I am pleased to get this opportunity to speak to this amendment. I was disappointed I did not have an opportunity to speak at the earlier Stage this morning because of the guillotine that was brought in by the Government. I want to begin by responding to the remarks made by Deputy Brian Fitzgerald. I am sorry he has left the House. I did not interrupt him because I understand he was making his maiden speech. I find it quite appalling that any Deputy in this House, and particularly a Deputy of the Labour Party, would talk about small groups and minorities and elitists and landowners and talk in that way about those whose concern, vision and courage has helped to fight campaigns for our environment for many years. I find it a disgrace and it is an insult to those people. It is an insult not only to those people who have fought this cause but, indeed, an insult to the rest of us who are concerned about the environment. In the past it was the case that it was the better informed, the better educated, who were interested in and were aware of environmental issues. I am pleased to say that all recent surveys indicate that more and more young people of all backgrounds are concerned with, interested in and knowledgeable about our environment. I welcome that very much. It is only through education and information that we will make the right decisions.
In attacking the decision to locate these interpretative centres at Luggala and Mullaghmore, which I have visited on many occasions, I have always distinguished between the officials at the Office of Public Works and the professional and very good advice they give on most occasions, and the political decisions that were made. I always believe, naturally, that it is the Ministers and the politicians who must take the rap when wrong decisions are made. I also said at the weekend, in a number of comments I made, that we should not be criticising the officials when they get it wrong, it is a matter of ministerial and political responsibility.
Having said that, an article that appeared in yesterday's Irish Press by the public relations officer for the Office of Public Works, Chris Flynn, is an absolute disgrace. One part of it said:
What is left unsaid is that it's also very fashionable to have an environmental "cause" in your c.v., if you are in the public eye. The details of the case are not really important.
I presume Mr. Flynn's article was cleared by the Minister because it might surprise the Minister to know my attention was drawn to Mr. Flynn's article by an official of the Office of Public Works who was disgusted when he read it. In making those disgraceful comments about those who have had the courage, vision and toughness and who put their own very small private resources in great jeopardy to take this case, Mr. Flynn is a disgrace.
One of the people who took the case is none other than Professor Eimear Colleran, former chairperson of An Taisce, member of the Council of State, a leading expert in this country on environmental issues, well respected not just in Ireland, but internationally. It is a disgrace that a public relations officer could write such things.
The Minister and the Taoiseach referred this morning to new procedures which will be put in place in relation to planning for State bodies. We were told, in the speech of the Minister of State, that nothing will be done in this matter until the Supreme Court adjudicates. Presumably, if the Supreme Court decides that planning permission is not necessary we will not see very much change. If the Supreme Court decides it is, the Government will have no option. Despite the comments made about it I was under no illusion when I saw the Programme for Government. When it was published I said one of the disappointing features about the programme was that it was very poor on environmental matters. This is what the Programme for Government said about the Government's new proposal on planning for State Departments:
Departments and State agencies will be directed to comply, to the maximum possible extent consistent with the needs of the service they must provide, with the requirements of good planning and to take due account of the legitimate interest and wishes of the population living in the vicinity of the proposed development.
All they will be required to do, to the maximum possible extent is to comply with good planning. That does not mean they will have to get planning permission. In fact, all they will have to do, as the earlier paragraph tells us, is to fulfil the information obligations in the planning Acts which is to lodge details of their proposal and allow people two months to make observations. There will be no requirement for planning permission and there will be no right for third parties to make an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. It is very dishonest of the Taoiseach to pretend that there will be a requirement to have planning permission for State developments in the future as a result of the commitments in the Programme for Government. Will the Minister of State comment on that?
I presume the reason the State uses to justify not having planning permission is an arrogant presumption that the State knows best, the State has all the best expertise in the country and if the State sets out to build or construct something the State is doing the right thing and building it in accordance with the highest possible environmental standards. That presumption is an arrogant one. All expertise does not reside in the State, as many Ministers know. They are bringing in outside experts to advise them. If all the expertise was there they would not need to bring in outsiders. The Labour Party is bringing in programme managers and so on to help them. I think most State officials also recognise that they do not have all the answers. It is an arrogant presumption and it is about time we got rid of it.
In relation to many of the comments about the requirement to get planning permission, if these developments are so good, why are the State authorities, and the Office of Public Works afraid to go through the planning procedures? If these buildings are being constructed in the right areas according to the highest standards then why not go for planning permission? What is the problem? The Office of Public Works and, particularly, those who have had ministerial responsibility since this whole saga began, have a double agenda. They want interpretative centres provided and when they were opposed, they did not try to see the Opposition as allies. They did not try to reach a compromise, like most reasonable people. Most politicians set out to reach compromise. Very often, our job is about making compromises. Unless we want to be totally in control, on our own, we must consider the views of others. Rather than adopt that approach, the attitudes was taken that they were in charge and would use the might and main of this State to beat the Opposition down all the way. Even when the Opposition was beaten and court cases won that is not good enough. They now want to change the law and we have this emergency legislation.
