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Michael D Higgins on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009

Michael D. Higgins - TD

As we discuss planning in 2010, we must acknowledge the growing acceptance internationally that we should be concerned about inter-generational justice. If there is one development that is taking place at a general level it is that the thinking in regard to the morality of politics is such, be it in terms of climate change, war and peace, world poverty, the elimination of disease and so on, that those of us who have the benefit of being elected politically should be interested in the consequences of our actions past an election period. Moreover, the Executive should be concerned, whether in respect of heritage, planning and so on, about the consequences of taking an irreversible decision. A failure to consider the consequences of such decisions is evident in the case of the Corrib gas field, the development at Tara and many other areas. The consequences have been quite disastrous.

That failure to consider the consequences of our actions is the reason we have a broken discourse on planning issues. What we have instead are pools of suspicion. I and colleagues in the Dáil received letters urging us to come together to express our support for the Shell development in Mayo. That was outrageous. It is entirely inappropriate that we seek to influence that type of planning decision. The particular way in which planning was handled in that case was in itself scandalous. The developers, having had their application refused, took part in a meeting with the then Taoiseach and other members of the Government which in turn led to the presentation to An Bord Pleanála on 19 September 2003 of what was referred to as the “case for indigenous gas”. The chairman of that meeting pointed out that there could not be a presentation on the basis of a particular application, so we had a presentation on the case for indigenous gas.

It was remarkably similar to the letter I received pointing out how essential this development was and why all politicians should come out in favour of it before the decision was made. At a meeting attended by 800 people, including some who are still Members of the House on the Fianna Fáil side, it was proposed that a fresh application be submitted. And on it went. On 17 December 2003 Shell resubmitted its planning application to Mayo County Council and new submissions were made. On 30 April 2004 the council granted planning permission in response to which residents appealed to the Planning Appeals Board. However, on 23 October 2004, the board delivered a unanimous decision to approve planning permission.

I was a Member of the Seanad when Justin Keating announced there would be three guiding principles in respect of any such development: first, the State acting for the people as owners of the resources should be paid for those resources; second, companies engaging in offshore development on the Irish continental shelf should be subject to Irish taxation and, third, since the resources are public property, the State must have the right to participate in their exploitation.

Those principles were later overthrown. Irrespective of whether one agreed with them, at least they addressed the public interest. I will remind the House of the alternative that was introduced after the principles were reversed in the case I have mentioned. When the initial application was refused, representatives of the main developing company met the Taoiseach and a Minister. A letter was sent to public representatives in the region inviting us to a public meeting, but I refused to attend. A new decision was reached and we have had chaos since then. Regardless of whether one was for or against the proposal in question, it was not the best way to develop resources.

The politicians involved contaminated the process. I will come back to this matter because a price is continuing to be paid in terms of community conflict and distress. Agencies of the State got involved on the side of the developer, rather than on the side of the community. Given that alternative models were available in other countries, it was scandalous that we proceeded as we did. It reveals the mindset of certain people. I am reminded of the woman who was sent to jail in New York, who said that taxes are for small people. In this case, it seems that planning is not for big people. There is a suggestion that if a project is of sufficient importance, one can proceed with it regardless of whether others like it. That is what happened in this instance. The full scandalous facts of these secret meetings should be put into the public realm.

Why has Ireland not fully ratified and implemented the Aarhus Convention, which allows public participation in planning discourse? When the Minister replies at the end of this debate, perhaps he can explain how much progress has been made with the implementation of the convention. One could give a rather old and gentrified response, to the effect that we are doing so much under our existing legislative arrangements that we almost do not need the convention. It is as if we think we are a cut above the other European countries that have decided to implement the EU directive. In his response, can the Minister say how many cases have been initiated by the Commission at the European Court of Justice? To what matters do those cases relate? Will the matters in question be resolved?

I would like to mention another notion, which involves a kind of sideways political approach to planning. When I was the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, I was responsible for the implementation of certain directives at different times. When I dealt with candidate sites for designation as special areas of conservation or national heritage areas, it became useful for Fianna Fáil, and sometimes Fine Gael, to say that Michael D. was just doing his thing and all the rest of it. In fact, when Deputy Treacy had preceded me as Minister of State in this area, he had concluded the negotiations in Brussels. Different things might have been done at those discussions. It was my duty as the member of the Cabinet with responsibility for heritage to legislate for the directives in question, and I did so.

I would like to make a statement which anyone can refute if they wish. In the Rossport case, which I mentioned earlier, the EU birds directive has been flagrantly and publicly broken. There has been interference with special areas of conservation. Work has taken place in the full knowledge that the relevant area was protected and without any consequences being invoked. I refer again to the notion that some projects are too big for public accountability and transparency in planning. I am not making accusations that I cannot support. I am certainly not attacking planners because I am in favour of planning. It is hypocrisy of the first rank for a Minister with responsibility for the environment to ask local authority planning sections to come up with compliance, while not providing those sections with the staff to enable them to do so.