Then taoiseach Charles Haughey fast-tracked the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1990 but the most strident opposition to the new body came from an unlikely quarter – the most senior civil servant in his department.
Both Haughey and minister for the environment Pádraig Flynn championed the new agency, with the Mayo politician, in particular, insisting on it having wide-ranging powers of enforcement and prosecution.
The Department of Finance objected strongly to its proposed staffing of 133 and its annual £7 million budget which it described as “completely unacceptable” at a time when the government was cutting the number of public servants.
However, the fiercest opposition to Flynn’s plan came from the late Dermot Nally, a long-serving secretary general of the Department of An Taoiseach.
In an unusual intervention by a civil servant, Nally wrote a strongly worded letter to Haughey – only days before the government decision – in which he described the EPA Bill as “objectionable”. And he said it would be a “massive addition to the bureaucracy”.
The files form part of confidential government records that have been transferred to the National Archive and will now be available for public viewing.
In a memo to Haughey in October 1990, Nally argued that the EPA would act as disincentive to industry to locate in Ireland.
“Environmental protection is a worthy objective. If, however, it is allowed to become obsessional, then development will stop: and we can forget about more employment since the factories and firms and services which give that employment will not set up or expand – for ‘environmental’ reasons,” he wrote.
He said developers had already to go through an excruciating series of hoops to acquire title to land, get planning permission and observe building regulations, and deal with tribunals on equality, unfair dismissal and health and safety.
Nally continued: “There is evidence to suggest that what attracts investment to a country is not grants or specific incentives but the general level of regulation. If there is too much of it the investment goes elsewhere. We are, I think, in some danger of moving over this border line . . .
“The planning code, obstructive and it can be, is a great deal more balanced than the approach under this Bill . . . It can encourage development, while at the same time preserving the environment. The point is that development is the priority, not the environment, however important that may be.
“The new agency will change this emphasis and is estimated to cost £7 million a year . . . It is still a massive addition to the bureaucracy.”
He also said there were particularly objectionable features of the Bill, the obligation of a local authority to comply with a direction of the EPA. Mr Nally said it was unprecedented to give a non-elected body power of direction over an elected body.
He said the power of the EPA to require funds from local authorities for environmental purposes without any limits was really extraordinary.
“We seem to be trying to create here what Eastern Europe is trying so hard to escape from,” he wrote, referring to the nascent democratic states being formed after the fall of the USSR.
Flynn and Harney
There is evidence that Haughey took some of Nally’s objections on board . He agreed there were too many licences and documents required for industry setting up. However, a memo of the cabinet decision to publish the Bill records him saying that the EPA would cover air, water and waste pollution, and commenting that an “objective impartial body” was needed for granting licences, monitoring. The agency was also given some enforcement powers.
Flynn, and minister of State at his department Mary Harney, had pressed strongly for an EPA. An internal memo for government set out the case in late 1989: “The environment in Ireland is coming under increasing pressure from development. This has led to growing public demand for the application and strict enforcement of environmental protection standards based on use of the best available technology.”
However, the Department of Finance was unhappy with the proposal to recruit 133 new staff members and its budget. “These proposals are completely unacceptable to the minister for finance [Albert Reynolds]. The budgetary realities are there is absolutely no room for any relaxation of the Government’s determination to keep public expenditure under firm control.”
Reynolds also objected to the director general of the EPA being paid the salary of a High Court judge.
While the Department of Finance objected to the size and funding of the proposed agency, Haughey wanted it to be established quickly.
A note of a cabinet meeting in February 1990 records that “the Taoiseach raised the question of expediting the [EPA] legislation . . . He wishes this to be followed up”