Crisis talks on Northern Ireland Water

By Peter Wozniak

Stormont ministers are set to hold emergency discussions to find a solution to the crisis which has seen tens of thousands suffer from a lack of running water.

Water pipes in the province burst in the thaw which followed record low temperatures, draining reservoirs and forcing the water company to cut off dozens of towns and villages from running water altogether.

Northern Ireland Water, the state-run provider which operates a monopoly in the region, has come under severe criticism, especially for its failure to provide information to stricken customers.

Deputy first minister Martin McGuinness added to that criticism ahead of the meeting.

He said: "It's obvious that there are very many people out there who have been very badly affected by the cut-off in water, who feel absolutely let down. I believe they have been let down.

"The big challenge I think at this time is to address head on the deficiencies in the approach, particularly in terms of providing citizens with essential, vital and most importantly, accurate information about where things stand in relation to their water supplies."

Officials from NI Water expressed empathy with those affected and acknowledged failures by the company, but insisted that Northern Ireland's particular vulnerability to the extreme weather was a result of historic under-investment.

The talks among ministers today are expected to focus on the short-term concerns over getting water to vulnerable people, as well as thrashing out the plans province's water supplies for the future to prevent similar problems.

Stormont has received numerous offers of help from the rest of the UK and has accepted deliveries of huge quantities of bottled water from Scotland.

Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson argued the focus should be on long-term problems with infrastructure, saying:"I think what is clear is that the events of the last week or so will bring this to a head. It is a major issue that has to be resolved."

Mr Paterson also insisted that although Westminster was ready to help if necessary, the crisis was the responsibility of the devolved administration.

He added: "NI Water is an organisation responsible to local ministers and it is up to them to decide."