RURAL communities opposed to EirGrid's plans to erect giant 45-metre pylons across huge swathes of the countryside have advanced plans to form a national alliance before the local elections, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The movement, called SOUL (Save Our Underground Lines), plans to create a GAA-style structure for various anti-pylon and wind-farm movements across the country.
According to sources, SOUL will then "select county delegates who will then join with other counties to become a national movement".
As the Government faces into local and European elections, the move will send a chill through Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers who have engaged in a series of confrontations with the Minister for Communications and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte.
Mr Rabbitte last week confirmed John O'Connor's appointment as chairman of EirGrid, despite enormous opposition from anti-pylon groups. They claimed O'Connor was conflicted because he had presided over planning hearings into EirGrid's controversial pylon applications when he was chairman of An Bord Pleanala.
The Sunday Independent has also learnt that four Fine Gael politicians were told to stall a motion objecting to Mr O'Connor's appointment.
The motion opposing the appointment of Mr O'Connor was proposed by Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan and three colleagues at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting a fortnight ago.
But the motion was "pulled off the agenda" on the instructions of Fine Gael chief whip Paul Kehoe, who wanted the deputies to wait until a Dail Communications Committee had concluded its deliberations on the appointment.
The decision has caused discontent within Fine Gael, at a time when the Government faces mounting public opposition to plans to erect 13,000 pylons across the country to upgrade the electricity network.
Mr Phelan told the Sunday Independent this weekend that the Waterford TD, Paudie Coffey decided they should put down the motion opposing Mr O'Connor's appointment when it was first announced earlier this month.
Mr Phelan said it "was then pulled off the agenda. There was pressure brought to bear by the hierarchy. It came from the top -- Mr Kehoe -- but it wasn't spontaneous."
Another signatory confirmed: "The motion was withdrawn on the request of the party leadership in the hope and understanding that, after due process took place, Minister Rabbitte would address our concerns."
Mr Kehoe said this weekend he had told ''the four gentlemen that the motion before the parliamentary party had not been fully voted on, or discussed by the committee''.
He said he had ''asked the lads would they not wait until the committees were finished their deliberations until they put any motion".
But Pat Deering, the Fine Gael TD for Carlow Kilkenny, said: "There is deep unhappiness surrounding the process. We are not happy."
Mr Kehoe's intervention comes two weeks after a survey by this newspaper which revealed that most members of the Oireachtas Communications Committee believed the controversial pylon project should go underground.
The 21-strong committee is dominated by the government parties, with eight Fine Gael and four Labour politicians. In a statement last week, the North East Anti-Pylon Committee called on politicians to "step up" and start "actually representing their constituents" and claimed the Government was silent. Public opposition to the pylon project is expected to gain momentum in the new year when EirGrid is expected to formally lodge planning applications for the vast electricity network of overhead power lines and pylons.
Padraig O'Reilly, of the North East Pylon Pressure Group said several meetings had already taken place.
"Increasingly, people realise that, when taking on EirGrid, it is a case of isolated we fall, united we stand," he said.
In an indication of the increasing professionalism of the anti-pylon protest groups, it is believed that plans are afoot to fundraise for legal costs, advertising in the national press, and a "political strategic consultant".
One source said: "These are no ordinary protesters. You are talking about barristers, solicitors, company directors, wealthy farmers, stud farm magnates and top professionals. They live out in the country too. It's not quite 'send for lawyers, guns and money', well not the guns bit, but they know if you're taking on city hall you need the lawyers and the money side."