Pressure piles on Rabbitte over pylon power plans
Backlash in Coalition over €3.2bn project that will erect 4,000 pylons
A cross-party revolt has spread across Fine Gael and Labour over Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte's strong public support for the plan to erect 4,000 high-voltage pylons around the country.
There is now a growing public backlash against the €3.2bn Eirgrid infrastructure programme, that will erect thousands of 45-metre pylons over huge swathes of the countryside.
The issue is already emerging as a key local election battleground with opposition to the plan evident in 19 counties.
More than 1,000 people attended a meeting in Trim, Co Meath, about the pylon issue and dozens of protest groups have sprung up around the country.
Separately, TDs and senators across the Coalition divide have also expressed serious discontent over the decision by Mr Rabbitte to appoint John O'Connor, the former chairman of An Bord Pleanala, as the chairman of Eirgrid.
Mr O'Connor was appointed to the top job two years after he left the planning board which is now tasked with considering objections to the agency's plans to roll out a new electricity network.
Mr Rabbitte has rejected such concerns as "wild innuendo" and has thrown his full support behind Mr O'Connor.
The revolt within Labour surfaced last week when three senators refused to back the Government after Senator Ronan Mullen tabled a motion criticising Eirgrid and the pylon proposal.
Significantly, the decision of the Labour senators to abstain in a vote, where the Government won by just 26 votes to 25, came after an ill-tempered 90-minute meeting between Mr Rabbitte and two Labour senators, Denis Landy and John Kelly. A number of sources told the Sunday Independent that "the meeting consisted of an ongoing series of blazing rows".
"Pat Rabbitte was furious, the tie was loosened, the glasses came off, the blood pressure was high," was one description of the tense meeting.
After the vote Labour senator and Communications spokesperson John Whelan launched a blistering attack on the policies of his own party colleague at Cabinet saying that he had "no confidence in how Mr Rabbitte is handling his brief".
Mr Whelan added: "He has been too dismissive towards genuine concerns that are founded in fact and research.''
Mr Whelan also claimed the minister's actions displayed "an astonishing level of arrogance and detachment and a lack of awareness of the profound, serious and genuine concerns that are held by people about the Euro-grid project."
Mr Whelan did not call on Mr Rabbitte to resign but said he would like to see him replaced in any cabinet reshuffle.
In spite of the unprecedented nature of the revolt, the senators are believed to be dismissive about the prospect of losing the party whip.
One source noted: "Gilmore's yellow card system is going to have to wait, they can't expel the senators unless they want to lose their majority."
In the wake of an equally difficult meeting with the Fine Gael party, Mr Rabbitte is also facing a major Fine Gael backbench revolt on the issue.
Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan told the Sunday Independent "these pylons are like a political bushfire, the issue has now spread across 19 counties".
Kildare TD Martin Heydon also warned that people had legitimate concerns. "There is great unhappiness, we want to see independent cost benefit analysis of the underground option," he demanded.
In the wake of a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, where the Taoiseach was dismissive of concerns on the issue, Mr Phelan also warned that "the Cabinet are going to have to wake up on this issue, none of them appear to get it".
Fine Gael Carlow TD Pat Deering noted that "this is a serious issue for TDs", adding "our concerns were made starkly clear to the top table, they recognised it".
In a development that will add to the political embarrassment for Mr Rabbitte, the appointment of Mr O'Connor will be challenged when the issue comes up before the Dail communications committee.
Mr Whelan said that at a time when people's confidence in the planning system is shattered, Mr Rabbitte had added insult to injury with the appointment of Mr O'Connor.
Mr O'Connor has denied any conflict of interest over his appointment on the grounds that he has no involvement with An Bord Pleanala now.
Fine Gael TDs have also expressed concern. Deputy Pat Deering told the Sunday Independent: "Two years ago I expressed concern over the extent of Mr O'Connor's severance pay, there are perceptions of a conflict of interest."
The Dail communications committee cannot veto the appointment of Mr O'Connor, but one source noted that "if the committee found the person unsuitable for appointment it would be deeply politically embarrassing; Pat Rabbitte would certainly have to publicly account for and reconsider the position."
Irish Farmers' Association deputy president Eddie Downey has attacked the dismissive attitude of Eirgrid to what he called "the legitimate and genuine concerns and fears of local communities and farmers".
"All the indications are that this issue will dominate next year's local elections. Meanwhile, Eirgrid's head-in-the-sand strategy of not engaging with groups of more than six people, their refusal to engage in any media or public debate on overhead pylons is an insult to the rural community," Mr Downey said.