If the Government hoped to avert controversy over the relentless march of giant electricity pylons across the country, the appointment of ex-Bord Pleanála chairman John O’Connor as head of Eirgrid, amounts to another self-inflicted public relations disaster for the Coalition.
Neither Mr O’Connor’s integrity nor professionalism are in doubt. But in purely psychological terms, he is seen as the wrong man for the job. Especially in communities through whose heartland the deeply unpopular high capacity power lines will be driven.
To the majority of those who live in or near in pylon hotspots, his appointment as chair of the state-owned energy company responsible for operating the electricity transmission systems, is like a red rag to a bull.
His former chairmanship of Bord Pleanála is being questioned in Mayo, for instance, where it has yet to adjudicate on a number of projects planned by Eirgrid in the coming years, including a 100km high-capacity power line planned to run across north Mayo. Concern is also widespread in West Waterford, Tipperary, and other areas where the heavy-handed impact of the energy company is deeply resented on health and environmental grounds, particularly its refusal to bury powerlines underground.
No stranger to controversy, Mr O’Connor is cast in the classic mould of a senior civil servant. During his 11-year spell as chair of Bord Pleanála, he presided over contentious planning issues, notably the erection of wind farms in the teeth of intense local opposition. Before that, he held senior positions in the Department of Environment including finance, housing policy, water and planning, and is currently chairman of the Pyrite Resolution Board. An impressive track record.
Unsurprisingly, however, his appointment is causing political ructions, with Fianna Fáil leading the charge against it. No doubt, that explains the Government’s unfamiliar haste in announcing his appointment once the story broke yesterday.
Predictably, Mayo TD Dara Calleary’s call on the Government not to give him the job has fallen on deaf ears. Clearly, the Coalition is determined he will play a key role in developing the national energy network.
According to the Fianna Fáil TD, it’s the wrong position for Mr O’Connor and sends out the wrong message to communities depending on the planning authority to examine applications from Eirgrid in the coming years. A valid objection.
In his own defence, Mr O’Connor denies any conflict of interest and argues that since his retirement from An Bord Pleanála in 2011, he now has no more contact with it than any other citizen. But that will hardly appease those who see powerlines as trampling over the genuine fears and emotions of entire communities.
It is beyond dispute that Ireland’s energy network is in need of upgrading and modernisation. However, with vital national decisions in the balance, qualities such as “objectivity”, “transparency” and above all “public interest” should be the hallmark of every decision by the State authority tasked with scrutinising the plans of other public bodies like Eirgrid.
Though powerlines are subject to planning approval, protesters feel unable to influence the routes of high voltage corridors. That makes it imperative not to have a whiff of suspicion that planning decisions might be pre-judged by an old boys’ network.
If Mr O’Connor accepts an invitation to attend the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications, he can expect a grilling, and rightly so.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved