NI Water: Minister failed to pick up Board’s early questions about Dixon?

Okay, another bullish performance from Minister Murphy here on the UTV report, though it is rare to see such a normally competent performer stuck for words in front of a camera.

What’s complicated things for him was the robust nature of the questioning from Conall McDevitt, on the amount of work the Minister did to come to his conclusion that the Independent Review Team was indeed independent.

He reasonably asserts that he cannot be across all the correspondence coming in and going out of the department. But he is also inviting the committee to believe that his former Permanent Secretary either deliberately mislead him (we know he misled the PAC before before admitting that he had Dixon’s letter), or kept him in ignorance to an extraordinary extent.

Adds: Sam McBride asks some pertinent questions in the News Letter this morning..

Is the Minister also asking us to believe that he not see the communication sent to Paul Priestly from the Board questioning the independence of Peter Dixon shortly after the IRT was convened?

At the very least, his own political antennae should have gone up when a CEO of another (but very different) privately owned utility with the potential for a very significant conflictof interest should NI Water ever be privatised was appointed to the IRT.

As we noted some weeks back when Priestly was suspended, it looks like the Minister was sold a pup by his Permanent Secretary to the extent that both he and his party are no longer in a position to work out what’s real and what’s not about the true story of NI Water.

Pure denials of knowledge he should by now have made it his business to find out will not suffice.

What’s perplexing is the extent to which the Minister is continuing with a narrative that is any case substantially falsified by the fact that Dixon was a willing participant in his own Permanent Secretary’s attempt to undermine the investigation of the PAC.

And how can he be certain that all of this is nothing more than – to use his own description from his UTV interview – a side show? Or does he feel so locked in by vested interests that he has no freedom to move independently on any of this?

, , , ,

  • Mike Scott

    God Mick, there’s many a leap being taken in this non story. Is Conall McDevitt now the leader of the coalition of the willing? If that was robust questioning then no Minister or civil sevant has anything to fear from our MLAs.

  • Oracle

    I consider the NIW affair to be a failing of the Sinn Fein party as a whole and not just Murphy.
    Obviously 27 years of the one mantra “Brits Out” does not prepare the individual or the group as a whole for positions within Government let alone the reins of a Ministry.

    Of the positions held by Sinn Fein ministers Gildernew had the wool pulled over her department’s eyes very, very easily indeed by greedy farmers, with her only answer “this is nobody’s fault”

    Murphy was sold several “pups” whilst buying a “pig in a poke” and any other lie that made his life easier, again absolutely not cut out for any position with decision making abilities, at best he has exposed himself as inexperienced and gullible.

    Ruane has just made a complete horlicks of her ministry, so much so that even her own party with more “neck” than a Gallow makers convention were embarrassed to the point of substituting John O’Dowd as a stand in spokesperson.

    As for McGuinness well he has just abdicated all responsibility of ministry and just reads off the hand fed NIO statements given to him.

    All in all a very unsatisfactory situation for the Sinn Fein voter the electorate as a whole and the Tax payers in particular.

  • Mick Fealty

    What questions would you have put Mike?

  • Pod


  • Mick Fealty

    My question to Mike to you then?

  • Pod

    Well from what I saw (and I saw a fair amount of the committee meeting though not all of it) the questions from Slugger’s very own Conall were based primarily on the findings of a UTV programme. In saying that I would be inclined (from what I saw) to agree with Slugger’s very own Eamonn Mallie when he tweeted

    “No one has landed a single punch on Conor Murphy during the DRD committee over his handling of NIW.”

    So essentially, no, I don’t think Conall’s line of questioning to Conor Murphy was particularly robust, I actually found it lazy (i.e. most of it was based on someone else’s findings) opportunist (Conall is forever seeking a headline) and really, nothing a political figure like Murphy was unable to deal with.

    Easy on the favouritism Mick!!

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, I will concede that he could have been more specific, certainly.

    But he along with others during the session flushed out a Minister determined to push the line he had no clue what was going on in his own department. If he still genuinely has no clue, why would we listen to his assurances that everything was okay with the IRT?

    Remember, this is the guy who told Jamie Delargy on that UTV programme the Minister claims he did not watch that ‘nothing is happening behind my back’, only to sack his PS *the very next day* for, erm, interfering with the democratic process right behind the Minister’s back!

    And this is three weeks after his own PS has been suspended and is now under internal investigation, and he still knows nothing?

    Besides, you are ducking the question. What questions would you have asked?

  • Pod

    Well certainly I would want to know much, much more about the nature of the original problems at NI Water

    Has Slugger done much digging on that front? Has Conall?

