It was probably inevitable that Irish Water would end up looking as it does.
The name MC O’Sullivan might not be the first that springs to your tongue if you’re ever asked to name a highly-influential Irish company, but in fact the Cork-based engineering consultancy carved out for itself a huge share of the public service design market in its 35 years of existence before being taken over by RPS, the biggest environmental consultancy in Europe in a deal that saw MCOS retain its own corporate identity within Ireland.
MC O’Sullivan, or MCs as it’s affectionately referred to in county councils across the country, gained an extraordinary level of influence, writing waste-management strategies, designing water-distribution schemes, sewage-treatment plants, water-treatment plants, motorways, advising Bórd Gáis on pipeline routing, marine harbours, airports and river management. Not to mention being prominent in the Poolbeg incinerator saga where, no doubt, they’d have bumped into John Tierney from time to time when he was Dublin city manager before securing his current role as head of Irish Water. They even became involved in the Corrib gas project when they were invited to advise on rerouting the gas pipeline following highly-publicised protests by the local people.
What isn’t so well known is that MCOS routinely provided people to sit on government boards interviewing applicants for senior engineering positions in local authorities. Inevitably, some of the successful job-applicants would be responsible for appointing consultants to various projects.
Despite a public service obsessed with perceptions and appearances of probity, there was surprisingly little mention of a potential conflict of interest in such an arrangement.
Now that Irish Water has been carved out of the public service, we have a nationwide water-distribution system, an equally widespread sewerage system and literally hundreds of treatment plants, both for water and sewage, still operated by the local authorities under the service level agreements entered into with Irish Water. Even the management appears to be roughly the same, since four of Irish Water’s nine senior managers came from local authorities, another from the government department responsible for water, one from Bórd Gáís, one from the construction industry and two, comfortingly, from MC O’Sullivan, now known as RPS.
On the ground, the same staff are doing the same jobs and answering to the same people but with one difference: everyone is now paid more than they used to be.