Kenny eerily emulates Ahern in undercutting his Ministers
Opinion: There is now a worry that the Coalition could make decisions based on short-term political considerations
The Taoiseach has undercut Pat Rabbitte and contributed to confusion on the pylons issue. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The Taoiseach’s handling of the pylons issue during the week has made a politically tricky situation even worse and delayed a vital piece of infrastructural development.
More importantly, the weak-kneed response to the anti-pylon campaigns has raised the worrying prospect that, after governing decisively for three years, the Coalition could be on the slippery slope to making decisions based on short-term political considerations.
One of the reasons the country went off the rails during the Celtic Tiger period was Bertie Ahern’s steady appeasement of interest groups who threatened to cause trouble. Politically Ahern was the most successful Irish political leader since Éamon de Valera, but his legacy was an economic disaster which had its roots in the policy of buying off potential opposition. This was often achieved by undermining the decisions taken by ministers.
Kenny and his colleagues did have to take some account of the scale of the opposition to EirGrid’s pylon plans. The establishment of an expert commission to review the arguments about pylons in Munster and Connacht was a sensible response which was at least partly prompted by local and European elections in May.
However, the way in which the Taoiseach intervened to get the North-South interconnector brought into the scope of the commission established by Pat Rabbitte, after the Minister himself had ruled out such a development, was eerily reminiscent of the Ahern approach to difficult issues.
It seems the issue was thrashed out between Kenny, Rabbitte and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore last Tuesday morning before the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Agreement was reached that the North-South interconnector project, which has been in development for the past eight years, would not be included in the review as international experts had already conducted an inquiry into the costs and the merits of overground versus underground cables.
The Cabinet went ahead and endorsed the plan put forward by Rabbitte to set up a commission, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, to look at the merits of putting the high-voltage cables in Munster and Connacht underground or overground.
All was fine until Kenny met Fine Gael TDs from the Border region that evening and gave them to understand that the North-South interconnector would be included. In the Dáil the following day he declared he would “like the commission to have its remit extended in order that the North-South project can be analysed in the same way as, and on an equal footing with, those relating to all other areas of the country”.
He effectively cut the ground from under Rabbitte and created confusion about the commission’s remit.
If Kenny was trying to get the issue off the agenda for the local and European elections he has probably only succeeded in making things worse.
The development of vital infrastructural projects has always been more politically difficult in this country than it needs to be, mainly because political leadership has too often bowed to vocal lobby groups who have been able to delay and frustrate developments aimed at promoting the common good.
There has been a litany of such controversies over the years. It is a little over a decade ago since there was a raging controversy over the erection of mobile phone masts, with all sorts of wild claims about their damaging health implications.
There was also massive opposition to the construction of motorways. The lengthy court battles over the Glen o’ the Downs section on the Dublin-Wexford road was just one of the controversies that appeared to be interminable. Now that the motorway network is in place it has become conventional wisdom that it is one of the few worthwhile legacies of the Celtic Tiger era.
One big infrastructural project that was not properly implemented and has come back to haunt us is the Luas. In the initial plan, developed when the much-maligned Michael Lowry was minister for transport, the two Luas lines intersected in Dublin city centre. However, a storm of opposition from a range of groups, particularly Dublin city centre business interests, prompted a rethink when Fianna Fáil took office in 1997. The easy option of causing the least possible disruption was taken and the lines did not meet. Two decades later work has now started to link them.
Going back to the beginning of the State, the imaginative plan by the country’s first government to build a hydroelectric plant at Ardnacrusha met with fierce opposition from opposition politicians in the Dáil and from a rage of interest groups.
Acrimonious Dáil debates
The State’s first minister for industry and commerce, Paddy McGilligan, steered the project through acrimonious Dáil debates having first submitted the plans and costings to an international committee of experts. The government published the details of the plan in January 1925, the Shannon Electricity Bill was introduced in the Dáil, it was debated over the following months and it was passed on June 25th.
In August of that year a contract was signed with Siemens, and work began immediately on the enormous infrastructural project. Work was completed on time in four years with a small budget overrun, and was officially opened by WT Cosgrave on July 29th, 1929.
Compare that to the North-South interconnector which has already been eight years in development and has still to be submitted to the planning authorities.
It’s a pity Cosgrave and McGilligan’s successors can’t display the same kind of decisiveness in the interest of future generations.