    Who was allocating contracts to who and how much were these contracts worth? Also, has the actions of the Minister now stopped that and put in place a more effective model for awarding contracts??

  • Mick Fealty

    Oh yes. A lot of work on that. But in its nature, it’s not the kind of thing you can go off half cocked at.

    But my suspicion is that the real problem is considerably bigger and much more serious than anything we’ve seen so far.

    There is of course a genuine question arising of who awarded what to whom, but I don’t think that’s were the big problem lies. It is a question of how a public sector organisation can manage private sector contractors and not getting blind-sided.

    The Minister seems to want to view this as a problem that will simply go away if and when NI Water is fully repatriated (a policy that for all manner of reasons ancillary to this story might make best sense) to the state.

    But if there is a problem with civil servants not understanding how the private sector works, a department like DRD which has so many interfaces with the private sector is likely to have whole bunch of expensive problems it simply does not want to own up to.

    From the micro dealings around the Rathlin Ferry contract, to that major cock up on the underpass.

  • medillen

    Mick, your SDLP petticoat is showing.

  • Pigeon Toes
    ” Mr Murphy said:

    • He had no knowledge of the changes requested by his then top official, Paul Priestly, to the Independent Review Team’s initial draft of their report which eventually led to the directors’ sacking;

    • Permanent NI Water non-executive directors will not be appointed until it is decided whether the utility is coming back fully under the department’s control;

    • He was unaware of UTV’s revelation that NI Water chief executive Laurence MacKenzie sent an e-mail on January 19 entitled “done deal” to Peter Dixon, who within days was appointed to the Independent Review Team, saying: “expect a call!”

    • Two of the review team – Mr Dixon and Deloitte consultant Jackie Henry – assured him at a private meeting that their report was entirely independent

    Ms McIlveen said she thought it “incredible” that given the “enormity and consequences” of the report, Mr Murphy had no knowledge or sight of it, despite the draft report being with the department. Mr Murphy said that was “not abnormal”.

    The assembly’s Public Accounts Committee will today resume its investigation into the NI Water affair.”

  • Mick Fealty

    Any chance you can make comment on this story that’s not related to party politics?

  • Mick, neither DRD nor PAC have tried to get to the bottom of the Rathlin ferry saga so how can we expect them to get a handle on the bigger beasts?

    By the way, DRD will be back in the limelight soon as an industrial tribunal will be deliberating very soon on a redundancy within Rathlin Island Ferry Limited that took place within weeks of RIFL taking over as the new ferry operator.

  • Mick Fealty

    We can’t Nevin. Until and unless they deliver on this much larger issue, I don’t think you’re ever going to see what happened in Rathlin in anything like the proper context.

  • Mike Scott

    I would have asked:

    where did the list of replacement NEDs names come from?

    Who was suggested to him that wasnt acceptable?

    What work was Eleanor Gill touting for in NIW just before this all broke?

    Did Padriac Whyte’s name come from his officials or from his back pocket?

    Does he agree that it is normal practice for perm secs to examine reports at draft stage?

    would he therefore have been disappointed if PP had not done so?

    When he really become aware that PP had drafted the Dixon letter?

    I wouldn’t have asked him “have you seen the programme?”

    If the questions were so robust Mick why was Murphy comfortable challenging St Conall to “ask anything you want, I’ll stay here all day answering your questions?”

  • Ms McIlveen said she thought it “incredible” that given the “enormity and consequences” of the report, Mr Murphy had no knowledge or sight of it, despite the draft report being with the department. Mr Murphy said that was “not abnormal”.

    Now there’s competence for you!

  • Pigeon Toes

    Bluff, bluster and being well trained in not directly answering questions…

  • Pigeon Toes

    Splog, I don’t think that in itself would be that abnormal, except for the fact that he admitted that allegations had been made about the Independence of the IRT team.

    What is *abnormal* is that he did not at this point seek to reassure himself of this. Instead, he let them “carry on regardless”

    And I think he further insisted that his first sighting of the report was when the final version was delivered to the department.
    Um that doesn’t strike me as being quite right, and shows a certain lack of due diligence on his behalf…
    The Hansard will be helpful in clarifying those statements from the committee meeting.

  • Mick Fealty

    Touché Mike…

    I hope someone from the PAC reads your list when they break in the next five minutes…

    You might also add as a supplementary: Is it conventional for a PS to attempt to guide an IRT towards its final conclusions?

  • Did the Minister claim that only three people were present: himself, Dixon and Henry? Who took the minutes? If so, were the minutes agreed and signed off? Has anyone had a sight of these minutes? If no minutes were taken what does that say about the professionalism of our public service?

