Throughout large swathes of Munster and Leinster, opposition has been mobilised against the proposal by Eirgrid to erect 1,300 pylons on a corridor running from Little Island, in Cork, through Wexford to Kildare. The exact route for the ‘Gridlink’ project has yet to be decided, but nobody within an ass’s roar of it is taking any chances.
The local and European elections, in June, are shaping up to be its battleground. Heads may roll, and long-fomented ambitions for elected office may end in tatters.
One senior politician whose head should be on the block because of this issue is the hapless Minister for Health, James Reilly.
Last Monday, this newspaper published extracts of a letter Reilly sent to his Cabinet colleagues, Phil Hogan, in Environment, and Pat Rabbitte, in Energy — the department with responsibility for electricity supply.
Reilly was referencing an earlier phase of pylon erection, last year, which crossed into his constituency in North Dublin. He expressed grave concerns about the health risks.
Reilly emphasised his relative expertise, saying that he was writing as “a doctor and Minister for Health”.
Reilly cited a study by public health expert, Professor Anthony Staines, who had said “it is well-established that the low-frequency magnetic fields increase the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia”. Effectively, the doctor briefed with caring for the nation’s health was endorsing a view that these pylons caused cancer.
“I recognise that this national infrastructure project is important, but I can’t ignore the health concerns,” Reilly wrote.
If the project goes ahead, how can Reilly continue in government?
If his words are to mean anything, he would be party to a decision to wantonly expose a large chunk of the population to a serious risk of cancer. He could also be betraying his Hippocratic oath as a doctor.
It’s far more likely that Reilly doesn’t believe there are health concerns. Perhaps he just wanted to generate a letter to colleagues purporting to give a fiddler’s about the issue. Perhaps he just cynically used his medical background to heighten the tone of concern in his letter.
Perhaps his sole interest was to give the impression to his constituents, who were objecting to the pylons, that he was doing something on their behalf.
Reilly may surprise everybody and resign on a matter of principle. Look skyward as the pigs hop between clouds.
I don’t know if there is serious medical risk attached to these pylons. There are studies that suggest grave risk, others that say negligible risk. One can only hope that the Government wouldn’t ignore evidence that these contraptions increase the chances of harm.
Either way, there’s little genuine concern among the body politic about the health risks. There was consternation at the Labour party’s annual conference in November about the potential electoral fall-out, but nowhere in the coverage did any delegate express concern about the health aspect. It was all about seats.
If there was a genuine worry about exposing people to cancer, surely some among them would have passionately voiced it.
At that conference, Rabbitte told reporters that he was “getting a vast amount of advice on what not to do on the pylons issue, but nobody is telling me what I should do”.
Beyond kicking the pylons down the road, over the hills, and far away, it’s difficult to see what Rabbitte can do. However, it’s easy to see how the issue arrived at this juncture.
As with the equally vexed issue of wind farms, this is a major energy project that impinges on thousands of people in rural Ireland.
If the country had observed planning laws, the volume of people affected would be a fraction of what it now is. The culture of one-off housing, and a scattered population, has ensured that these major projects have become a serious headache.
Much of this can be laid at the door of intense political competition. Down through the decades, politicians fostered a belief that they were there to provide a personal service.
Voters came to expect no less. In such a culture, matters like planning in the national interest went out the window. If somebody wanted a house out in the country, the national interest was sacrificed to accommodate a voter’s perceived right to a service from their local representative.
This has contributed hugely to the difficulty in major energy developments.
Then, there is the manner in which these developments progress.
Having got their mitts on these lucrative contracts, the developing companies proceed with stealth, offering only minimal consultation with, or investment for, affected communities.
The most extreme example of that approach was from Shell, in north Co Mayo, where the company’s obnoxious arrival left a bitter legacy that fed directly into other concerns.
In such a milieu, affected communities come into their own.
They organise and resist, research the issues and make a cogent case against proceeding. Sometimes, the campaigns don’t properly reflect widespread feeling in the communities. Frequently, they are entirely representative. In the pylon issue, local groups have reportedly organised on parish bases, like a network of GAA teams.
Politically, representatives are compelled to fulfil their ‘personal service’ remit and represent the views of those who shout loudest, irrespective of the politician’s own beliefs. Hence, somebody like James Reilly may have believed he was dealing with nothing more than NIMBYism, but he felt obliged to cite health as his concern.
Of course, all opposition politicians will stand by any group offering the prospect of electoral advantage. This stance is maintained until such time as they get into government, and are obliged to at least give the impression of concerning themselves with the national interest.
Even then, those charged with running the country can sometimes give the impression that government is being conducted by some other force.
Step forward, Bertie Ahern, by far the best example of the culture from which he was sprung. What to do about the pylons? According to Rabbitte, laying and maintaining the electricity cables underground will cost up to €1.5bn — three times the projected cost of Gridlink.
Should it be done anyway?
Should everybody pay more for electricity?
Will that cost jobs?
If the electricity lines are to go underground, then there must be widespread public engagement about the economic cost and the potential savings in social, environmental, and possibly health terms.
We are where we are.
In a democracy that functions with some degree of fidelity to ideals, Reilly would now be between a rock and a hard place. In this country, he’s just another politician, trying to get by within the parameters set out by the culture. Keep an eye out for those pylons being kicked down the road beyond the June elections.