It looks like Laurence MacKenzie is to be the fall-guy for Northern Ireland’s water debacle. Without a major overhaul of the way in which NIW is governed and funded, though, his forced resignation is mere tokenism.
Northern Ireland’s water service went down the ’GoCo’ route in 2007 but the resultant company is a curious, under-funded, quasi-independent hybrid, without clear lines of responsibility.
The Executive was quick to shift the blame for the current crisis unto NIW, which it describes as an ’arms length’ body, but the Minister for Regional Development, Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, appoints the Board which runs the company. His power to hire and fire runs right up to Mr MacKenzie.
Earlier this year, of course, the company was mired in controversy over breaches of competitive tendering regulations. A senior civil servant was suspended after allegations of interference in a Stormont Public Accounts Committee investigation.
Rather than demand that genuine independence for NIW, Murphy responded by re-jigging the Board and demanding that the company be fully re-nationalised, much to the chagrin of some Executive colleagues.
The manner in which water is paid for in NI is equally oblique. Although the service is supposedly covered by the regional rate, set by the Stormont Assembly, NIW actually receives its funding direct from DRD.
The extent of the subsidy drawn down from the block grant is unclear, but with rates in Northern Ireland frozen below levels in the rest of the UK for the last few years, it’s pretty clear why money hasn’t been available to provide a major overhaul of infrastructure.
NIW is a public utility blighted by government interference and under-funding. Until it is privatised, or at least until its independence is asserted, then it will continue to perform poorly. In Northern Ireland, with our deplorable system of government, it’s tempting to conclude the less input from the Executive the better.
If Mr MacKenzie does go it won’t necessarily mean Northern Ireland Water can invest in adequate infrastructure. Unless structural changes are made it will still leak money and the lines of accountability will still be deliberately obscure.
If truth be told, even if Conor Murphy goes, NIW’s problems will still remain. He is a mere cipher for his party’s lamentable influence on the Executive. Sinn Féin can get rid of him, but we can’t get rid of Sinn Féin under the current system.
While fantasy economics and an overweening sense of entitlement continue to exert an influence on Executive policy, demanding resignations from employees like MacKenzie is simply re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.