  • But surely Nevin, the DRD have been hauled over the coals about “minute taking” before?

  • PT, the Hansard Minutes of Evidence for the PAC July 1 meeting appeared within about five days; lets hope the DRD one for yesterday appears equally promptly.

  • Slog, I do have this critical comment from another DRD internal investigation:

    “CPD should also have ensured that a formal record of each meeting was retained which fully documented the discussions and any decisions. A note was produced for one clarification meeting but in our opinion was not sufficiently detailed to provide the necessary assurance. We consider that the non-availability of detailed minutes has fuelled the level of concern.”

  • medillen

    This entire thread and many others on this topic are laced with party politics, therefore my comment is relevant and in my opinion factual.

  • Medillen, (or is it “Cake Slice”) – oops! Hope I didn’t blow your cover!

    Why don’t you put yourself forward as Connor’s “Special Advisor”?
    He could obviously do with all the friends he can get at the minute.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Mr Murphy said that was “not abnormal”.’

    Or, stripped of its political-speak, ‘normal’

    In other words, a Minister having no knowledge or sight of a report is ‘normal’.

  • Mick Fealty

    Mike, also bear in mind the amount of information the CRD had at its disposal (nothing new since the last meeting in March).

    The UTV programme, the News Letter, and Slugger and on-the-hoof briefings from party colleagues was the most the Committee had to draw on.

  • Not quite, Mick, NALIL blog, directly and indirectly, got endorsements from two CRD members.

  • Any thoughts on why it was a closed session this time, Mick?

    “12.00PM Onwards – CLOSED SESSION


    Issues arising from the oral evidence session on Performance & Governance of NI Water

    Witnesses: Northern Ireland Audit Office Officials

    Mr Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller & Auditor General
    Mr Stephen McCormick, Director
    Mr Joe Campbell, Audit Manager
    Ms Jacqueline O’Brien, Audit Manager”

  • Pigeon Toes

    Nevin, that was truly outrageous self promotion.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Witnesses: Northern Ireland Audit Office Officials

    Mr Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller & Auditor General
    Mr Stephen McCormick, Director
    Mr Joe Campbell, Audit Manager
    Ms Jacqueline O’Brien, Audit Manager”

    It’s a face saving exercise, Nevin. It would be embarrassing for all concerned to conduct a line of questioning that challenges the ‘independence’ of the NIAO (they have none, being stooges to the various departments). So questions arising from their hand-holding exercise with DRD are going to be one line of questioning.

    The presence of two audit managers would suggest that another line of questioning is going to be ‘you get paid a lot of money to uncover certain ‘issues’, so what the hell happened here? How did you miss it?’

  • William Markfelt

    ‘Until and unless they deliver on this much larger issue, I don’t think you’re ever going to see what happened in Rathlin in anything like the proper context.’

    Sorry to keep repeating myself, Mick, but this is exactly WHY we need a Public Inquiry. However the NIW saga resolves itself, I think there’s an undeniable need for many of the key protagonists to face the spotlight into a flawed, failed methodology stretching back however long. The flawed ‘investigations’ and all that goes with them simply must be brought into the equation.

    This is vital stuff, because it sets the tone for years and possibly decades to come. In those video links I gave, we hear David Gilmour set out how NIW is away ahead of the game in the money-saving exercises, and other speakers refer to how NIW can be at the forefront of the water industry in the UK.

    The same applies to the entire NIA machine. It can tackle the issue and be a ‘centre for governmental excellence’. Or it can duck it and be a lame canard tainted forever as the self-styled ruling elite of a corrupt banana republic. No. Scrub that. Corrupt banana republics will be pointing at the NIA and saying ‘look how pure we are besides that lot’.

    And there won’t be much comeback to that retort.

  • Flip2

    Bored with all this now, can we all please move on.

  • William Markfelt

    Yeah. You forge on ahead. We’ll catch up with you in a bit.

  • Mick

    Good to hear…

  • wild turkey


    Cake slice? huh, what is this about? genuinely curious

    any relation to Steak knife?

  • This from Sam McBride in the News Letter [Mick’s link]

    “It is understood that very significant new evidence has been given to the [Public Accounts] committee in recent days.”

    No sign of this story going away any time soon.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘at yesterday’s hearing the Sinn Fein minister repeatedly attacked “sections of the media” for focusing on how and why all but one of NI Water’s non-executive directors were sacked’

    It IS important, Minister.

