Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 29 Jan 2014

Vol. 828 No. 2

Leaders' Questions

On 3 December last my party brought before the House a Private Members' motion calling for an international review of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals, particularly in the context of examining the alternative of running the relevant cables underground where appropriate. The Government used its majority to vote down the motion and responded by introducing an amendment to the effect that strategic infrastructure would be "developed and maintained in the national interest". The amendment in question contained no commitment to address the concerns of the communities on a number of the proposed routes. During the debate on the motion, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, repeated his mantra that Grid Link is a huge infrastructural investment programme. He is on record since then as stating that the latter cannot be changed "at the whim of some passing fashion". On his recent trip to the desert, the Taoiseach linked opposition to the project with emigration and people's concerns about employment.

Let us fast forward to 28 January and the U-turn performed by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, which would have attracted a full ten marks on "Strictly Come Dancing", and the Taoiseach's announcement of the establishment of an external panel. We welcome that panel, the membership of which includes people of very high calibre and sound judgment. However, there are no international experts or experts who can advise on health matters on the panel. When he was asked about health concerns, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, stated that there are none he can find. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, has, however, written to two other Ministers in order to express concern regarding the health risks posed by electromagnetic fields. He stated that, as a doctor and Minister for Health, he is worried about the health risks to which such fields might give rise and quoted various experts. In the correspondence he sent to the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputies Hogan and Rabbitte, respectively, the Minister stated: "I recognise that this national infrastructure project is important but I can't ignore the health concerns." The panel established by the Government proposes to ignore those health concerns.

There is major confusion with regard to the status of this expert panel. Will it be reviewing the position in respect of the North-South interconnector project? Some Deputies indicated on "Morning Ireland" and on programmes on various local radio stations that they had discussed the matter with the Taoiseach last night and that it was indicated that the panel will be examining the project. However, the chief executive of EirGrid, Mr. Fintan Slye, indicated this morning that he intends to apply for planning permission so that the project might proceed. Will the Taoiseach clarify the position? The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, has indicated that the project will not be included in the panel's review. Is the Taoiseach in a position to outline the Government's thinking with regard to the health concerns relating to this projects? Does he plan to appoint a health expert to the panel?

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, should be reined in.

I am surprised Deputy Calleary has questioned the capacity of the personnel appointed to the commission-----

I did not do so.

Deputy Calleary did not do so but I will.

-----by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte. Is anybody suggesting that the economists, Professor John Fitzgerald and Mr. Colm McCarthy, do not have independent minds?

Is either a doctor?

Is anybody suggesting indicating that Dr. Karen Foley, head of the school of landscape architecture in UCD, is not-----

Is she a medical doctor?

-----a competent person? Is anybody suggesting that Professor Keith Bell from the engineering department of Strathclyde University is not internationally recognised as being a person of competence? As Deputy Calleary is well aware, the commission, which is chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, the eminent retired Supreme Court judge, will have the option of obtaining any expert advice it deems necessary.

The response provided by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources yesterday was very clear. In excess of 30,000 applications, comments and observations were made in respect of Grid Link and Grid West and the Minister appointed the commission to consider and deal with these. As he stated, it is vital, when considering an issue as important as this, that all of the relevant issues be dealt with in very clear terms. There is not an eminent medical person on the McGuinness commission but that is not to say that it is prevented from seeking the advice of medical experts on particular matters.

Last week, I pointed out to Deputy Healy or some other Member that the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, wrote to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, to relay the concerns expressed to him by people in his constituency. However, that correspondence related to the running of cables under a particular street in the town of Rush in close proximity to people's front doors. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, stated that people must be able to rest assured that the options they are being asked to consider are the right ones and that they are being given all the facts. That is why yesterday's response was in respect of the proposals received regarding Grid Link and Grid West.

It was in respect of the local elections.

As Deputy Calleary is aware, the proposals relating to both projects are new.

On the Deputy's question regarding the extension of the commission's remit to consider the North-South interconnector, this project is necessary. In addition, it relates to an item of infrastructure that is critical in the context of the development of the economy in the years ahead. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has pointed out that he knows the public will rest assured if it knows that the overhead and underground options had been investigated and that the studies which have already been published are sufficient to allow An Bord Pleanála to make a comparison when it decides on the merits of the planning application. The Minister is meeting the chairperson on Friday to discuss the programme of work. Eirgrid's programme of work includes Grid Link, Grid West and the North-South interconnector. I would like the commission to have its remit extended in order that the North-South project can be analysed in the same way as, and on an equal footing with, those relating to all other areas of the country.

Who is the boss?

I thank the Taoiseach. Nobody questioned the capacity of those on the panel. I actually questioned the lack of a health export within the core group. I was not referring to having someone make a presentation to that group.

It has been reported on thejournal.ie in the past few minutes that Mr. Fintan Slye, CEO of EirGrid, has stated that he is not aware of a conversation between the Taoiseach and Government Deputies on the issue of the North-South interconnector project. Mr. Slye further indicated that work on the project is already under way and that planning permission will be applied for in the coming weeks. The Minister established the commission. Is he not in a position to inform it that it must include the North-South interconnector project in its review?

Where is Seán? Is he hiding out?

If that does not happen, then what is happening is exactly what it appears to be, namely, an exercise in ensuring that the Government parties get through the local elections on 23 May. When the elections are over, nothing will change in the subsequent period. The Government can take control of this process and ensure that the interconnector project is included in the review rather than passing the buck to former Supreme Court judge, Mrs. Justice McGuinness.

I do not accept that political assertion from the Deputy. As already stated, people have had concerns and anxieties about this matter. Some of these were valid, while others were not.

