Mutton Island ruling not just a snub to EU


BRENDAN HOWLIN may not have done his best day's work when he gave the go-ahead last week for a sewage treatment plant to be built on Mutton Island in Galway Bay at the expense of Irish taxpayers. By his action, he appeared to be delivering a stinging snub to the European Commission, which has been having grave doubts about the particular location for the badly-needed plant.

The Commission had made known that it considered Mutton Island the wrong place for this massive project, the cost of which initially had been set at £23 million. There's talk now that by the time the scheme is completed, its overall costs may go as high as £40 million, which happens to be the sum that Proinsias De Rossa is reported to be seeking from the Government for increased social welfare spending.

Whatever the final cost, there's every possibility that the EU Commission, whose reservations about the Mutton Island location effectively have been rubbished by the Minister, may now be unwilling to come across with the 85 per cent of the funding which otherwise it planned to provide.

It's ludicrous to expect the Commission to finance projects of which it disapproves, though Mr Howlin indicated that he will continue efforts to get the EU money. When I was speaking to Michael D. Higgins the other day, he appeared confident that the Government would secure the funding and he viewed his Cabinet colleague's action as a means of bringing to an end as quickly as possible the intolerable situation of ever-increasing quantities of raw sewage pouring into Galway Bay.

However, there's little doubt that, to date, the EU Commission remains unhappy about the Mutton Island location for the sewage treatment plant because of the negative impact it could have on Galway Bay.

Only a few weeks ago the Commissioner for Regional Policies and Cohesion Funds, Monika Wulf-Mathies, spelled out her reservations at a meeting with a number of interested Irish MEPs. She told them that all the Commission's advice was against the project being sited on Mutton Island.

Interestingly enough, she advised them that the Commission was not convinced by arguments against locating the treatment plant on the mainland-based site of the disused isolation hospital at Lough Atalia. This is the location favoured by the Save Galway Bay group, which intends to continue its strenuous campaign against the Mutton Island site.

The isolation hospital lands are owned by the Erasmus Smith educational trust, which has indicated that it would make them available if they were chosen as the location for the sewage plant. The MEPs were told that the Commission would favour the option that could be carried out most quickly and it looked as if the project could be completed more rapidly on the land-based site than on the island.

Ms Wulf-Mathies also said that concerns remained about the impact the development would have on birdlife in inner Galway Bay, concerns that were not echoed in an assessment conducted by the Office of Public Works, which indicated there was no threat to birdlife.

An Taisce, in the person of Prof Emer Colleran of University College, Galway, is among those who are not at all happy with Mr Howlin's decision. As Dr Colleran saw it, the Minister appeared to be imposing arbitrary limits on the right of people to express concerns about developments like the Mutton Island scheme.

She characterised his decision as a gratuitous snub to the Commission, risking its goodwill when funding is sought for other Irish projects.

Dr Colleran said: "Since there is no guarantee that the Commission will accept Mr Howlin's decision, and every reason to believe that it will not, it is likely that the entire project will now have to be funded by the Irish Exchequer at a cost of probably closer to £40 million. In the context of the Minister refusing funding for flood relief in Clonmel, and the proposal to reduce unemployment benefits for 18 and 19-year-olds, it is entirely unacceptable that Mr Howlin should put at risk 85 per cent EU funding for the treatment plant."

She said An Taisce did not accept Mr Howlin's excuse that his decision was in the interests of subsidiarity and the proper operation of the environmental impact assessment process. She pointed out that the European Commission had an obligation to ensure that money was not expended on environmentally-damaging projects in any member-state.

"Irish citizens have a right to appeal to the Commission on projects receiving cohesion funding if their concerns have not been adequately considered at local or national level," said Dr Colleran, who also pointed out that in this case alternative sites had not been adequately assessed.

She's quite right there, as from the very start Galway Corporation became fixated on Mutton Island as the site for its sewage treatment plant, to the exclusion of all other possible locations.

The corporation paid no heed to the pleadings of the late Fianna Fail councillor Tom Cox for serious consideration to be given to alternative sites. After last year's horrendous winter storms and floods - the worst to hit the Galway Bay area in 20 years - Cllr Cox and other members of the Save Galway Bay group pointed to the dangers such storms could pose to an island site.

At the height of the storm, the mountainous seas eclipsed Mutton Island from view, causing Cllr Cox to remark: "Imagine the disastrous damage that would have been done if the causeway leading to the island and the treatment plant itself were in place."

By contrast, he said, only minimal damage had been done in the area around the isolation hospital site because it is in a well-sheltered place.

There was a rich political irony in the announcement favouring

Mutton island coming from a Labour Party Minister. The Galway branch of the Labour Party has for the most part opposed the Mutton Island location and a good many members, possibly a majority, of the Save Galway Bay group are supporters of Labour. The two Labour councillors on the corporation, James Mullarkey and Tom Costello, have, along with the late Tom Cox, consistently voted against it.

So it wasn't just the European Commission that was snubbed by Mr Howlin's decision but members of his own party in Galway also got a slap in the face. At European level also, the Labour MEP Bernie Malone strongly voiced her opposition to the island location at the meeting with Ms Wulf-Mathies referred to earlier.

All of this will be disconcerting for local man Michael D. Higgins, who has managed to keep a low profile on the Mutton Island issue. But it could prove an embarrassment to him in the next election campaign.