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Money, Money, Money, Must Be Funny, In The NRA’s World

Posted on: February 27th, 2008 2 Comments

DO you still doubt the hidden talents of all those sluggish state agencies?

You do? Go straight to the National Roads Authority (NRA) for reassurance.

Next, invoke the name Maurice O’Connell, the doyen of Irish economic folklore.

Last week a report ordered by the National Roads Authority (NRA) was leaked.The topic was the latest penal hike in toll charges at the M50. And what was in the report?

Very little. Which must have pleased the NRA. The leak revealed that Maurice O’Connell, former governor of the Central Bank, had been appointed an NRA inspector and then written the report.After an oral hearing, which the great man held in Croke Park last December, Maurice had turned down most of the public’s objections to the increased toll charges. It seemed quite a coup for the NRA to net such a distinguished rapporteur. It was even sweeter for the state agency to win the mighty man’s approval for its actions.

The spin on the story was simple. The NRA board, armed with the central banker’s report, had decided to approve the toll increases. According to a variety of media outlets, Maurice O’Connell has been a busy bee in his retirement. Several press articles have named him as the guy who gets a gig from the NRA, year after year. The news of Maurice’s verdict was a kick in the solar plexus for those of us who have rattled the cages at the toll gates over the years. Maurice had given the thumbs up to the charges, so we were back pushing a boulder up a hill. When the M50 tolls rocket on August 1, blame Maurice.

Personally I was gutted; but happily the story began to unravel last Thursday. Although Maurice O’Connell had indeed reported to the NRA, it emerged that the rapporteur was not the central banker at all. It was another Maurice O’Connell.

A slightly fundamental difference. So I rang the NRA to find out who their chosen independent inspector really was.No, they admitted, it was not the Maurice O’Connell of Central Bank fame. They had no idea how this mistake had been so frequently repeated in the media, let alone the paper of record, the Irish Times. It was just as big a mystery to them as the source of the leak.

The next few minutes of gentle probing told me more about the workings of the NRA than I really care to relate. “Who is the real Maurice O’Connell,” I asked ?

“He is an ex-Deputy City Engineer,” came the confident reply. So far, so good. Nothing much wrong with that.

“Was there a tender for the gig?” I asked.

“No,” replied the NRA spokesman. No tender. Ahem.

“How was he appointed then?”

“He was nominated by the board of the NRA.”

“Was there any competition for the job?”

“No.”

No interviews or anything like that.

“Could I have his CV please?”

“Certainly not,” riposted the NRA man.

“Well how much was he paid then?” I asked.

This was none of my business. When I protested that this gig was funded by public money he claimed that it was commercially sensitive information. Its release might help Maurice’s competitors. Unlikely, as he does not seem to have had any for this appointment! According to the Companies Office, the real Maurice runs a consultancy known as Bluegate Engineering Services.

More interesting still, was the news that the real Maurice has been given a gig a year by the NRA, ever since 2005. He has been favoured by the NRA board, especially on toll issues. Obviously experienced, he was the man who held the hearing into the M7/M8 Portlaoise motorway toll in 2006 and he was again the guy who sat in judgment on the toll road scheme for the Limerick Southern Ring Road in 2005. A regular NRA consultant.

Curiosity prompted me to dig up Maurice’s two previous independent reports for the NRA. What music to the NRA’s ears they must have been. In both cases his findings were game, set and match in favour of his paymasters. More intriguing still was the wording in his two verdicts. In both documents the wording was stunningly similar, almost identical.Both times, the same format was followed, the cases for the NRA and the objectors were listed in detail. Fair enough. Then it was Maurice’s turn to adjudicate.

His 2006 report was bizarrely in keeping with the 2005 version, full of generalised rebuttals. There were a few variations, for instance, substituting ‘Laois’ for ‘Limerick‘. The words “motorway network” in the 2006 Portlaoise version were inserted instead of the word “tunnel” in the 2005 Limerick scheme. In both reports there were under 10 paragraphs in response to numerous objections. He dealt with none in detail. The response was cursory. In both cases it dismissed the objectors in half a page of foolscap paper.

Somehow, the NRA likes Maurice’s brief style and his consistent use of the same words, phrases and paragraphs. It must do. It has appointed him for three years in a row now. The NRA appeals procedure works like clockwork: the Government appoints the board of the NRA; if the public bellyaches about any of its tolling diktats, the politically appointed directors handpick a rapporteur/inspector to hold public hearings; the selection contest for inspectors is non-existent; the inspector holds a hearing and writes a report; his fee is a secret; he reports to the board; the directors then decide whether to adopt or reject his recommendations. (They have had no need to reject them in Mr O’Connell’s case); the inspector is paid handsomely. Industry sources tell me that the inspector is awarded €532 a day for his NRA work.

When I asked an NRA official why I could not see the report last week, he refused to answer, insisting it would not be posted on the NRA’s website until this week. More time for a bit of media management. Perhaps the public believes that its voice really has been considered in these hearings; but the NRA has the legal power to do what it wishes anyway.

Meanwhile down at the West-Link toll bridge the misery goes on. The National Roads Authority is determined to nail the motorist to the cross, even before the M50 repairs are completed. The toll hikes are tortuous, brutally unfair to the casual motorist and will be imposed long before the North side of the West-Link is finished.

Maurice O’Connell, the Central Banker, is lucky that he is a mile away from this carry-on.