Gormley faces US quiz for holding up 600 jobs
EMBATTLED Environment Minister John Gormley last night came under intense pressure to explain why a €350m project that would create 600 jobs is being held up -- as unemployment rose to a record high.
Mr Gormley's handling of the job-rich Poolbeg incinerator development in his own constituency has prompted the US Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney to demand a face-to-face meeting with the Green Party leader.
The revelation of so many potential jobs being delayed came as new live register figures yesterday revealed there are a record 452,882 people out of work.
Separate Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures confirmed Ireland has officially emerged from recession. But hopes the economy had finally turned a corner were dented after it emerged unemployment had risen to 13.4pc.
As the Government was accused of failing to have a jobs strategy, the Irish Independent learnt that Mr Rooney has sought a meeting with Mr Gormley to discuss his refusal to grant a licence crucial to the development of the Ringsend incinerator.
The ambassador is understood to have already informally discussed the matter with Taoiseach Brian Cowen earlier this year. Ministers and senior civil servants are also aware of the complaints about the delay in the project.
Mr Rooney wants a meeting with Mr Gormley about the minister's failure to grant a foreshore licence for a project that already has total planning approval and would create 600 new jobs -- 500 in construction and 100 in operation.
The US company behind the development, Covanta -- a publicly quoted company on the New York Stock Exchange -- said it was "routinely questioned by shareholders about the delays affecting our Ireland project".
Expressing his frustration, Covanta's European president Scott Whitney said the company was dismayed at the continuing delay in the processing of the foreshore licence, which was applied for nearly two years ago.
"We are at a loss to understand why the Government appears unable, or unwilling, to ensure that its regulatory systems operate in a transparent and predictable manner so as to enable a project such as this, having national importance, to move ahead as speedily as possible," he said.
After receiving a request from the company four months ago, Mr Cowen may meet with Covanta bosses in New York during a business trip to the US in a fortnight.
The American-Ireland Chamber of Commerce has also expressed concern about the possible damage to Ireland's "solid reputation for being business friendly to foreign investors".
"Any perceived or actual unfairness could raise questions about the investment environment in Ireland, thereby deterring inward investment at a time when it is most needed to support economic recovery," the chamber's commercial director Brian Cotter said.
A source last night said the delay in granting the licence made the incinerator the "most egregious case" of "regulatory uncertainty".
"In your language, it's getting difficult to put lipstick on a pig. This, and a handful of other cases, is making it difficult to make the case to boards of directors in New York to invest in Ireland," the source told the Irish Independent.
Mr Gormley has long been opposed to the incinerator being built in his Dublin South-East constituency.
Given his repeated pledges to stop the incinerator, the Green Party TD would be dealt an embarrassing blow if it went ahead while he was in Cabinet.
Denying any untoward delay, the minister's spokesman said the Department of the Environment and Mr Gormley assumed responsibility for foreshore licensing less than six months ago.
The Poolbeg application was one of 700 such applications that transferred in mid-January of this year, which the department was working through, the spokesman said.
"With regards specifically to the Poolbeg licence application, the department has recently received new information from Dublin City Council. Consequently, the department will be in communication with the council to clarify the status of the application," the spokesman said.
He added that Mr Gormley intended to meet with Mr Rooney "this month".
Following the furore over his animal welfare laws, Mr Gormley yesterday said the Government should be using Dail time "much more constructively, to debate the issues that affect people -- namely job creation".
The Poolbeg controversy deepened as new figures revealed unemployment has soared to yet another historic high -- despite confirmation the recession has technically ended.
Opposition leaders poured scorn on government claims the country was starting to reap the rewards of tough economic decisions and insisted the "real recession" was far from over.
Figures released by the CSO showed the economy started growing again at the start of this year. But another report published simultaneously revealed the number of people in dole queues has broken through the 450,000 barrier -- the worst it has been in the history of the State.
The Taoiseach admitted he was disappointed by the live register statistics, but insisted the Coalition was doing everything it could to turn the economy around.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore claimed the record proves Fianna Fail and the Greens are not taking unemployment seriously.
Overall unemployment is at 13.4pc of the workforce -- up from 12.9pc in the first three months of the year, according to the CSO.