Ministerial Responsibility? It depends on who the Minister is

On Twitter this morning, John O’Dowd made the reasonable point that many of the calls for the Minister to resign are attempts to score political points. The proof is that few who are currently calling for the resignation seem able to say why. If you go to the Sinn Fein website you’ll see they’re scaling up the ‘this is political’ charge with a decidedly ungenerous swipe at Conall McDevitt.

But if you dig a little deeper and go back to the summer of 2007, you’ll see the party take a very different view with *Dick Roche (Correction: it wasn’t Roche who was in office then) over the Galway water crisis. Bare in mind that the Dublin Minister had an even more arms length relationship with the Galway Water system than Mr Murphy, who as a single shareholder has used his draconian powers to intervene in the running of NI Water.

Here’s what Martin Ferris said at the time:

“The blame for the water crisis in Galway should not lie solely at the door of Galway City Council but also at Government Buildings in Dublin. Consistent under funding of local authorities and of critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants is directly responsible for the crisis that happened in Galway and is likely to lead to further water crises throughout the State.” Emphasis added.

Hmmm… So who funds Northern Ireland Water Martin?

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  • Chris Donnelly

    As a general rule of thumb, oppositional politics can have no respect for hypocrisy, Mick.

    Sinn Fein may have been caught out on this specific case due to the coincidence of the centrality of water provision in the example provided in you thread piece above, but it equally could be applied to DUP resistance to calls for Robinson to go earlier in the year.

  • How would the highlighted Ferris quote translate here?

    The blame for the water crisis in Northern Ireland should not lie solely at the door of the Northern Ireland Assembly but also at Government Buildings in London?

    Woodward leaves behind a poisoned chalice in Belfast in early 2007; Murphy, aided and abetted by most local parties, refuses to drink; the Treasury, aided by the regulator, puts a financial squeeze on Murphy and the DRD who in turn put the squeeze on MacKenzie who in turn puts the squeeze on the NIW Board. Something had to give ….

  • joeCanuck

    “Bear” in mind…..

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    If Conor Murphy were to step down then its likely that John O’Dowd (or Martina Anderson) might be promoted. So its natural that he will be ultra loyal to Conor Murphy.
    There has been a concerted attack on him by SDLP and it has been led by Conall McDevitt hence the vitriol on the Sinn Féin website.
    But it still strikes me as a phoney war. The most depressing thing about our governance is not the five parties in coalition government but rather the four parties (at any one point) in Opposition.
    Without politics….point scoring is all we have.
    This week it is Conor Murphy defending his position as a Ministe with civil servants advising him and NIW “at arms length” allegedly under his control.
    Lets be fran..the civil servants in DRD and the semi-civil servants in NIW have more in common with each other than they do with the Minister.
    But next week when we are all dropping dead from swine flu the spotlight will fall on Minister McGimpsey.

    Its one of those issues where the best advice is “be careful what you wish for”. Conor Murphys scalp dangling from the belts of SDLP MLAs would enrage Sinn Féin. And be a morale bost for SDLP. But outside of that its difficult to see any real importance.
    If the Assembly Election was next week it would make sense. A good opportunity for SDLP to nibble at “soft” SF voters.
    But if Murphy goes……because he is “responsible” then the logic is that no blame can attach to Martina Anderson or John O’Dowd (if they succeed Murphy) in May.
    Realistically the morale boost to SDLP of Murphys scalp would have to be set against him being a non-issue in April and May when SDLP canvassers star knocking on doors in the areas that were worst hit.
    With the SDLP (as the other parties do) fighting on two fronts ….their strategists will surely see the areas where they can nibble at AP AND court second preferences…..and see areas where they can nibble at SF (back to the future candidates like Pat Sheehan and issues of perceived ministerial incompetence like Conor Murphy).
    If Murphy stays in office he is much easier to demonise in April and May).
    Taking his own constituency of Newry-Armagh there would be more hope for a second SDLP runner (Thomas O’Hanlon and Sharon Haughey were both heavily involved in the “water” issue at constituency level) if Murphy is an issue on the doorsteps. I suspect SDLP strategists know this as well as I do.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Yes, it’s definately better for the SDLP for Murphy to remain in post but it was important to make itseem like he was justhanging on. It must be seen that Murphy is incompetent, which he clearly.

    Love the Sinn Fein response though. He’s a unionist really you know, that dubliner! But many SF voters willbuy into that!

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s the party politics of it FJH, and don’t disagree with much of it. Except that it clearly is in the SDLP’s interest to characterise SF ministers as well meaning, but incompetent in office.

    The trouble is they also have to be in a position to provide an alternative political choice. Political parties are never undone on one or two plays. It takes years, and mostly the demise comes from within, rather than without.

    There are concrete reasons why Mr Murphy should indeed consider his position, but these are best articulated first and then let the populous decide for themselves.