I reject that attitude. It is an arrogant one and contrary to the spirit of the Programme for Government which talks about broadening democracy, restoring confidence to the democratic process, encouraging greater openness and participation from all groups at all levels and improving public accountability transparency and trust. That is all nonsense if, when one beats the State in the second highest court of the land, the State will retrospectively seek to change the laws, so people cannot have fair play.
I am delighted we have a sufficient number of courageous and brave people to take on the State. It is good for our democracy, it is good for this State, it is good for Government. It is good for this House also that we must confront these issues in a manner in which we have not confronted them before. We never had an opportunity in this House to have any proper debate about these interpretative centres.
In relation to the planning issue, the Luggala centre, for example, cost maybe seven times more to build on the side of a mountain than it would to build it down in the town. In inclement and bad weather conditions it will be inaccessible. The town nearby, Roundwood, is in need of a new sewage treatment plant because the existing plant does not work satisfactorily and runs the risk of contaminating the Dublin water supply. Instead of putting the centre in the town and installing one sewage treatment plant to cope with the problems of Roundwood and the interpretative centre, we went up the mountains, spent seven times more, £0.5 million, on a sewage treatment facility, and the town and the Dublin water supply are at risk. Even from an economic point of view this does not make sense.
It is extremely important, in the context of this debate, to go back to the beginning and realise that even if only a minority raised the issue many silent people feel very strongly about what has been going on. Deputy Fox's election to this House for the Wicklow constituency can testify to the fact that there is deep concern about the manner in which these matters have been handled. It is not good enough for the State, or any Minister of the State, to decide to beat people down, to use all the legislative weapons at their disposal in order to win at the end of the day.
These are good facilities which could be a focus for great unity, consensus and assistance in any community. Those in charge, politically and officially should have set out to bring people together. In the main they were dealing with reasonable people. I know that because I know many of the people involved and I object very strongly to the offensive use of the terms "landowners" and "elitist". Many of these people come from families who did a lot for this State. I do not want to personalise this debate by mentioning their names. Many fine people who may, in some circumstances, be regarded as different are nonetheless Irish people who give to this country and are entitled to be heard. I strongly object to people chastising them because they take a different point of view from ours. How can we ever hope to unite people in other parts of Ireland if we adopt that attitude here?
If I remember the figure correctly, it is accepted by the Office of Public Works that we can only restore and maintain at most about 2 per cent of our stately homes because of a lack of resources. It seems strange that we are constantly preoccupied with building modern structures when there are so many fine old buildings around this country which can be restored.
This legislation is a huge embarrassment to the Labour Party and I do not wish to add to that embarrassment. I have huge personal regard for the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht but the Government, at a very early stage, placed him in an impossible position. It made his job very difficult indeed. I hope that he will be able to continue the fight to find a satisfactory resolution to many of these difficulties. I cannot believe that people like the Minister of State, Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, who has had a fantastic personal record in relation to the environment can be happy about what we are doing here today.
For many months many Deputies, including myself, said as my party also said in our election manifesto, that the State will have to put itself on the same basis as everybody else when it comes to the planning process. The State has to be the leader on the environment. The State has to be the good environmentalist and must give example. It has to go through the process. When it does not do that, it brings the whole process into disrepute. I cannot see why the Minister, if he is committed to the State applying for planning permission, cannot accept the amendments. From my party's point of view, if any one of the amendments of the planning issue is acceptable to the Minister, we will support it. Perhaps Deputy Gilmore's amendment, which is somewhat restrictive in that it presumably rules out matters relating to security and defence, which is not unreasonable, is acceptable to the Minister. If it is, it will be acceptable to my party. I beg the Minister to accept this amendment. I think he is going to destroy much of the work very successfully done by him and the last Government and indeed what will be done by this Government in the whole area of the environment. The director general and the directors of the Environmental Protection Agency are about to be appointed by the Government. We will make difficult the work of that independent agency and many of the environmental concerns it pursues if we now decide that we are going to exempt for all time all State Departments and all Ministers of the Government from the necessary rigours of having to go through the planning process. If developments are good, if they are being built to high standards, if they are following the best expertise, what is the Minister afraid of? He cannot suggest that our planning process is so difficult that he would not be able to come through. If a commitment were given to go through that process now, it would go a long way towards taking much of the tension, bitterness and unnecessary fracas out of this whole debate.
We are a small country and these interpretative centres are going into very small rural locations. In years to come, whether these centres are built or not, people will have to live with each other. The memory of this whole saga will probably live on from family to family for quite some time. I regret that very much, but we all know what campaigns such as this do. We and those who are proposing these centres have a responsibility to try to end, once and for all, the kind of difficulty, tension and bitterness that exist. We can do so by making a commitment that, from now on, all of these developments will be subject to the planning process and that the Government will adhere to the spirit of what they tell us was intended by the programme for Government, although that is very weak. If that is done it will go a long way towards removing many of the difficulties that many of us have with this legislation.