or is the minute clerk still hiding under the table? 🙂

  • “Apart from the emails etc released under FOI, which we can take as absolutely above board and accurate”

    Mike, some useful information will have been redacted, some documents will have been shredded and, as you can see in this example, TRIM reference numbers have been left out.

    Unfortunately for DRD (and other Civil Service) management, some of their documents have been electronically redacted and a change of format ‘reveals’ what has been covered up.

    “There could be an absolutely viable and alternative narrative out there.”

    I think there are overlapping narratives at play: procurement issues; internal NIW Board and Executive Team problems; dismissal of NEDs; selection of new NEDs;’hands on’ approach by the Minister and his Special Advisor; ‘hands off’ approach by the NIAO and the ‘drama’ of a PAC investigation with elections in the offing.

  • Mick Fealty

    articles,

    Sorry, but we don’t. Still it *is* a good question. Any contributions are voluntary and anonymous but should all be legal and above board.

    As I understand it the contributions are still coming in… by close of play yesterday we had about £400 in donations with some individuals being very generous indeed…

    And in case anyone is in doubt, this story from our point of view was not about getting heads like Mr Priestly’s to roll. It was to get to the bottom of the problem.

    And we are not there yet, not by a long way…

  • jon the raver

    It’s not the fines that are the major concern.

    What needs to be highlighted is that two more government department worked in competition rather than together like they should and in the best interests of the state and the taxpayer.

    This was another coverup similar to the NIW debacle.
    There civil servants realised the problem and in damage limitation hung out NIW to dry rather than portion any blame to the DRD

    Civil servants need reeled in – pardon the pun – but clearly decades of their rule has fostered an arrogance of ‘untouchability’!

  • There’s a fine line between healthy scepticism and cynicism that needs to be trodden here.

    The Old Man had something very pertinent to say on the subject here.

    “It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only “petty” interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking.

    Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion.

    However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one’s own head, and hence these clever people’s knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.”

    What we have here is not something that can be looked at through the prism of faux-sophisticated cynicism or explained away simply as personal dishonesty or incompetence.

    It is a systematic failing in which we have placed conflicting demands upon civil servants and politicians. The whole question of procurement and public appointments is over-ripe for review and as a society, we need to question the demands that we put upon politicians and the permanent bureaucracy.

    This whole saga has revealed the cheerfulness with which civil servants feel that they can treat elected representatives as a surmountable minor obstacle. Personally (and this argument is for another time) I think we need a more confident political class – ‘in-and-outers’ – as they have in France or the USA. I’d argue that we fetishise civil service independence. The counter-argument (in NI at least) is that we don’t have elected representatives who seek to represent the interests of the community as a whole and, subsequently, the political settlement itself doesn’t deserve such respect.

    But I’d err on the side of the former argument rather than the latter one. Northern Ireland’s civil service is quite spectacularly inflexible and unaccountable. By giving politicians more perogative powers, we’d soon highlight their fitness (or lack of) to use those powers. Then maybe the voters would realise that it is their job to fix what they’ve broken by continually voting for communal parties.

  • William Markfelt

    Sorry, I didn’t spot your earlier query about this.

    Right now, as I cruise around NI related blogs, it would appear that their analysis and mine, relating to the NIW story, is also very similar.

    What does that tell you? What it tells me is that there is a general sense of unease about how the way our ‘government’ works, and that a lot of people are independently arriving at the same conclusion(s) regarding systemic corruption, on many levels and at many values, across the entire public sector. NIW’s just the tip of the iceberg, and there are a large number of glossed over or yet to be unearthed stories that replicate the one at hand.

    I would tend to disagree with Mick’s analysis that the story is ‘not about getting heads like Mr. Priestly’s to roll’ but was about getting to the bottom of the problem.

    My view is that, in getting to the problem, heads inevitably roll and the two events are inextricably linked.

    If heads are rolling, we’re getting closer to the bottom of the problem. If we’re getting closer to the bottom of the problem, heads are rolling.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “There could be an absolutely viable and alternative narrative out there.”

    Actually Mike I agree with you. Though it still doesn’t make Declan Gormley culpable for any of the failings.

    If the other narrative is being what is been hinted at, then it is all the more serious for MacKenzie, Priestly et al in indulging in a cover up.

    It does however cast new questions on the IRT and their independence

  • Local Government Officer

    Well for Christ’s sakes, I wish someone would let me in on all this. I ain’t been in this game for very long, and nothing like that has ever come my way! Not so much as a bottle of scotch!

    I can’t help but wonder if it’s quite as endemic as you lot let on. For years the old wheeze, the easy call for this, was the planners. And I’ve yet to meet anyone convicted/caught of this.

    But then, I AM very young. 🙂

  • William Markfelt

    Yes Nevin. I would say that’s almost routine in many cases, and not just in councils.

    Sometimes it may be OK for certain reasons, such as in speeding up the timeframe in order to get urgent work undertaken. The tendering process slows things down. All that advertising, PQQs etc. Sometimes, if the roof’s off a building, it’s pure common sense to ‘bend’ the rules with no malicious intent in order to get the roof back on, rather than an army of desk jockeys sitting around, scratching their nuts, while the rain pelts on in some old dear.

    By the letter of the law, what’s done is illegal, corrupt, whatever. On a common sense level it’s away beyong the experience of theoreticians whose experience is a bit of paper saying they passed an exam.

    ‘Common sense’ is a rare commodity in the public sector, as the entire NIW/DRD issue demonstrates.

    All that said, I can well agree that there will be instances where what you outline is undertaken for less than honest purposes.

    I’m intrigued that a journalist should point this out, as it clearly demonstrates they’re waking up to just how endemic these little issues are.

    As I say, not all have malicious intent, but I’d guess that there isn’t a business in NI that has not indulged, for good or bad motives.

  • Pigeon Toes

    There could be an absolutely viable and alternative narrative out there.”

    Actually Mike I agree with you (on that one point)

  • William Markfelt

    Whoops! Sorry Articles, I initially read your question to assume that you wanted to backhand someone in Clarence Court.

  • William Markfelt

    Sorry LGO, but some of us are as old as dirt.

    Perhaps you’re young enough to not have become corrupted by the civil service work culture yet.

    A couple more promotion boards and, trust me, the Scotch will be yours for the drinking.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed. I suspect Adam Smith had something to say in the regard of ‘monopolies of power’ too.

  • You’ve probably heard me say it before Mick but….

    Philosophers have only sought to explain the world. The point is to complain about it. 😉

  • mopp top

    That doesn’t actually answer my question. Are you involved in that particular blog? It has a big shiny axe to grind on government contracts/audit investigations etc. You are after all being quoted on this blog as an expert opinion. A simple yes or no will suffice