MLAs ‘struggle to get to heart of water crisis’ in key meeting

Sara Venning and Danny Kennedy
Sara Venning and Danny Kennedy

Political correspondent Sam McBride was observing Wednesday’s emergency meeting at Stormont about the water crisis, and offers his analysis below:

SDLP veteran Joe Byrne puzzled fellow MLAs at Wednesday’s emergency Stormont meeting about the water crisis when he said: “I don’t believe in political foreplay; let’s get into the issues that matter.”

Unfortunately, the nature of the meeting meant that MLAs couldn’t really get to the heart of the dispute.

Just two hours before the unions suspended their action, the Regional Development Committee, which scrutinises Danny Kennedy’s department, began quizzing the minister, the most senior civil servant in his department and the chief executive of NI Water, Sara Venning.

It was not the first emergency meeting of the committee which Ms Venning had attended. Four years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Laurence MacKenzie’s resignation as NI Water boss following the big freeze of that winter, Ms Venning was one of those who had to face angry MLAs seeking to apportion blame for the utility’s shambolic response to the emergency.

Yesterday Ms Venning faced a much more subdued committee which was asking questions about a much more limited problem.

MLAs seemed reluctant to take sides in the dispute and the DUP chairman, Trevor Clarke, firmly cut off any attempts to get into the heart of the debate — what the unions were demanding and what the publicly-funded utility was prepared to concede in the pension dispute.

In some ways, that suited the more left of centre nationalist MLAs who, rather than attack the unions for calling a strike or attack the department for not being more generous (something which would lead to the money coming from other departments’ shrinking budgets), Sinn Fein MLAs focused on whether the west of the Province was being treated unfairly.

The answer was that the west of the Province was largely served by public sector-run water treatment plants, while the east of Northern Ireland mostly gets its water from plants which are run by private companies employed by NI Water.

The chairman, Mr Clarke, was somewhat more comfortable, accusing the unions of using the action “for their own advantage”.

The hearing did establish from Ms Venning that there would be no compensation to businesses inconvenienced as a result of the industrial action. She said there was no guarantee of continuous water supply to businesses.

Ukip’s David McNarry came closest to pressing around the crux of the pension dispute, and was halted by Mr Clarke, but then went on to question whether private companies were on standby to move in to get treatment plants back online if the talks failed.
However, after another question was asked, the Ukip leader in Northern Ireland did say to Ms Venning that she would have been able to answer one of his questions if she had been an engineer.

To Mr McNarry’s surprise, Ms Venning immediately shot back at him: “I am an engineer.”