  • William Markfelt

    Nevin, the timeframe regarding the investigation into Priestly means that the NIW story remains THE story until mid-November, at least. If the investigation reports at Halloween, there’s enough legs in it to carry it for a couple of weeks thereafter.

    And, of course, there may be further implications from the findings that, simply because of the way the NIA works (or, rather, doesn’t work terribly well) that there’s slippage on the mid-November date.

    Frankly, I think this is going to run until Christmas (even longer if Priestly, not the son of God, just a very naughty boy) is back at his desk for the New Year.

    Each ‘event’ brings a week’s media coverage/’tubes on the internet’ commentary. We’re much closer to the beginning of this than we are to the end of it.

  • Pigeon Toes

    And of course they seemingly got their knuckles rapped over their data retention.
    1. Was there any knuckle rapping actually done?

    2. Why have they either ignored/ or been incapable of following those “recommendations”?

    However, when their top man was made aware of leaks at July 1st PAC, he continued to send *those* emails to Dixon.

    One has to wonder if the Department is staffed by complete “tubes” or arrogant fools.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “World Bog Snorkelling Championship”

    2009 – World Champion: Conor Murphy : 1m42.30s
    2008 – World Champion: Conor Murphy : 1m38.09s”

  • observer

    What about:

    What was the £28m spent on?
    Was the money spent on the purpose for which the assembly approved it?
    Has the CCNI seen what the money was spent on?

  • Mick Fealty


    Can you post those videos of Gilmour again?

    I’d be very interested in what he has to say. He’s the one McKenzie ‘lost’ through what he euphemistically described as ‘restructuring’ to the PAC.

    And with him went the freelance team of expert accounts he had assembled to prosecute that aggressive repatriation of monies to NI Water.

  • interested

    not wishing to divert the current line of questioning but there is a question that interests me.
    In view of the Ministers declared intention not to pursue privitasation of NIW with its implied water tariff charges and the position of central Government to move charges for water and waste water treatment off general taxation(as implemented elsewhere in UK) how does he intent to operate and finance water and waste water services, currently costing £350million annually to about 700,000homes?

  • Pigeon Toes
  • William Markfelt

    PT has beaten me to it, Mick, but there are six videos in total. For our purposes, those by David Gilmour, Trevor Haslett (both NIW, both discussing ‘procurement’ to greater or lesser degrees) and Katherine, the lawyer, who speaks about ‘exceptions in procurement’ just a little bit, are the most interesting. Much of it was couched in EU law terms, so over my head, but I took from it that there could be exceptions with enough justification. If this is correct (we need a lawyer’s perspective), then it busts a hole through the entire ‘£28m dodgy contracts’ bluster.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘I’d be very interested in what he has to say. He’s the one McKenzie ‘lost’ through what he euphemistically described as ‘restructuring’ to the PAC.

    And with him went the freelance team of expert accounts he had assembled to prosecute that aggressive repatriation of monies to NI Water.’

    Off the top of my head he says that NIW are making savings away ahead of NI Assembly projections. So clearly a man who appears to be on top of his game, and not the sort of hands-on bloke NIW should have been letting go.

    Nevin seems to have picked up on questions that should be asked in relation to Gilmour’s departure, and the method of it.

  • Here’s something I posted on the Gilmour video a few days ago:

    “William, I’ve just listened to the Gilmour presentation from May 2009. He expected £19 m savings by year end, some way ahead of the Assembly target, and during the course of the year, in association with Mellor, had nearly halved the expenditure on consultants.

    He admited that their information system on ordering had been woeful but expected the tried and tested Oracle P2P eordering system to be live by the end of June 2009.

    So what has all the fuss been about and why were Gilmour’s services disposed of?”

    I also suggested that PAC should call Gilmour, if he’s prepared to assist this crucial inquiry.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Page 110

  • William Markfelt

    The speakers involved are listed here, along with what they’ve been speaking about. Deloitte’s, the DRD (a former Perm Sec), Mellor (a former Chairman) are all involved.

    Unfortunately we don’t get to see what all of them said. I would have been particularly interested in Deloitte’s and Chirs Mellor’s speeches.

    As Nevin has just said, Mellor appears to have been busting down the consultant’s fees too, so some evidence of a man who was, contrary to the IRT report, doing the job when he got to see what needed to be done.

  • William Markfelt

    PT, you’ve said it much more succinctly than I ever could. These OJEU rules -the exceptions- are what Catherine Thompson, the lawyer, speaks about at length.

    It’s worth noting for anyone watching them, there’s an exceptionally helpful power point presentation running alongside the video of the speakers, which sometimes, particularly in the case of Ms. Thompson, simplifies things.

