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06/01/2011

Northern Ireland Water Boss Quits

As the man at the helm of Northern Ireland Water (NIW) resigned his post last night, attention has focused on the former Chief Executive's severance package - and the Minister responsible's own future.

Laurence MacKenzie resigned on Wednesday following criticism of the handling of the water crisis with his pay-off being closely examined.

The move came after NIW was criticised for failing to prepare properly for disruption following December's heavy snowfall and severe frosts (pictured in Newtownabbey) that saw water imported from Scotland as supplies began to run out and after Stormont's top two ministers last week described the company's performance as "shambolic".

There were complaints from the public about a lack of information from Northern Ireland Water as 40,000 homes and businesses were without supplies at one stage.

It also emerged that phone lines were jammed and the company website lacked up-to-date information, with the man in charge now out.

However, while calls continue over the future of the Regional Development Minister, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, he in contrast has said he is seeking legal advice over Mr MacKenzie's minimum entitlement terms.

Unionists are lining up to put down a motion of no confidence in him in the Assembly.

But the move is unlikely to have any impact, as only Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams can sack Conor Murphy, as the party can block any such motion - given the need for cross-community support - and with an Assembly election only four months away, that is not likely to happen.

Last night, Mr MacKenzie's departure was announced after an eight-hour meeting of the NIW board of directors on Thursday and the Minister, Conor Murphy has since estimated the figure to be under £100,000 and said, "it would be made public".

Mr Murphy said he was yet to receive full details of the severance package but said estimates of a payout of £500,000 were massively "over-inflated".

He also issued a statement on proposals for an external review of the response of NI Water to the recent 'Freeze-Thaw' incident.

"Following consideration of this matter I am proposing that the NI Authority for Utility Regulation - the Regulator - will conduct this review.

"The Regulator is an established independent body which already has a statutory duty to regulate water and sewerage services. It is therefore suitably qualified and has access to the range of required industry skills and expertise to conduct the review," he said, noting that the Executive will consider these proposals at its meeting this afternoon.

"The Regulator has advised the earliest it could report to the Executive would be the end of February but it will, during the investigation, where feasible, identify any short term recommendations for the company to consider and improve performance, should such weather conditions recur this winter," the beleaguered politician concluded.

The Alliance Regional Development Spokesperson Anna Lo has said that crisis which left tens of thousands of homes without water in recent days demonstrates the need for responsible leadership in Northern Ireland.

She also said she was appalled that those at the top in the Department and at NI Water failed to contact UK Water, the one organisations which can assist UK regions in water crises, ahead of the start of this crisis.

Anna Lo MLA said: "The crisis which left tens of thousands of homes without water in recent times demonstrates the need for responsible leadership in Northern Ireland. What people had to put up with was absolutely appalling, as was the lack of forward planning by the authorities.

"Northern Ireland needed a pro-active and comprehensive strategy to be in place, a quick response and the best possible communication with the public. There also needed to be more 'joined-up' thinking and a co-ordinated emergency plan between relevant government departments. In all of these areas, I believe there was real failure and massive lessons have to be learned.

"The staggering revelation that UK Water, the one body which can help areas with severe water supply problems, was not contacted by the relevant authority until days after the worst of the crisis has passed underlines the chaos," she said.

"This abject failure is baffling, bizarre and deeply worrying because if no-one had the vision to call UK Water ahead of this crisis, they should be considering whether they can actually do their job.

"Surely Minister Conor Murphy could not have been so absorbed in the pavement-gritting responsibility fiasco that he did not see this coming when the big thaw came?"

A party colleague has also called for openness and transparency in relation to the financial settlement terms.

Newtownabbey Alliance Councillor Tom Campbell said: "Given that the taxpayer is the sole shareholder, the public has a right to know what terms were on offer to Mr McKenzie and I trust that there will be no attempt to withhold this information from the public.

Cllr Campbell concluded: "Widespread speculation at the possible amounts is wide ranging.

"Rather than leaving more bitterness and in the interests of transparency the settlement package should be made known, as all of this will have been negotiated in our name."

Another issue, particularly for DRD and its beleaguered Minister, Conor Murphy, is whether we need to appoint a replacement on the same or similar financial terms.

"I am sure that a suitable candidate could be attracted from the private sector on a much more realistic salary," he said.

(BMcC/GK)

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