    One senior unionist backbencher articulated it best when he said, “its what Ministers do in these situations”. He’s not giving anyone a lot to go on there, not least the Minister himself.

  • Mick Fealty


    Spot on with the Robinson thing. Though it was the appointing of a departmental solicitor that was the problem, not political hypocrisy as such. It was not exactly setting the bar high for everyone else. And it hardly inspires confidence in the Executive’s capacity to self reform: classic moral hazard territory.

    But Martin Ferris’s was a party statement at the time, and presumably chimed with party policy.

    Apropos of Stormont realities, it may well have zero consequences. But it’s extremely rare to see such a graphic form of self serving volte face in politics south or north.

    I am sure the party press office is thankful for the fragmenting effect of partition on public perception just now.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I still can’t believe that no-one is banging on the door for a more comprehensive report into Peter Robinson. He basically just said, “I told my barrister what happened and he said I was in the clear”. Firstly that depends on what the barrister was told and secondly it doesn’t make what a barrister says. It’s just an opinion.

    If I could get my clients in the clear just by saying so, I’d be a wealthy man!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Mr Fealty
    The unionist backbencher is right.
    “it is what ministers do” but likewise this is what Oppositions do.
    As Ive said Conor Murphy falling on his sword wont inhibit the friendships/social networking of his civil servants or NIW officials. The civil servants will look on it as payback for the Permenant Sectretry who was forced out and NIW officials will also look on it as payback.
    Their Facebook pages would have a lot of “liking status”.
    Whether Murphy is actually accountable is a different question.
    Personally I dont think the attacks are justified……except as politics.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘few who are currently calling for the resignation seem able to say why.’

    Simple. The buck stops there. With the generous salary comes responsibility. Murphy screwed up, least of all in supporting an inept CEO, and for that he should pay the price, as they all should. All of this ‘accountability’ stuff is nonsense. Someone needs to pay the price of failure, and in this it’s the Three Unwise Men, Priestly, McKenzie and Murphy.

    Priestly is suspended. McKenzie was dismissed (‘stepping down’ is simply a mechanism for him to appear honourable) and Murphy MUST now go to give someone else a chance to prove they’re up to the task at DRD. Murphy plainly isn’t.

  • Sean Og

    FJH – I agree with your political analyses except for this bit – “I suspect SDLP strategists know this as well as I do.”

    The SDLP have strategists? Have you any evidence to support this assertion?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “NI Water inquiry to cost £100k

    The Utility Regulator has revealed that the Inquiry into the performance of NI Water following recent severe weather will cost approximately £100,000.
    Full details are to be announced by the Utility Regulator, Shane Lynch, on Friday of its investigation into the recent severe disruption to water supply to over 40,000 customers in Northern Ireland.

    During the brief, full details of the scope of the Utility Regulator’s inquiry will be provided.

    Two independent experts are to examine the role of Stormont minister Conor Murphy in the burst pipes crisis.”

    “Independent” and “expert”. Aye right…

  • Pigeon Toes

    “Mr Murphy, who has faced calls to follow Mr MacKenzie’s lead in resigning, expressed confidence the probe would find no issue with his performance.

    “I am quite confident about my own role in all of this,” said the Sinn Fein MLA outside Stormont Castle.

    “I am actually confident that I probably over-extended my role by going directly to NIW in terms of their response and insisting that they operationally up their game in response to this.

    “But I am quite content for any investigation to look into that and I will respond to it when it reports.”

    But then again he had “full confidence” in MacKenzie and Priestly…
    Oh and where is the missing phrase this time round ” I take full responsibility”?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Yes Seán Óg…….the SDLP DO have strategists. Probably they are even better analysts than me or you.
    But maybe they are reading this and thinking “FJH is an idiot” or indeed possibly thinking “FJH is a genius”.
    Either way I present my analysis as just that……an analysis.

  • Chris Donnelly

    I’d go further and suggest that one of the lessons Sinn Fein do need to learn from this saga is that the use of the type of vague, blundering and judgemental pronouncements that have been all too common features of the party’s press releases/ political comments (north and south) are phased out.

    But, as I have argued consistently on this site, that would have serious repercussions for the party organisationally as improving the quality of political representation goes hand in hand with improving the capacity to articulate and critique policies and the actions of others.

    Murphy’s actually a bit of an exception in this area, and the experience will no doubt make him even more aware of the need to be vigilant with language and actions in future.

    But far too many other SF representatives unwittingly step into easy territory for opponents by failing to anticipate the likely responses of their adversaries, something which should be a key aspect of preparation before conducting interviews and/or launching particular strategies.

  • Cynic2

    ” attempts to score political points ”

    No shit!!! Opponents use evidence of gross Ministerial incompetence to attack an opponent. Is real politics breaking out?