  • Pigeon Toes

    William, succinct ?
    If only…
    Just trying to do a few things at once, and the brain isn’t up to it at the best of times 🙂

  • William Markfelt

    ‘What was the £28m spent on?’

    Stuff that was actually done.–northern-ireland-water–as-pipes-are-wrong-size-14864161.html

    Although it isn’t quite clear if it was done RIGHT, first time around.

    Kernel of the story: NIW waste half a mill on laying the wrong sized pipes.

    Centre of Procurement Excellence, how are you?

  • See this is where I have a problem.
    The DRD is quite happy to utilise “loopholes” in the OJEU for awarding contracts – £6 million in the case of the Rathlin Ferry, but is now “damning” NIW for apparently doing the same?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Splog er it was just over £4 million officailly, unless you are adding in the harbor works that were done to “secure the bid” from Mr O Driscoll, and the cost of the catamaran.

    Of course the company was losing so much money apparently within the first 8 weeks of the £4 odd million contract, that they allegedly had to make staff redundant.
    (FunnY, how it was the person who presumably raised concerns with NIAO)
    So, £6 million might indeed be closer to the mark, as I had also forgotten that DRD decided they were going to pay some of the new company’s insurance or bonds as well, after the tender was awarded….

  • PT, it’s all being done in the public interest, without the benefit of a consultancy fee 🙂

    The more information the committees put online the more assistance they can get from concerned taxpayers. Slugger et al provide a useful public service; that’s good for democracy.

  • Patterns of Failure

    PAC has carried out its first thematic investigation and its report was published in June, 2010.

    I’m told that it’s keen to hear from anyone who can spot other thematic problems eg in-house investigations rather than more obviously independent ones.

    The floor is yours ….

  • William, has PAC been ‘neutered’ already? Donnelly had already made an appearance during the course of the July 1 ‘grilling’ so it now looks bad for PAC when it can’t continue in the same vein.

  • David Gilmour CV. He’s currently with BP.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘I’m told that it’s keen to hear from anyone who can spot other thematic problems’

    If PAC are going to hear ‘evidence’ about different issues then I think that one of the ‘thematic problems’ they need to address is that of flawed and in some case totally untrue allegations laid out as solid auditing work by the likes of the NIAO.

    They need to re-examine the extent to which investigations by the likes of the DRD and others were what we’ve now come to know as ‘show trials’ and just how groundless or downright flawed or corrupt these were in themselves from the outset.

    Although I do think PAC referring to a ‘lack of expertise’ in others (the tables shown via the link) is just taking the piss.

  • I’ve just been told that ‘the Hansard transcript of Wednesday’s Ctte session will be on the website later today’.

  • interested

    I note the repeated difficulties with project management skills and the PACs assosiated link to economists, accountants and procurement experts.
    where are the engineers in the these upper levels – they are the ones with the expertise and skills in these domains
    -too many lawyers and economists and not enough engineers

  • A point well made, interested. Can I suggest you send it on to PAC?


    The video recording is being chased down and should be online shortly.

  • interested

    its also an issue in other sectors, like telecoms investment
    but not close enough to provide anything useful

  • Mike Scott

    Weren’t Ernst & Young the long term auditors of NIW? Has anyone asked to see their accumulation of reports as they carried out audit after audit?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Btw ” Mike Scott”

    Clever name.

  • interested

    Im sure the Department of Finance, amongst others have been receiving these reports-they appear to have a whole unit there with an emphasis on fraud prevention-separate to NIAO and stakeholders group and counsumer council and…

  • The Minister 3: “Before I took any action, I met the four directors involved and gave them an opportunity to present to me any issues around the report, how they felt it should be brought forward and what they felt their responsibilities were in relation to it. I gave them an opportunity, in writing and face to face, to present me with their opinions on what should be done.”

    Is the Minister’s statement at odds with IIRC claims that the sacked NEDs had no such opportunities?

  • Here’s a quote from the NIW licence [pdf file] which is relevant to the position of the directors:

    “6A5A(a) the composition of the board of directors of the Appointee should be such that the directors, acting as such, are able to act independently of the parent company or controlling shareholder and exclusively in the interests of the Appointee;”

    NIW Ltd is the Appointee and, presumably, DRD is the parent company.

  • malairt

    You must be joking. I spend my life trying to stop engineers spending money unnecessarily. Get your scope right and then me and my ilk to can contain the commercial chaos engineers leave behind.

  • malairt

    E&Y were the internal (outsourced) auditors before NIW built up an internal resource. KPMG continue to be the external auditors.