Leading article: Northern Ireland's burst pipes

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The board of Northern Ireland Water is reported to be reflecting on how it has handled the present emergency.

As well it might. More than a week after the first spate of burst pipes, more than 4,000 homes still have no running water, and 24,000 have what is flatteringly described as on-off supply. If such a crisis had happened on a comparable scale in, say, south-east England, we suspect that the central and local authorities might have expressed their concern rather more forcefully than their Northern Irish equivalents have done so far.

As recent air travellers well know, crises come in two stages. There is the initial "act of God" – heavy snow, an exceptional freeze – then there is the response. But the two are rarely unconnected. Some airports were better prepared than others, treated stranded passengers better and returned to normal sooner. So in Northern Ireland: if unusually low temperatures caused the freeze, the scale of pipe-bursts that accompanied the thaw speaks of neglected infrastructure and the dilatory and patchy response testifies to lamentable preparation. It was unfortunate that disaster struck just as the long holiday period began, but emergencies have a habit of arriving at the least convenient times. This is what contingency planning is for.

If there is any mitigating factor it is that Northern Ireland has had much else to think about since the end of direct rule. Infrastructure renewal was probably not at the top of the list – something that may well be about to change. But the extent to which the Stormont government has stood back, leaving the water company to carry the blame, raises the perennial question of where the buck stops.

NI Water is not a privatised utility, it is a state-owned company. The devolved government hires its executives – and fires them, as it did last spring over a tendering scandal. The blame game is only just beginning, and compensation claims will be huge. But money should not be allowed to buy off accountability.

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