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In Deep Doodoo

Alan O’Farrell

In Deep Water, by Michael Brennan, Mercier Press, 352 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-1781176580

Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash' Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite, by Sam McBride, Merrion Press, 380 pp, €18.95, ISBN: 978-1785372698

A striking feature of two hugely corrosive recent political scandals on this island is how each arose from contrasting attitudes among leadership figures in Dublin and Belfast. The Irish Water fiasco can be seen as a story of initial idealistic intent being met with implacable hostility, while the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) crisis seems from the very beginning to have come from gross ineptitude or cynicism, or a mixture of both. This is the major contrast evident between two books recently published on the subjects: In Deep Water by Michael Brennan and Burned by Sam McBride.

On the face of it, both proposals seemed like eminently saleable propositions at their inception. Brennan shows that the idea of consolidating Ireland’s water system into one unitary authority (Irish Water) to facilitate borrowing for infrastructure improvements enjoyed widespread mainstream political support. The Irish Water and metering plan were first presented to cabinet by a Green Party minister and approved by a Fianna Fáil-led government before being taken up by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Enda Kenny. Although the metering plan can be seen simply as a government attempt to reduce its liabilities, Brennan’s work suggests that the story might be more complicated than that. On this view, Enda Kenny’s memories of growing up without running water at home or at school seem representative of a deeper awareness among politicians that water infrastructure in particular had to be adequately financed. Similarly, McBride shows that the RHI scheme to incentivise biofuels (as opposed to fossil fuels) for non-domestic use appeared uncontroversial to Stormont representatives for many years, with few meaningful enquiries about its operation being made at its launch or during periodic reviews.

Illustrating how both these superficially untroubling perspectives brought forth such controversies is the main strength of both books. Both show that crucial errors originated in the initial development phases of the RHI and Irish Water plans, with an important feature of both stories being the quality of advice provided by civil servants in Dublin and Belfast.

In Dublin the department of environment’s business case to install domestic household water meters was based on a cost-benefit analysis that predicted an expenditure-to-savings ratio of 1:1.51, assuming a cost of €470 million and a 10 per cent reduction in average household water use. This analysis was flawed in two crucial ways. First, no contingency was factored in for cost overruns on this €470 million figure, which eventually climbed to €613 million by the time the contracts for metering were awarded in July 2013. Second, and more importantly, the estimates used to calculate the effects of metering on average Irish household water use were not based on any meaningful research before widespread installation of the meters began. In reality however water use actually increased after the meters were installed, going from 109 litres per person before charges started to 117 litres by the time charges were suspended. Indeed, both these figures are significantly lower than the initial cost-benefit estimate of average use of 150 litres per person!

In this situation the minister clearly had ultimate responsibility to ensure any plan he proposed made sense, but do other questions not arise in the context of these errors? In such a major project do the permanent civil servants in a department not also carry some responsibility for how money is spent? Or to pose the question in less abstract terms, is it not reasonable to expect that estimates provided by civil servants for such an undertaking are based on something more robust than just guesswork?

This awkward question of “who exactly is responsible for what?” is posed in Burned too. On the basis of most of the documents available RHI appears to be nothing more than a depressing litany of disastrous civil service errors. The first major mistake seems to have been the belief that financing for the scheme was to come from London under an arrangement known as “Annually Managed Expenditure” (AME), which some in Stormont seem to have perceived as “effectively ‘free money’”. Despite the fact that much of the correspondence around RHI clearly stated that any overspend would have to be covered by Stormont “civil servants would go on to continually misrepresent the funding as simply ‘AME’ for years”. The second major mistake involved civil servants failing to notice that the absence of a tiered pricing plan to prevent excessive use of the boilers could lead to massive cost overruns for Stormont. A result of these errors was that, to take one example, “a 20 year heating bill of £2.3 million [for a police and fire service training centre] would be turned into a profit of almost £900,000”.

McBride speculates that the mistake of not introducing tiered pricing might have been inspired by the belief that RHI involved “consequence free spending”, but he is also clear that this “misdescription of the funding” was “unquestionably an error”: “there was no conceivable reason for civil servants to describe the funding as pure Treasury cash other than due to sloppiness or a culture” where such details were considered unimportant. Despite this it’s hard to know exactly how to apportion the blame for the eventual cost overrun since the relationship between civil servants and politicians seems to have to been remarkably opaque. His summation of evidence given by Arlene Foster’s special adviser while she was in charge of the department responsible for RHI is revealing this regard:

Crawford [Foster’s special advisor] told the inquiry [into RHI] that during his entire time at the heart of Stormont he never once saw minutes of a meeting involving his minister. If that is true, it is astonishing.

Such a detail is indeed astonishing but it also raises a difficult question about the interactions of civil servants and their putative masters: how can civil servants ensure that their advice to ministers is correctly recorded? More broadly, should (or can) civil servants insist on correctly minuted interactions, or are they essentially powerless if a minister refuses to adhere to widely recognised convention?

This story of opaque reporting relationships dominates Burned to the extent that it is hard to compare it to In Deep Water in terms of its treatment of political ineptitude. The only thing that can be confidently said in this regard is that Stormont politicians seem to have been completely unfamiliar with the idea that they bore ultimate responsibility for decisions made under their supposed supervision. In the absence of firm figures for the eventual cost of the RHI scheme to Stormont this vacuum of authority seems to be the major point of interest in McBride’s book. It is remarkable (and not a little worrying) to think that the failure to honour such bureaucratic conventions contributed to the suspension of Stormont for a number of years and inflicted huge costs on farmers, who invested heavily in the biomass burners in the mistaken belief that the scheme’s advertised commitments would be fully honoured.

The mistakes in In Deep Water are far more easily anatomised. Here was a situation where senior politicians persisted with a hopelessly ill-conceived policy in an attempt to improve the government’s financial position at a time of crisis. The fact that other politicians and civil servants (minister for finance Michael Noonan and the country’s most senior civil servant among them) could clearly see that water charges would be bitterly resented only makes the water charges advocates seem even more inept. Thanks to the very public anti-charges protest movements much of this part of the story will be familiar to readers but In Deep Water is still valuable in the sense that it gives shape to the overall crisis. In particular, the growth of the protest movement and its ultimate victory in ending the charges regime shows how Irish politics has been changed by the conflict. Many politicians looking at the upshot of the charges plan will be scared to propose anything similar in future, regardless of the possible merits of such an approach. Whither now the chances of an independently funded housing authority in the wake of Irish Water?

Although both books have much in common in terms of the themes explored Burned differs from In Deep Water in the sense that no one at Stormont seems to have genuinely believed in the utility of the RHI scheme. On this view the finding of the recently published Independent Public Inquiry report into RHI that it was simply a “project too far” motivated by a “laudable aim” seems charitable. Rather, on McBride’s account, the nature of its implementation seems more to have been a feature of what Arlene Foster described as Stormont’s “awareness that if money is coming in ... then we have to make sure we find a way of spending it”. In contrast, Irish Water seems to have been a genuine attempt to improve the government’s ability to provide services to its people in a cost-effective manner. The sad irony that is revealed in analyising these two books together is that good or bad intentions don’t matter at this level of decision making. Politics appears to scorn good intentions, incompetence and cynicism in equal measure.

Burned and In Deep Water provide salutary reading for anyone interested in how the cold winds of environmental necessity might be tempered to the shorn lamb of consumer behaviour. Sadly, the hope of success being achieved through such reforms currently seems remote if the interactions between civil servants and politicians in these books are anything to go by.

1/4/2020

Alan O'Farrell is a writer from Dublin. He tweets @alan26397915

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