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Michael McDowell: Ireland has real problem with getting things done

Vast gulf between planning and execution tarnishes the credibility of our democracy

If we in Ireland can harness our offshore wind energy capacity, our likely energy needs could be more than met. Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan was waxing lyrical about this opportunity recently. And it is an attractive and achievable goal – provided we take it seriously and provided that we implement the steps needed to achieve it. Those are, alas, very significant provisos.

The process for licensing offshore wind farms still has not been put in place. Ryan told the Seanad last week that key positions in the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, the new statutory offshore licensing body, are still being filled. Two and a half years into the Government’s tenure, that is disappointing progress. The first licensing round is due to commence in April but when will it result in the grant of licences? And when will the parallel planning process be complete?

Another worry is the planned involvement of An Bord Pleanála (soon to be rebranded as a commission under the Government’s published planning Bill). The Minister informed the Seanad that the Government was now embarking on a programme of recruiting expert staff to handle planning aspects of offshore wind farming installations.

It wasn’t obvious to his listeners that the board/commission is the most suitable body to decide on planning marine development. It has its hands more than full dealing with domestic planning appeals, major housing developments, urban road traffic developments, and major onshore projects such as Metrolink, Luas lines, railway infrastructure and a long line of other infrastructural, industrial and homebuilding developments.


The Minister seemed to see that there might just be a case for a single-purpose specialist body to deal with licensing, environmental suitability, sustainability and necessary safeguards of offshore windfarms, whether fixed platforms or floating structures. It is hard to see how expertise on onshore construction translates into expertise on issues dealing with deep-sea licensing.

We need to develop port infrastructure to build, service and maintain the scale of offshore development that the Minister has in mind. It’s not happening yet. Locations haven’t yet even been decided for such facilities. Delay in that regard will result in Ireland’s offshore infrastructure being built in, and serviced from, ports in Britain and the Netherlands with consequent loss of employment.

Developing our electricity grid must be a priority now. We simply can’t afford to have the controversy and litigation that delayed the North-South electricity interconnectors repeated.

Everything in Ireland takes so long to move from planning to execution. Metrolink is a case in point. If, which I doubt, the Transport Infrastructure Ireland proposals submitted to An Bord Pleanála are a good idea compared with the alternatives, the time frame for the first metro train running remains more than a decade away.

Recently Ryan was supportive of a rail link from Letterkenny to Derry and on to Dublin. Now we hear talk of a rail link from Letterkenny to Omagh and on south. The Dart underground is again shelved decades after planning was completed.

There is a world of difference between planning and execution. Sometimes I am reminded of Woody Allen’s take on the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning there was nothing. And the Lord said: ‘Let there be light’. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.”

Book of Genesis politics will not do. It is all very well to set targets such as banning the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2030. But who is going to make the electric vehicles? Who is going to instal charging points on roads and streets and how? Where is the electricity going to come from? How will it be transmitted in our grid? How many more data centres are we building? What will our population be? Are we able to build, heat and light homes for a massively increased population?

The Commission on Housing seems to think that our homebuilding targets are madly underestimated. Do we have an immigration policy?

What has happened to our afforestation policies? It does not look like we are anywhere near approaching our annual planting targets. And apart from commercial forestry, are we serious about reforesting mountainy areas such as Wicklow with native trees to act as carbon stores and flood attenuation to address increased rainfall patterns?

Housing for All is not the solution it claimed to be. The State must take a hands-on role in the provision of the homes we need. Buying overpriced high-rise apartments from real estate investment trusts financed by tax-driven offshore financiers is not the solution.

The time is past for wishful thinking; we need hard-headed planning and execution. We need less litigation and more action to address a growing problem.

It’s not just a matter of sleeping bags and tents; it’s the credibility of our democracy.