The heritage hero

 

It seems a time-honoured tactic of officialdom to portray campaigning environmentalists as impractical, snail-loving, tree-hugging eccentrics. Apparently an interest in preserving the natural and built heritage equates with being at best archaic, at worst antisocial. And so a pattern has been established, in which developers, if operating on a sufficiently large scale and in possession of usefully needy and greedy contacts in high places, usually get what they want. The landscape is destroyed, the heritage lost, but hell there's money to be made, and much of this corruption has been justified on the shaky claim of creating new jobs.

In this Brave New World, Michael Smith, chairman of An Taisce for the past six months, has earned the enviable title of "the most dangerous man in Ireland", according to some observers. It is a bizarre epithet but surely fitting in a society where a proportion of the population is very rich indeed, the majority continues complaining, while a large if invisible segment is poor. Smith is dangerous because he is honest, understands the law and cares - it was he who, on learning of plans to demolish the Harcourt Street birthplace of Edward Carson, promptly phoned the Democratic Unionist Party to enlist its help.

Hardly surprisingly, developers see him as an obstacle. Come to think of it, some politicians from the two major parties may not be overly fond of him either. As radicals go, he is deliberate, practical and conservative, if only inhis reasoning. "My concern is the public interest in planning and development," he stresses, and although he is obviously interested in conservation and architectural history, and has encouraged people to consider the juxtaposing of the old and new in restoration, he wants to play this down and instead emphasise his stance on planning and development.

Smith is unusual in that in person he is quiet and almost neutral, and his exasperation is well disciplined. It is ironic that the single most significant act of cleansing in recent Irish history was achieved by neither politicians nor campaigning journalists but by him, then 29, and Colm Mac Eochaidh (then 31) a barrister who works in environmental, planning and EU law. It was they who initiated the clean-up of Irish public life which originated with Smith's idea of placing an ad offering a reward in exchange for information relating to planning corruption.

"I had the idea and persuaded Colm to come in on it." It all sounds very Robin Hood-ish. Smith laughs and says: "Well, I do have an imagination." It appears to be a highly practical, even visionary one. The Flood Tribunal came about thanks to that move, and while the tribunal's disclosures have proved exciting stuff for the chattering classes, even sustaining a radio show with its nightly "re-enactments" of the day's proceedings, they have also exposed a blatant lack of morality in some sections of Irish political life.

"Over a period of nearly two years we engendered, through leaks to the media, a climate of opinion, particularly in the body politic, so that when Magill magazine finally broke the `procurement document' story it was very difficult for the Government to do anything other than establish the tribunal that we had been calling for since 1995," says Smith.

The £10,000 reward accompanied the question asking "for information leading to conviction on indictment of persons for rezoning corruption", which was published in two national newspapers. The pair had initially approached a selection of "radical, cutting-edge" solicitors to advertise and administer the reward. These "radicals" proved disappointingly reluctant to involve themselves.

Mac Eochaidh then suggested he and Smith look outside the jurisdiction. "I first thought we had to go to London but then I realised it would be easier to go to the North, where I had a college friend." Kevin Neary, of Donnelly, Neary and Donnelly, a Newry firm, took on the job of registering the reward and placing the advertisements. This created a level of interest in the press. Neary was the public face of the campaign. "I give Kevin a lot of credit for the way he conducted it," says Smith.

That ad appeared in 1995. Within a few months, more than 55 informants had emerged. Among them was James Gogarty, an elderly man with a strong agenda. "It appeared to us that we had to coax him into understanding that his own agenda concerning his pension was best served by attracting publicity for his allegations concerning Mr Burke and Mr Redmond and corruption in the planning process." In the course of two meetings, Gogarty told his entire story to the pair, who then approached a number of newspapers on his behalf with it. They quickly discovered that investigative journalism is blunted by fear of the libel laws.

"I would say it is a myth that the tribunals represent the triumph of Irish investigative journalism," says Smith, though he says that without being investigative some commentators proved supportive. "I'd like to see the libel laws changed so that bona fide, well researched allegations concerning figures in public life are not deemed libellous merely because they ultimately prove untrue - although I think it's important that, where appropriate, large-scale retractions are published."

Though having a reputation among some journalists as an outspoken loose cannon, Smith is about as careful as, well, as a lawyer. He gives little away and could hardly be accused of flamboyant abandon or careless rhetoric. About the most daring thing he says is to make reference to that imagination, which he does a couple of times. His conversation is about facts, the reality of what is happening to Dublin and Ireland.

His policy is as concerned with the future as it is with preserving the past. "Conservation should be directed at repairing rather than replacing," he says. "If it works leave it." He understands that there is a basic integrity involved in restoring. His own house on Dublin's quays was built in 1684 and is a national monument.

