Tuesday 17 September 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'The big ask: broadband and climate'

Richard Bruton's new portfolio features two of Ireland's hottest - and toughest - topics, writes Kevin Doyle

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton, TD at his office on Adelaide Road. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton, TD at his office on Adelaide Road. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Richard Bruton's view has changed since he moved from an office in Dublin city centre two weeks ago to one overlooking the Grand Canal - but his approach to politics hasn't.

If there was one minister in Leo Varadkar's Cabinet you would send to take the heat out of a situation, it's the man who once fancied himself as Taoiseach.

He openly admits to being a "policy wonk" who will drag you down into the minutiae of a topic rather than fight fire with fire. But this time Bruton will need more than his much-loved 'action plans' to solve the problems.

There are already big plans in place for the roll-out of broadband to rural Ireland and bringing Ireland into line with our climate change obligations. Both are going disastrously.

"I think the areas for which I have responsibility - adapting to the communications technology revolution, adapting to climate action and adapting to the environment - will define our century," he says.

They may also define his time as a minister. Since 2011 he helped the Department of Jobs kick-start a post-crash drive towards full employment and signed off on a long list of reforms at the Department of Education.

However, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment bring arguably bigger challenges on the eve of a potential election.

When Denis Naughten stormed out on October 11, he left behind a National Broadband Plan in crisis. Whether or not his private meeting with the head of the sole bidder for the project compromised the process or not has yet to be determined.

And while that review is being carried out by independent auditor Peter Smyth, the new minister can offer no timeline for when rural Ireland will get high-speed broadband. Neither can he tell taxpayers how much the roll-out will cost, except to say it'll "definitely" be more than the €500m once envisaged.

Reports have suggested the bill could stretch to €3bn.

And yet Mr Bruton says there is "no question of a Plan B". Mr Naughten had hinted there was one - but the new officeholder dismisses the idea. "I don't know what he said… We've gone through various gates in the tender process. You cannot go back having had someone in good faith go through a tender process. You have to complete that," he said.

Fianna Fail has proposed the Government should now open talks "in parallel" with semi-State entities and major telecoms companies about an alternative approach.

But Mr Bruton says: "The competitive process invited all people. The ESB was one of those that did get involved at that stage. For reason of its own, it decided it wasn't going to proceed.

"The project has developed since that without the involvement of the ESB. At no stage was Irish Water a party to it."

The evaluation of the bid from Granahan McCourt will assess governance, costs, roll-out capabilities and technical robustness.

As the only consortium not to drop out of the contest, the project is theirs to lose - but Mr Bruton refused "to speculate on what that evaluation might show".

Asked whether doubts are creeping into the Government's line on broadband, he replies: "It's not a doubt. Any tender you go for, you have a tender evaluation."

Interestingly he cites the story of the National Children's Hospital as an example of where a plan hit the rails but the Government "didn't flinch".

The comparison will hardly be reassuring for the 1.1 million rural residents waiting for a decent internet connection.

Back in 2006, during Bertie Ahern's time as Taoiseach, the Mater site was chosen for the hospital. In 2009, Brian Cowen announced that it would be open in 2014.

But the idea hit the rocks when planners ruled it out of order and in 2012 the Fine Gael/Labour government decided to relocate the project to St James's Hospital. Construction is now due to be completed in 2022.

On broadband, Mr Bruton says: "Government's commitment is clear but there is another side to this which is to make sure that we procure at the very best value to the taxpayer and that we have confidence in how it'll be rolled out."

As for the implications for the confidence and supply negotiations, he says there's an "obligation" on Fianna Fail to wait on the evaluation of the tender and Peter Smyth's report before making a "political judgment".

"I don't think Fianna Fail is going to jump to condemn something before we have seen the proposition."

Fianna Fail's communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has already described the current process as "hopelessly compromised".

The minister obviously expects that the broadband issue won't derail the talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail because he has already begun work on a 'first 100 days programme'.

Finding some resolution to the crisis is high on the agenda but so too is the question of climate change, which will be even more difficult to fix.

"On the wider climate change issue, you don't have to be Einstein to work out that we are way off course as to where we should be. We need to make a step change right across the board," he says.

The Environmental Protection Agency has predicted that Ireland will achieve only a 1pc reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2020, instead of the target of 20pc. Hefty fines are likely to follow.

And yet Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe bowed to pressure from rural backbench TDs and decided not to raise carbon tax in last month's budget.

The political will to tackle this issue doesn't exist?

"We probably didn't have the money in the crash. We probably delivered in the short-term on some of our targets simply because of the crash, so it wasn't a top priority. But as the economy has recovered it's absolutely clear that the trajectory is way off course," says Bruton.

He argues there are "positive things" happening now like the National Development Plan (NDP) which allocates almost €22bn for turning this into a low-carbon economy.

If the NDP can break the link between growth and carbon, it could bring us around a third of the way to fulfilling our international obligations. That's a big 'if' and it still leaves a very big gap.

"It is about citizens, enterprises and public services changing the way they live and work. That will require significant changes in how people think about issues."

On carbon tax, Bruton says there have been "very high increases in energy prices anyway".

He muses that, in the short-term, a hike wouldn't have an immediate impact so "the important thing is a clear trajectory as to where the price of carbon is going to go".

"That is what we need to get in place. Then people are consciously saying the trajectory of my bills for diesel in my car or home heating oil are going to go up very high and therefore the value of acting now is clear," the minister says.

He does want new initiatives based on evidence rather than hunch.

"It's not a wake up in the morning and you have a silver bullet, hey presto things are sorted. It's even more so in climate change where there is so much behavioural change, persuading people and convincing people on why they should do it. We will have to get buy-in."

The Dublin Bay North TD admits that will be a challenge for him to get out of "the trenches" where he likes to devise policy and "win the argument" with people.

One of his first memos to Cabinet will be a demand for government departments to lead by example.

He will ban the use of single use plastic cups and tableware "across all government departments as a first step".

EU statistics show we are using 80pc more plastic packaging than the rest of Europe. "We're an outlier. We need to correct that," Bruton says.

"Tackling plastic waste and increasing the level of plastic recycling is crucial. Plastic waste is causing serious issues, it is polluting our oceans, cities and countryside. Our mission is to make Ireland a leader in the transformation, that is needed, not a follower."

He will consider a range of levies similar to the plastic bag tax. The so-called 'Latte Levy' on disposable cups is still on the table. 
Such is the broad remit of the department that Mr Bruton has also been handed the hot potato of post office closures. He believes the An Post network has a future once the current consolidation, involving the closure of 159 offices, is complete.

But perhaps therein lies the true scale of the challenges facing the new minister: the arrival of broadband to rural Ireland will make post offices even less viable - and he's responsible for both. "We also have to be very conscious as a Government that we have to deliver to rural Ireland as infrastructure of the future as well. That's why broadband is so important.

"We have to be sure we are rolling out modern infrastructures as well as ensuring that existing infrastructures are adapting to community needs."

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