Re-nationalisation of NIW 'bananas'

CONOR Murphy's attempt to re-nationalise crisis-hit NI Water is "bananas", finance minister Sammy Wilson has warned.

In an emergency statement to the assembly yesterday, as MLAs returned to scrutinise the revelations about NI Water over the summer, the Sinn Fein minister asked for the utility to be brought back fully under his department's control.

Mr Murphy said that the move would stop any future attempt to introduce separate water charges for householders.

But senior MLAs from across the political spectrum questioned Mr Murphy's political judgment over the issue, with the finance minister warning that the radical move could cost taxpayers up to 100 million a year.

Last night, Mr Murphy was accused of attempting to "distract" from the ongoing revelations about the publicly-owned company by calling for it to be re-nationalised.

Widespread opposition to the suggestion was expressed across the assembly yesterday, and the change in status would not be possible without the executive's approval.

But the trade union movement – one of whose senior figures was appointed to the board of NI Water by Mr Murphy – welcomed the idea.

Mr Murphy told MLAs: "The structure I inherited, a GoCo model set up through direct rule legislation, is I believe at odds with public sector provision of water and sewerage services which most people support."

Mr Murphy conceded that there were "risks" with his plan to regain full control of the utility but insisted that it could provide better governance at NI Water.

But, speaking in Stormont's Great Hall after hearing Mr Murphy's comments, the finance minister said that the re-nationalisation plan made no sense.

"I have to say it is bananas, to be quite truthful," the DUP minister said.

Mr Wilson said that it was ill-judged at a time of huge public spending reductions to call for a change to NI Water's status – which Mr Murphy said which would cost up to an additional 55 million a year, due to the changes re-nationalisation would make to its tax status.

He accused the Sinn Fein minister of pursuing an ideological agenda despite the huge cost to the public finances and that it would rule out extra investment in water and sewerage by private companies.

In a brisk dismissal of Mr Murphy's suggestion, the finance minister said that it demonstrated "shallow" thinking.

"I know that maybe he's dealing with this from an ideological point of view but he's certainly not dealing with it in a realistic way.

"The consequences, if he got his way on this, for the public purse would be very, very severe."

Mr Wilson said that he hoped that the executive would "see the flaws in what he is proposing".

He added: "Some people need to have a reality check about the position which is facing us. Last week it was talk about ‘resist the cuts’; this week ‘let’s make the delivery of water more expensive’.

“That’s not really a very constructive way of dealing with the crisis that we’re facing.”

UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy said that Mr Murphy’s statement had “become almost a party political manifesto to justify the re-nationalisation of NI Water”.

The UUP chairman of the regional development committee said that Mr Murphy appeared to be going on a “solo run”.

“The minister has piggy-backed a major shift in policy direction onto the governance issue, a change of direction that will have significant financial implications at a time of serious fiscal constraint,” he said.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that Mr Murphy’s announcement, which is outside the terms of the executive’s “Programme for Government”, is “indicative of Sinn Fein’s utter disregard for the concepts of collective responsibility essential to joined-up government”.

He also said he suspected Mr Murphy’s announcement was “a convenient distraction from his own mishandling” of NI Water.

SDLP MLA Conal McDevitt said that Mr Murphy was undertaking a U-turn, having previously backed Professor Paddy Hilliard’s report which supported the current status of NI Water.