OPW Minister Patrick O’Donovan: 'The next week is crucial for Cork's future'

Save Cork City has the discretion, but also the responsibility, to withdraw its application for a judicial review of a crucial project for Cork, says Patrick O’Donovan
OPW Minister Patrick O’Donovan: 'The next week is crucial for Cork's future'

Norrie Eams dealing with the flooding at O’Brien.’s sandwich bar on Winthrop Street, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

The next week is crucial for Cork, its city centre businesses and its future.

Over the next seven days, the Save Cork City group has the discretion to withdraw its application for a judicial review of the Morrison’s Island Public Realm and Flood Defence project, thereby allowing it to proceed and protect the city centre from flooding.

That is an onerous decision, which should rightly weigh heavily on those involved. 

The events of October 20th again demonstrated the vulnerability of Cork city centre. Millions of euro worth of damage was caused to uninsurable businesses, already in survival mode in the midst of the Covid pandemic, which were again hit by another avertable flooding crisis.

I came to Cork in the immediate aftermath of the flooding and witnessed for myself the damage and the distress caused. 

I am in awe of the strength and resilience of business owners and their staff who were determined to reopen when circumstances allowed again. 

Likewise, I admired the commitment of the staff of Cork City Council, the emergency services, and the OPW who worked in the most challenging circumstances to mitigate the event’s impacts.

The affected businesses are entitled to ask: 'Is this our future now, regular catastrophic flooding and damage until we can be no more?' Sadly, the answer to that is 'yes' if those who are opposed continue to avail of every legal option to prevent the implementation of a scheme which has gone through full public consultation, review, amendments, new design iterations, legal challenges and an An Bord Pleanála ruling in its favour – and which can solve the problem. 

 A man makes his way through the flood water at the South Terrace in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
A man makes his way through the flood water at the South Terrace in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

This scheme is ready to be built, but cannot proceed while legal challenges remain the default position of those opposed to the Morrison’s Island scheme.

Are those opposed to the scheme entitled to prevent it from happening for at least the next few years through exercising all legal avenues open to them? As things stand, absolutely. They are exercising their rights and are very much in a powerful position. 

But with that power must surely come responsibility and a realisation that this issue has moved beyond a discussion on flood defences. It is not any kind of abstract argument anymore, nor is it impact-free. 

The personal safety of thousands of people is potentially at risk. The livelihoods of dozens of businesses and hundreds of staff are now at stake and those involved in trying to prevent the scheme have an obligation to consider all issues in the round. 

I am appealing to Save Cork City to allow the scheme to go ahead and not to put any more obstacles in its way.

Save Cork City wants a scheme which is diametrically different to what is proposed for the wider city in the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme, and to the Public Realm Scheme proposed for Morrison’s Island. 

Its concerns on both schemes could not be clearer, nor could they have been examined in more detail. 

What Save Cork City seems to be asking the Government, OPW, the state agency with statutory responsibility for flood defence, and Cork City Council is to set aside all the empirical evidence it has, all the national and international technical expertise available to it, peer review and international validation of its work over many years, in favour of views which, however passionately held, have failed to stand up to scrutiny. That is not going to happen.

 A flooded Pembroke Street in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
A flooded Pembroke Street in Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

As the responsible minister, I understand that people will disagree with the design of certain infrastructural projects. It is good that people have strong views which can be fed into a process of consultation and review. That has happened in the case of the two schemes proposed for Cork.

Other than the Save Cork City campaign, everyone who has engaged in the public consultation on both schemes, in my understanding, acknowledges the design changes made and the improvements that have been added. 

Save Cork City, like the many other stakeholders, deserves credit for their interest and participation in the public consultation process. But if they are still dissatisfied, must the design of these schemes start all over again at their behest? I don’t think so.

On the broader flood relief scheme, the reliance on the concept of a tidal barrier at Little Island as a kind of panacea for Cork’s flooding issues is fundamentally flawed. There are only around 20 tidal surge barriers in the world, and these generally have only been implemented when all other viable options have been exhausted. 

The most significant damage caused in Cork is from river flooding which would not be resolved by a tidal barrier. This is a basic truth.

 John Minihan outside his flooded chemist shop on Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
John Minihan outside his flooded chemist shop on Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Based on empirical data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is clear that the proposed Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme provides the appropriate protection in the medium to long term and ensures that we have a significant period of time before being forced to implement such an extreme intervention as a tidal barrier, with all of its associated ecological and navigation impacts.

If the various initiatives to combat climate change in the coming decades are unsuccessful, and if a tidal barrier does become necessary in the future, the currently proposed quayside defences will continue to be an essential component of an integrated solution, as they are in all other cities where tidal barriers exist. Think Venice and London as two examples.

The notion that the two schemes do not represent best or current practice is simply not true. Neither is the narrative that what is proposed for Cork is some kind of outlier. 

Both schemes have been carefully considered, pored over and set against best international comparisons.

We simply have to move on from where we are for the protection and benefit of Cork.

* Patrick O’Donovan is Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works

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