Northern Ireland Water: Procurement was a legacy of DRD management

Hmmm… Northern Ireland Water, remember them? You thought they’d had gone away? Well, not quite. This week one of the main characters in the whole drama, Ms Nicola Brennan (formerly an external auditor; subsequently head of Internal Auditing at NI Water), gave a detailed four page interview to Internal Auditing magazine (150,000 readership). It’s remarkable for two reasons.

One, it has been published whilst the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is in the middle of investigating many of the issues that are discussed at length within the article. Slugger understands that it has even provoked DRD’s new Permanent Secretary Malcolm McKibben into writing a letter to the PAC today to warn them that it is already within the public domain.

Two, and perhaps more importantly, Ms Brennan details the fact that the procurement practices under investigation were a legacy issue from the Water Service days; making it clear that the poor practice originated with the department rather than with the management team or even the Board of NI Water.

This is pretty much in line with the conclusions of v1 of the Independent Review Team’s report delivered to the department on Monday, 15th February, and before Paul Priestly wrote to them suggesting they should not feel constrained by the terms of reference he had already given them and as UTV reported in August:

…he told review team member Jackie Henry that an impartial commentator reading the document might even decide the DRD was “at fault for the governance failures at NI Water”. Such a conclusion would be “perverse and a travesty”.

More than that, Brennan blames the lack of a proper IT procurement system and the sharply accelerated process of turning the organisation from being part of the Department of Regional Development to a semi independent government company (or GoCo, in the official parlance).

So on the face of it, by Ms Brennan’s accounting (no pun intended) the red flagged issues around procurement had little to do with the sacked NEDs. Rather: 1, they related to legacy problems from the days when the Department ran the whole show; and 2,the DRD legacy system in place was insufficiently refined to show the problems up at senior management level.

So why sack the NEDS for something, which by the account of the head of the Internal Audit, it appears had little to do with them? And why hold a thorough-going internal investigation that, after nearly a year, has proved utterly fruitless in finding ANYONE inside the company (or the Department for that matter) culpable of not doing their jobs properly in the same regard?

Curiouser and curiouser…

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