    Has John O’Dowd never done that – and if he hasn’t what sort of politician is he? This is what MLAs are for John – to hold the Executive to account! I know that this democracy thing is difficult but do try and keep up.

  • DC

    I think it’s about scoring points on policy competence grounds and also to stand up and speak out for other like-minded people who have reached a similar decision that the minister must go and have their reasons. Much of due to his failure to maintain security of water supply when in office, some of it the failure to spot the problems at NI Water in terms of investment and personnel and to secure more funding generally – and finally to accept some responsibility for the unhelpful tinkering of senior board and its NED.

  • The Word

    “I am sure the party press office is thankful for the fragmenting effect of partition on public perception just now.”

    I’m sure in time Sinn Fein will see that their All-Ireland party will simply ride on the back of partition, accentuating it and underscoring it by ensuring that both parts of the country are left in ignorance of each other’s decisions. Indeed this seems to me to be their strategy for 2011, a year they may come to regret after being found wanting in the South because of the North and in the North because of the South.

    Conall McDevitt seems to me to be doing his job as a committed member rather than pursing a party political line.

    And I think it is only fair to say that because of our unique political system, competence and confidence are the only reference points for the political parties to pursue with the electorate. It’s been a bad time for Sinn Fein. “Well meaning but not very competent” is as good a decription as I’ve heard.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “…..Regardless of whether the matter is damaging to the NIW, the whole public sector and other government agencies in the longer term, it is important to apply scrutiny, and action must be taken against people who do not measure up to the appropriate levels of responsibility for running agencies or Departments. Regardless of whether that is deemed an ongoing embarrassment, I make no apology for that approach. It is right to deal with those issues in an open, transparent and upfront way and deal with the consequences…..Regardless of the company’s governance arrangements, no one can deny that the water and sewerage infrastructure has improved radically in the past number of years and that the investment, which was tested and was found to be necessary, has achieved results and provides the whole region with a much better water and sewerage infrastructure. That investment needs to continue and needs to be governed properly. We need to ensure that the agreed arrangements for the medium-to-longer term enable us to continue to make that investment properly. We must ensure that those who do business with the company feel confident that they are operating on a level playing field and in a way that provides proper scrutiny and accountability for the public, who, after all, pay for that investment….”

    Mind you that was way back in March 2010

  • Cynic2

    Pigeon Toes

    Even better, in the same debate the Minister said

    ” We have offered our full support to the chief executive and assured him that, whatever recommendations actions may be required as a result of that work, we will not shirk our responsibility.”

    ” The people whom I dismissed from the board will not receive any golden handshakes. ”


    ” There is no anticipated cost of dismissal. Tommy Gallagher asked about the legality of the process and sought assurances that the dismissals were handled properly. We have taken legal advice every step of the way, and we are sure of our ground. From my perspective, there is no cost of dismissal — I appointed those people to the board and I have dismissed them.”

    but as you say that was 6 months ago and I am sure that we can rely on the Minister’s own statement that

    “. The notion that it is more a matter of who people know rather than how they perform must be removed from the public sector. ”

    to ensure that the same standards are applied to all

  • Pigeon Toes

    “My priority in doing that was to steady the operation. As the Committee will know, NIW is still carrying out a substantial amount of work. There is huge investment going into our water and sewerage infrastructure; it is absolutely necessary to bring that infrastructure up to scratch. There is an ongoing issue of dealing with the public and providing those vital services. It was, therefore, a necessity to get board members in, to appoint an interim chairman and to ensure that the company kept providing the service that we, the taxpayers, pay it to provide. It is also imperative that I, the Department and your Committee are able to continue to scrutinise that and to assure ourselves that that is being carried on in a proper fashion.”

    Worked well then Minister?

    A bit like your plans (and I am sorry for this) about “improving” the Rathlin Ferry Service, where it now looks like the company is insolvent.
    “Emphasis of Matter Going Concern

    In forming our opinion we have considered the adequacy of the disclosures made in the financial statements concerning the company’s ability to continue as a going concern The company incurred a net loss during the period ended 31 March 2010 and as of that date the company’s current liabilities exceeded its total assets. These conditions along vvirh other matters as set forth in Note 11 to the financial statements indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern The financial statements do not include anv adjustments that would result from a failure to continue as a going concern. Details of the circumstances relating to this emphasis of matter are described in Note 11. Our opinion is not qualified in this respect.

    Going concern

    The company has incurred losses in its first two periods of trading with the result that its current liabilities exceed its total assets The contract with the DRD is currently under review and the directors believe that the outcome of the review will enable the company lo continue in operational existence and to improve its profitability

    Whilst there is some uncertainly regarding the outcome of the review the directors believe that it is appropriate for the financial statements to be prepared on a going concern basis”

    Or more Smoke and Mirrors?