On the issue of facade retention he says: "Personally I would prefer to see a building demolished rather than have two or three per cent of the facade retained in a crass exercise of functionality and dishonesty."

Smith is formidable in that he is intelligent and committed. At 34 he looks many years younger and has retained the appearance of a sporty, very good-looking, privileged son of the middle classes. He has the good humour to agree he does not look like a typical environmentalist. He would be difficult to unsettle, such is his grasp of the issues. There is no party political pedigree to draw on. "I am forcefully non-party political."

Born in Dublin in 1965 he is the elder of two sons. His father worked in advertising and Smith grew up in Loughlinstown in south Co Dublin. Describing the Shanganagh Valley of his childhood he says: "It was a wonderful place of trees and woods and walled gardens." It was also to play a role in the development of Smith's environmental beliefs.

Monarch Properties announced its intention to build 1,000 houses there in 1989. Nothing happened for a few years, then the re-zoning became a reality. After a significant campaign had been mounted but seemed to be failing, Smith and his friends began a guerrilla movement in its defence. It's not the only case he has lost; a more recent one ended with the destruction or alteration of several significant buildings to facilitate the building of a hotel in Dublin's College Green. Lancefort, a conservation society formed by Smith with six others in 1997, described by him as "an aggressive campaigning environmental group", battled the case in the Supreme Court in vain.

Long before all of that, though, he had spent nine years travelling to Gongaza College through what was then a mixed suburban landscape, losing its natural and historical character. Rugby was important, particularly his time playing at prop - "it does gives insights into ugly attitudes," he says. Later, at UCD: "I was interested in philosophy and to a lesser extent literature, but I studied law because it is a very powerful instruction in the way things work and more importantly, the way things can work."

Smith never practised at the Bar ("I don't like the lifestyle") and says he is more interested in making policies than in arguing cases "on behalf of causes you may not be particularly interested in".

An Taisce is his main priority now. "It is becoming a model of democracy, openness and progressive thinking. I like to see An Taisce bringing the message that the environment and good planning are nearly as central to the quality of life, as issues such as GDP growth and unemployment, affecting as they do where and how people live, work and play - and how they get there. An Taisce is the only body that in a systematic and countrywide way takes the public interest stance on those matters."

Smith believes the planning application monitoring function should either be carried out by a dedicated, government-funded agency, or "at the very least, entirely paid for by it". An Taisce receives no core government funding for its planning function, although it has recently applied for some. "We run projects for the Department of the Environment and take a small profit which we use for the day-to-day running of An Taisce. We are getting a small but increasing sum from legacies, and we do target the corporate sector." There are new problems, however. The imminent imposition of fees for observation, either positive or negative, on planning applications made to local authorities will have a critical impact on environmental and community groups. Smith is fighting this. "In the Celtic economy nearly everyone is affected by a bad planning application in their area."

How powerful is An Taisce? "We have proscribed status under the planning Acts which means local authorities have to notify us concerning important applications and perhaps they do treat our submission more seriously than submissions from private individuals. It should be more powerful because of its pro-activity and the policies it develops and pursues. But unfortunately, it often appears that its real power comes through exercise of the right to appeal developments to An Bord Pleanala."

Smith makes the point that An Taisce has pioneered the idea of contracting with developers to eliminate the worst excesses of development in the interests of sustainability, such as with the Jervis Centre. Temple Bar remains a sore point. "An Taisce in 1985, before I got involved, was the first body to propose that the area be saved from demolition and the subsequent building of a bus depot. We wanted it saved and proposed that tax incentives be used for its rejuvenation as a bohemian, low-rent, arts quarter. We feel that vision has been betrayed over the ensuing 15 years. We now have a mainstream, high-rent area where many perfectly good, historic buildings have been overhauled and transformed into attractive modern buildings at enormous public expense. There is very little evidence of an increase in "artistic output".

Chief among his criticisms of the National Development Plan 2000 is the expenditure allocated to roads. "We would rather see this spent on public transport, particularly rail, as it is in France and Germany. The Government is planning to spend £6.3 billion on roads and nothing on new rail outside Dublin. This illustrates a complete failure to learn lessons from the international experience of transport. The Government is also in breach of European Law in failing to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the National Development Plan on the environment."

Of the Ireland of today he says: "I find it exasperating that we have thrown out so much of what was good about the country in pursuit of the Tiger." Litter and water pollution, he feels, are symptomatic of a throwaway mentality. "In 30 years' time, even in 10 years we will have committees of inquiry asking who was responsible for allowing the degradation of the environment at the turn of the Millennium. It's the next scandal to break."

For information and membership details for An Taisce, phone 01-4541786