As the water crisis rumbles on the political arguments continue fairly unabated. The latest attacks on Conor Murphy have centred around the failure of NI Water to ask Water UK for help until yesterday. Water UK is the organisation which oversees support for UK water companies in crises. The News Letter is carrying the story today and claims that Water UK was understood to be surprised that NI Water had asked for so little help, so late.
Jim Marshall, policy and business advisor at UK Water, confirmed that it had only been approached yesterday by NI Water: “We’ve been working today to use the scheme to send additional call centre staff.
“Water UK got involved today following a specific approach from NI Water. We can provide anything really – physical assets like tankers or smaller bowsers, bottled water supplies, or as in this case specialist personnel. It can be anything that’s needed.”
Murphy has denied that the failure to ask Water UK previously is related to his political views: he pointed out that the water sent from Scotland was part of the scheme and the decisions regarding asking water UK were taken by NI Water.
Meanwhile UTV are reporting one of the ousted NI Water non executive directors Declan Gormley who said: “A board with 70 years experience has been replaced with one that has limited – perhaps no – experience,” Mr Gormley told UTV. “The minister made and approved those appointments so clearly the responsibility rests with him.”
The SDLP mayor of Belfast, Pat Convery said the Department of Regional Development did not take on board warnings that a severe weather task force was needed.
“My colleagues in Stormont suggested a severe weather task force and unfortunately the DRD minister on two occasions dismissed that idea. “Now we know the consequences of ignoring such a proposal.”
Murphy is now in a significant degree of difficulty. Whilst he can receive some criticism for not preparing a severe weather task force, that is far from a resigning issue. He cannot be blamed for the weather. It is difficult to pin much personal blame on him for the failure to invest in infrastructure over the years; though the terrorist campaigns of which he was part did result in less money for investment. However, that line is again difficult to use unless one objects to SF in power on principle.
In addition NI Water is indeed independent from the government and hence, despite being government owned the government does not run its affairs. Here is, however, of course where Mr. Murphy’s ability to avoid responsibility begins to flounder. Despite being an arms length body it was none other than Conor Murphy who dismissed the board of NI Water in circumstances which now seem much more problematic than they did at the time. When all that came to light Murphy used the permanent secretary Paul Priestly as his scape goat and Murphy seemed to escape relatively unscathed.
That this latest debacle also relates to NI Water is unfortunate for Murphy and it limits his ability to claim that the issues are not under his direct responsibility. Such a contention may have some truth but it lacks credibility or consistency when Murphy was so recently, so publicly, and so unfortunately involved in NI Water’s affairs.
His claim that the late decision to involve Water UK is one taken by NI Water is also extremely problematic. Conor Murphy and indeed Martin McGuinness have supposedly been taking charge of this issue for days; yet claim that the decision to access the resources of Water UK is one for NI Water.
Jim Allister has been calling for Murphy to resign: that much is hardly surprising. Today Sammy Wilson added to these calls (again fairly unsurprising: and he added a quick dig about climate change).
The politics of Murphy resigning might be difficult. If Murphy did resign he could be seen to be doing the honourable thing; he would spike the other parties attacks on him (and indeed SF collectively) for supposedly not taking responsibility. In addition Sinn Fein could then wheel in another minister to take charge and potentially gain some of the credit for fixing the situation when it is finally resolved. Raising the profile of another Sinn Fein member with such a success could be useful for the party. Ironically by resigning Murphy might be able to help Sinn Fein and make them out to be a responsible party of government: something which would be unlikely to hurt them in the coming RoI elections.
Set against that Murphy resigning could be seen as Sinn Fein admitting that they got it wrong: something the republican movement has rarely been fond of (nor have many other NI politicians, that said). In addition it could be seen as SF capitulating to the demands of the other parties. The other parties would claim that senior SF member had had to resign due to incompetence. Furthermore they would then point to Ruane and ask why she had not gone too. Whether or not the dismissal of Murphy would also upset the balance of power within the wider republican movement, is of course another consideration. However since internal politics within republicanism is always played out behind closed doors, it is most unlikely that any outsiders will be able to give any constructive views on that. Sinn Fein might be wise, however, at least to consider that a ministerial resignation is not always a bad idea and someone falling on their own sword can at times be for the greater good of the party. Sacrificing people for the greater good has always been something the republican movement have well understood and frequently practised: that in this case such a sacrifice would be non fatal should not make SF think that it is, by definition, a bad idea politically.