Monday 29 December 2014

John Drennan: Nimbys out in the sticks threaten to shatter political legacies

'Local' issues like pylons and wind farms can trip up the most canny of political operators, writes John Drennan

Published 12/01/2014 | 02:30

John O'Connor,Chairman designate  of EirGrid arriving for the Transport and Communications Oireachtas Committee meeting at Leinster House yesterday.Pic Tom Burke 3/1/13
John O'Connor,Chairman designate of EirGrid arriving for the Transport and Communications Oireachtas Committee meeting at Leinster House yesterday.Pic Tom Burke 3/1/13

So might we ever see the day where a silent chamber watches as a pallid Taoiseach speaks in a wistful tone about how you come through the "prom notes, the bailout, Croke Park and then it's the small things that trip you up"?

We are probably exaggerating somewhat for not even this Government is going to fall over pylons.

However, despite their lowly original status as the pet project of Labour senators, pylons and their first cousins, the wind farms, have become a source of serious political woe for this administration.

Having already devoured a significant amount of Pat Rabbitte's thinning political credit, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unwisely ventured into the pylon quagmire in Qatar and was left covered in tar and spitting feathers.

Mr Kenny's political surefootedness means we suspect he wouldn't get his feet wet in the bath if he didn't want to.

That, however, is the problem with little hurdles, for politicians tend to be flippant about small things without realising a pebble can trip you up as surely as a boulder.

Mr Kenny's musings about pylons and emigration, which saw 'King Enda' being eaten for breakfast by Labour Senator John Whelan, certainly provided us with a classic case study of that particular danger. In fairness, Enda's digression is only one of a host of errors an increasingly complacent political class has made on an issue which is poised to evolve into the most venomous row between rural Ireland and the Government since the rod-licence dispute.

One of the most strategically important errors is the apparent belief in the Cabinet that pylons are one of those minor "single issues".

This, however, fails to recognise that the opposition to pylons is actually driven by the Cold War theory that pylons merely represent the start of a far broader policy where rural Ireland will be draped with an iron curtain of "monster" wind farms.

In fairness the elite's irritation is understandable, for pylons and wind farms tick all of the boxes politicians and legacy-hunting mandarins love.

To their eyes, they represent green energy that is clean, infrastructure, jobs, exports, world leadership, modernity, smart economics, ribbon-cutting and, best of all this is infrastructure that can be built in rural Ireland far away from cities and towns.

Who then could blame our politicians and mandarin elite for being irritated by the spectacle of rural Nimbyism spoiling all of these wonderful dreams?

The moral edge was somewhat taken off the Nimby argument when the chairman of EirGrid, John O'Connor, in a commendable display of honesty, said he wouldn't be happy to have one of those pylons in his back garden.

There was certainly something uniquely Irish about the scenario where those who are being condemned as Nimby are the ones who will have the pylons and wind farms in their back gardens while those condemning the Nimbys are sure they will never see such delights in their manicured turf.

Significantly the Nimby's are very aware of this salient fact too and are not at all in the mood for any lectures on solidarity from those socialists of Sandymount-types who always manage to ensure that solidarity doesn't land on their doorsteps.

Ultimately the biggest rogue elephants that the establishment has not been able to control when it comes to this shape-shifter of a controversy are issues such as consent and respect for the citizen.

Sadly, so far the experience of those opposed to pylons and wind farms is that, the inalienable belief of Irish institutions that accountability doesn't apply to them.

Nothing epitomised this belief more than one private comment by a government spin doctor that "of course the pylons will be accompanied by windfarms but we can't tell the people that or they would revolt en masse".

Outside of noting that our spin doctors' hopes have been dashed, the problem with that attitude is that our ever-suspicious voters, who already believe a corridor of pylons and wind farms are on the way, are now open to the suggestion that a couple of nuclear power plants might also be thrown into the mix.

The original "send in the barristers to frighten the locals" attitude means the hearts and minds of the citizens has been lost.

It has not helped that arrogant superciliousness has been the dominant characteristic of the establishment's response to the opponents of pylons.

The view of the elite is that they are dealing with dread-locked professional hippies, Shell-to-Sea-style professional protesters, faintly mad rural senators and unwashed farmers.

In fact quite a number of civilised people with third-level degrees live in rural Ireland and they are not at all impressed with the "our way or the high-way" EirGrid approach.

Mr Rabbitte in particular might be interested to hear that some are lawyers which may come in handy. Previously disregarded community groups are increasingly well-funded and definitely lawyered-up.

The Government has attempted to defuse the controversy by providing their fretting TDs and senators with the placebo of consultations and kicking the issue into 2015.

That, however, is merely the equivalent of a man with a cough putting off going to the doctor in case the news is bad and TDs and senators know it.

The suspicion also, particularly among their voters, is that any school of consultation, particularly of the EirGrid variant, will resemble the legal views of the Queen of Hearts who had a preference for the "off with their heads" school of jurisprudence.

And even if hard decisions are delayed, by 2015, the ministers and the mandarins will have to deal with an even more softened-up group of TDs which will be taking a far more focused approach to their political survival.

One of the great certainties of Irish politics is that ill fares the government which fails to listen to or respect citizens.

It is probably excessive to state that pylons would ever topple a coalition.

But, unless this administration readdresses the virtues of humility it was so enthusiastic about in opposition, pylons and wind farms could evolve into a latter-day version of the rod-licence war that split communities.

Mr Kenny has been around for long enough to recall that particular frolic cost Mr Haughey his overall majority in 1989.

For Pat Rabbitte and many of the Dublin intelligentsia the politics of pylons and wind farms may still represent a mere local difficulty stirred up by troglodytes and senators.

But, as Paddy Kavanagh noted in Epic when it comes to matters of contention "Gods make their own importance".

The electorate gods are deciding pylons, wind farms and the rights of that lowly breed of citizen who lives in rural Ireland should be treated with as much respect as a south Dublin senior counsel.

When he returns from his Arabian nights and re-engages with the country he actually governs, Mr Kenny may arrive at a similar conclusion fairly swiftly.

Irish Independent

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