NI Water: “As for the minister, he’s not commenting…”

I see Senator Mary White’s husband Padraic is taking on the role of Chair for NI Water. I hope he has a guarantee that he cannot be sacked for failing to address a problem he’s not been told about until he’s actually under investigation.

Okay, back to the main story. There’s a nice piece by Martina Purdy which probably sums up most people’s feeling about this Byzantine tale from NI Water. It’s interesting that she concludes with a note that the Minister is refusing to comment on the story, despite the fact that what is under examination here is the behaviour of his own Permanent Secretary.

It contrasts sharply with the response of the Chair of Phoenix Gas, and former head of NI Civil Service, Gerry Loughran who clearly appraised himself of the problem thrown up by another stray letter in this matter and took immediate action to put some clear blue water between himself and his CEO.

But the Minister is not the only one keeping schtum on this matter.

One of the three MLA’s who asked some of the more pointed questions in last month’s heated PAC session, Patsy McGlone has written two letters to Bruce Robinson (Bruce Robinson 1 and Bruce Robinson 2), the current head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland appraising him of Mr Priestley’s email to the Auditor General and that the Permanent Secretary had a copy of Dixon’s letter 24 hours before the PAC.

In the first McGlone specifically states the problem, as he sees it, to Robinson:

I find it most unusual for any civil servant to seek to prompt the C and AG that others, apparently independent of DRD, should assist “the PAC in coming up with their final report” in the manner suggested or that a senior civil servant be seen to act as proxy in conveying the opinions of two individuals about the scrutiny of the PAC to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

But it’s the pointed clarification in McGlone’s second that defines precisely what Mr Robinson should be considering in some detail here:

In light of the now established fact that Mr Priestly had received and distributed this letter well before the formal addressee had even received it, it is for you to discern what exact role the Permanent Secretary for DRD fulfilled in these matters and how the public good was being served through dissemination of a letter, neither from him, nor the Department, but from a person avowedly independent of the Department, making serious criticism of public representatives as they pursue their duties at the PAC. You will also be aware this letter was promptly retracted with subsequent clarification by the Chair of the company which employs Mr Dixon [emphasis added].

The first was sent two weeks ago today. Yet Slugger understands that Mr Robinson’s office has yet to even acknowledge receipt of the letters, never mind indicating what actions he may or may not take. There is, not to put too fine a point on it, an eery silence over this matter from both the political and the civil service side.

Which is all the more strange since, Slugger understands, both the Minister and the Head of the Civil Service actually know a great deal more about the precise detail of this story than has yet been made public.

If between them they fail to start clearing this mess up, then perhaps (as more and more detail leaks out – and we are pretty sure it will) John Dallat’s lone call for a Public Inquiry may be deemed the only way to get to the bottom of real reason why those Non Executive Directors were fired. At the very least, they owe it to the new lot, not to mention the wider community.

Maybe then NI Water can back to the business of delivering a public service. And the sacked directors can get on with the rest of their lives…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty