Don’t shoot the messenger

Written by Jim Walsh

Don’t shoot the messenger is a sentiment that has been around for hundreds of years. It has its origin in wars where messengers would be sent into enemy camps with ultimations or demands and many suffered for it.

But this week in Ireland the phrase took on a whole new public dimension, when the company hired as PR consultants to Irish Water suffered the fate akin to having body parts of medieval messengers removed. In this case not by the enemy but by their own masters.

I know nothing about the relationship of the PR consultants with their client Irish Water but whatever advice they provided to those in Irish Water to whom they reported, these executives should equally walk the plank. Whether the advice was right or wrong the Irish Water executives followed it, and were therefore equally culpable. If the PR advice was not followed then it is the executives, not the PR consultants who should have been fired.

For anyone reading this outside Ireland or anyone in Ireland who has been asleep for the past year, the context is as follows.

The Irish Government decided in 2012 that the management of water should be put into the hand of a single organisation, Irish Water. Until then local authorities had that responsibility in their regions. The Government also decided that individual households should pay.

They then decided that this company, Irish Water, should operate ‘off balance sheet’ thus allowing it to borrow money on the financial markets to fund fixing a water system, where 40% of water is lost through leaks in the infrastructure.

All well and good and positive messages to be made: good for the environment, user pays, no need to increase taxes to improve treatment plants, repair leaks, job creation etc. And Irish Water would be a subsidiary of the existing utility Bord Gais as BG had experience of operating a utility in a regulatory environment and raising finance.

That was the thinking and the legislation to set up Irish Water was rushed through the Dáil and Seanad.

The reality looked somewhat different to the general public. Despite having the experience of Bord Gais, plus the established corps of local authority executives for advice, Irish Water had its own management structure and range of supports from consultants. The consultants’ costs came to about 50% of the total set-up costs. It also embraced the same high salary and bonus schemes as the longer established gas organisation. This even allowed for staff who did not achieve targets receive a bonus.

The Irish public was incensed at this seemingly waste of money. And coming at the end of six years of austerity they were in no mood for another expense, which they saw as a tax. In addition they saw a Government some of whose members had been against water charges while in opposition. And despite Government assurances that it would remain a public company, many people were also convinced that Irish Water was being built up for eventual sale to a private enterprise.

When Irish Water’s proposed charges became public, the Government sought to minimise the impact by refusing Irish Water the opportunity to set a standing charge for each customer. They announced that the average annual charge per household would be €240 and they set about putting in place allowances for some groups. It quickly became clear that the annual charge would be much higher and around the same time, a projected free water allowance for children was also reduced.

Then Irish Water sought information from every household, which people believed was an intrusion. This was followed with charges announced for repairing leaks within a person’s property at hourly rates, which were in excess of private contractors. Even the first ‘free repair’ failed to quell public anger.

So Irish people took to the street in their thousands. They marched in protest; they clashed with police as they protested in housing estates making it difficult for Irish Water workmen to install meters on every property.

The ‘ordinary man and woman’ who had endured so much austerity in the past six years had had enough.

The Government response was to blame ‘communications’ and to promise clarity in the coming weeks.

But as of now the only people involved in the debacle who are no longer with Irish Water are the PR consultants.

It seems that nothing has changed since the days when messengers were sent to communicate with the enemy. Then, as now, metaphorically speaking, they suffered while those who employed them stayed safely in their warm castles, at least until the enemy breached the gates.

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