UNWORKABLE DEMOCRACY: Poolbeg Incinerator

The go-ahead for the Poolbeg plant over the objections of councillors shows that in some areas of public life, democracy is simply unworkable in this country, writes Michael Clifford

THEY doth protest too much. On the face of it, democracy was dealt a massive blow last Monday evening. An unelected official entered the chamber of Dublin City Council, and metaphorically gave little pats on the head to the elected tribunes of the people, sent them on their way, and then got on with running the city.

A similar exercise occurred in the neighbouring council of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. Over in Fingal County Council, the elected members were allowed to kid themselves that their franchise actually carried weight. But really, if you held the whole exercise up to the light, it could be portrayed as an evening in which little dictators had commandeered power from the people.

The matter at issue was a report into the proposed incinerator for Poolbeg, in Dublin’s inner burb of Ringsend/Sandymount. The report from the National Development Finance Agency gave the go-ahead for the public-private project on a value-for-money basis. In keeping with the best traditions, local representatives were assembled to be officially informed.

Of the 55 members present in the Dublin city chamber, all but three voted to reject the report. This overwhelming majority of the city’s representatives are opposed to the incinerator getting the go-ahead. Councillor Dermot Lacey pointed out that over the 14 years since the incinerator first raised its head, the council had voted against it more than 30 times.

“We all know that this is a charade, I doubt the city manager has any intention of listening to us,” he said.

Similar noises were made from other councillors. There is apparent anger that national waste policy is an executive function of local authorities, which means that irrespective of what righteous indignation is expressed in chambers, the decision on waste is a matter for local authority bosses, who are nominally employees of the politicians.

Under the 2001 Waste Management Act, county and city managers — latterly referred to as chief executives — must take note of what councillors have to say, but ultimately they decide what’s best for their area.

In the case of Poolbeg, this legislation has resulted in a critical infrastructure project getting the go-ahead despite the most vocal opposition from both local and national politicians. A visitor from Mars might concur with those who claim that this is a complete affront to democracy. On the contrary, what the politics of Poolbeg shows is that in some areas of public life, democracy is simply unworkable in this country.

Poolbeg is a shining example of the politics of waste. As with any other major waste or energy project, it has attracted highly vocal local objections. These have been well-articulated and pursued all the way to Brussels.

Science and finances have both been cited as rendering the project unviable or even dangerous. Ultimately, however, these objections have run into a brick wall.

There is an issue around capacity of the proposed facility. At 600,000 tonnes, it will most likely exceed requirements for the greater Dublin area, and its operator may look to attract waste from around the state.

National waste policy since the 1990s has included thermal treatment — or incineration — as a major component. This policy lessens reliance on landfill, the most environmentally unsound method of dealing with waste.

Throughout western Europe, in the most developed and environmentally aware countries, thermal treatment is a given. Here, we’ve come late to the party, so fear, along with other motivations, is fuelling objections.

As far as the politics is concerned, the project is the classical local versus national dilemma. Every politician within an ass’s roar of the proposed site knew where his or her bread was buttered.

Take local bigwigs like Michael McDowell and John Gormley. At different times over the last 12 years, both have sat at cabinet. Mr McDowell was a leading light of the Progressive Democrats. Party policy was very much in favour of incineration and was also in favour of implementing a Critical Infrastructure Bill to speed up the planning process for developments vital to the state. As Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell pushed to ensure that the Poolbeg facility, irrespective of its importance to the State, not be included in the bill. He got his way, and, no doubt, secured a few votes.

Mr Gormley could at least claim that he opposed incineration on environmental grounds, although his kindred spirits in Europe appear to have little objection to the process.

Arguably, he acted contrary to the policy of the government in which he sat by continually attempting to stymie Poolbeg. As Minister for the Environment, he must have known that the elevation of thermal treatment was largely pushed from within that department back in the 1990s. Yet there he was, making a song and dance about stuff like a foreshore licence, anything to ensure that it wouldn’t happen on his watch, irrespective of the damage the delays did to the national interest.

So it has gone at local level. Local TD, and recently departed minister, Ruairi Quinn, was very vocal in opposing the facility until he entered government. Back in 2010, Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy issued a press release from Moscow, where he was visiting, condemning the latest developments in the saga. He couldn’t even wait to get home, for fear that his thunder would be stolen by a rival.

Every politician in the area has echoed this urgency to protest. If councillors still had the power to decide on such matters, it is safe to say that nothing would get done in waste management. All major waste infrastructure would continually be delayed until after the next election.

The cost of doing so would be just shovelled into general expenditure, eating into other services, or requiring further funding from general taxation.

Beware politicians mounting a soap box and decrying a democratic deficit in the area of waste management. In reality, most of them are relieved to be free of having to make controversial decisions. The allocation of power allows them to pontificate and point fingers at the local authority executive, but keeps them from the electoral harm of making tough decisions.

As for the proposal on the table, the smart money says it will go ahead, but not on the scale that has been earmarked. A reduced capacity will be more in keeping with revisions for projected waste over the next decade or so.

The specifics will be decided by the chiefs of the four local authorities in the greater Dublin area. They are unelected public servants whose function has usurped that of the representatives elected by the people. Unfortunately, that’s what you get when democracy becomes unworkable.

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