Kenny does a Bertie and strokes pylon controversy into touch

Taoiseach’s move to include North-South line in review harks back to bad old days

Politics witnessed what Larry Gogan calls a "golden oldie" this week, a blast from the past that filled us all with nostalgia. In this instance, it was the successive combination of a climbdown and a fudge that bore all the hallmarks of a classic Bertie Ahern compromise.

Except this time they came courtesy of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has sworn blue for the last few years his Government was above all that.

In the post-troika world, we have moved beyond promissory notes and unburned bondholders back into the more familiar territory of Irish politics – the local, or Nimbyism, or what Ahern described memorably as "geographics and demographics" when arriving at a similar "compromise" on the proposed downgrading of Nenagh Hospital about a decade ago.

This time the issue is EirGrid's major and divisive plan to create a number of very high voltage lines running hundreds of kilometres from Leinster to south Munster, and also to the northwest. This will involve the erection of pylons, some over 43 metres high. Some 750 will be needed for the East-South Gridlink project alone.


The plans for the 400kV lines have led to the formation of dozens of well-organised protest groups, objecting to the projects on various grounds.

Some object to the plans full stop. Others want the lines underground. The objections range from health concerns to visual impact, to the impact on property prices, native woodlands and tourism.

Backbench concerns
Dozens of backbench Government TDs and Senators, whose political bases are along the proposed routes, have also raised their concerns.

When EirGrid completed its latest public consultation earlier this month, it had received more than 30,000 submissions.

To say this is a political hot potato is an understatement. The issue has dominated party meetings in Leinster House.

There was also a mild panic within parties that a spate of anti-pylon candidates standing in the rapidly approaching local elections would wreak electoral havoc.

Given all of that, it was always unlikely that the Eirgrid’s plan would proceed without intervention.

First we got the climbdown, which wasn't a massive surprise. Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte announced he was establishing an independent commission under former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness to set the terms of reference for studies that would look into the feasibility of putting the Grid Link and Grid West routes underground.

The commission would ensure the integrity and independence of those studies, which would then be compared with the existing plans for overhead lines. The commission itself won't make the final decision. That will be left to EirGrid and the Government. Essentially, the commission's role is to ensure the process is honest.

So what was the fudge? Well, Rabbitte asked McGuinness to head the commission on the basis of two projects. But at the Cabinet meting this week Kenny raised a third project, the North-South interconnector. He asked Rabbitte to ask the commission if it was prepared to confirm that there had been parity of treatment in the high-voltage interconnector between the State and Northern Ireland that runs from Meath to Tyrone.

That was never part of the plans and Rabbitte made no mention of it on Tuesday. However, Kenny met Fine Gael backbenchers on Tuesday night and assured them it would form part of it.

On Wednesday he told the Dáil he would like the commission’s remit to be extended to include the interconnector.

That left the Minister for Energy with little choice.

On Wednesday evening Rabbitte issued a statement saying that he would ask McGuinness when he meets her tomorrow if she will – essentially – graft on a kind of post facto vetting of the North-South interconnector to ensure that its process was fair.

The problem, as EirGrid's chief executive Fintan Slye said yesterday, is that that a planning application to An Bord Pleanála on the North-South line is imminent, no more than three weeks away.

On that timescale, if an NCT is being conducted on the other two projects, all that can be done with North-South line is a bit of tyre kicking and nothing else, unless the commission demands more time. It's difficult to reach any other conclusion than that this is Kenny being at his most Bertiesque, making an unashamedly political and populist fudge designed to appease backbenchers and shore up support.