The Taoiseach has always stated that it is about creating jobs.

I have always stated that what is needed in this instance is to address the challenge for the future, which the Deputy well recognises and which must be dealt with in a common sense and rational way. The response of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to the 30,000 submissions received has been to establish the McGuinness commission, which is chaired by an eminent retired Supreme Court judge-----

Some 35,000 submissions were received.

-----and which includes independent national and international experts, to examine the overhead and underground options and publish its findings in order that everyone can understand that all of the relevant issues have been taken into account.

A great deal of work has been done on the North-South interconnector for the past eight years, including assessments and the completion of the commitment in the programme for Government in respect of the analysis of under-grounding. The criteria are being set by the McGuinness commission. For the information of Deputy Calleary, the programme of work will be discussed by the Minister and the chairperson on Friday. The response given yesterday was different because of these two new propositions-----

Discuss it with Mr. Slye.

-----that it could be extended to the North-South interconnector, which is a critical piece of infrastructure which the country needs and which can only be provided by one method or the other. All the options and facts must be examined. I hope this can be concluded when the Minister meets the chairperson on Friday.

Tá ceist agam faoin ábhar céanna. The Taoiseach's replies have missed the point which is that there is a groundswell of opinion in opposition to the erection of a series of huge electricity pylons across the Irish countryside. EirGrid has received 35,000 submissions and there have been calls for a fair and transparent consultation process. Up until yesterday, the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, were defending EirGrid's plans and they did so in a very dismissive and flippant manner. The Taoiseach proposed that this would be a solution for dealing with emigration. Given the scattering of hundreds of thousands of our young people, that was a crass and insensitive remark.

Sinn Féin's position from the outset has been that EirGrid should only proceed with the proposed project on the basis that the lines will be under-grounded. The issue is whether they are over ground or underground. We learned from the media that yesterday's announcement is clearly timed to coincide with the upcoming local and European elections and to push this issue beyond May. However, there is confusion. The Taoiseach did not answer Deputy Calleary's question. Is the North-South interconnector to be subject to this review? The Taoiseach's colleague, Deputy Seán Conlan, says that the Taoiseach gave him and Fine Gael Deputies a personal commitment that it would be part of the remit of this panel. EirGrid's chief executive officer says he is not aware of it. Tá ceist nó dhó agam. I ask the Taoiseach to clarify whether the North-South interconnector will be included in the review. Will he tell the House whether the potential health implications of over ground pylons are excluded from the terms of reference of the panel? Why is there no health expert on the panel?

The answer to Deputy Adams's second question is that there has been a great deal of comment about the electromagnetic fields emanating from transmission grid infrastructure. That is the reason the Minister for Health wrote to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, about an underground cable carrying the interconnector coming from Britain through the main street of Rush and close to houses. There has been a great deal of comment about this matter.

Responsibility for non-ionising radiation lies with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Legislation for the merger of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency is on the legislative A list for this session. The Minister will consider what statutory functions, expertise and resources are required to assign operational responsibility for non-ionising radiation matters to the merged agency. In the meantime, the expertise that may be required or demanded in respect of electromagnetic fields or non-ionising radiation will be provided by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I am certain that if expertise in this matter is required by the eminent retired Supreme Court Justice and the commission, it will be readily forthcoming.

The Minister's response yesterday was in respect of two proposals by EirGrid to improve the infrastructure of the national grid; the Grid Link proposal from Bellacorick to Flagford and the proposed connection north from south-east Cork. This is part of the programme of work to which the Minister referred in his television appearance yesterday. The larger programme of work already includes the North-South interconnector which has been advancing for the past eight years to a point where a planning application is imminent. As the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte pointed out, he would be the first to say that the public would be very reassured if they could see that the same comparators are used for analysis of underground versus over ground options and if all the facts are presented. He is meeting the chairperson on Friday with a view to discussing this matter. I hope the extension of the remit to include the same kind of analysis can be applied to the North-South interconnector.

Deputy Conlan will have to be there.

Deputy Adams has a fixed view. The Minister pointed out last night that the analysis of the cost of under-grounding the North-South interconnector was more than €800 million, with a difference of €600 million between over ground and underground. These are issues and facts that need to be debated and discussed so that people can make up their minds. The planning and consultation processes must be carried out. I want to see equality of assessment for all the areas of the country so that everyone knows the options and the facts and they can decide what is the best action for dealing with this challenge. I have always said that I expect it to be a rational and a common sense discussion.

We all want to see infrastructural improvements. The North-South interconnector is very important infrastructure. However, the issue is whether the power should be carried by huge pylons or underground, as is the practice in other states. I would have thought that an issue as important as this and which has been raised by Deputies from all parties and by me, should have been discussed in this Chamber. I would have thought the Minister would have made the announcement in the House and we could have discussed it. However, time and again - it is probably the same for Fine Gael and Labour Party Deputies - we have to chase what is in the media to find out the Government's thinking on issues. Then we have to try to decipher the opaque, obscure answers the Taoiseach gives to our questions.

I will repeat my questions to the Taoiseach. Did he give a personal commitment, as Deputy Conlan claims, that the North-South interconnector will be part of this review? Tá or Níl? Is an examination of the potential health implications of over ground pylons excluded? I understand precisely what the Taoiseach said and he does not need to repeat it. Are the health implications contained in the terms of reference of the independent panel? Given what the Taoiseach acknowledges as concerns, why is there no health expert on the panel? Is the Taoiseach going to ignore the groundswell of opposition from people living in communities which will be diversely and adversely affected by this development?

There has been a great deal of concern and comment about these two propositions. The Minister received 30,000 observations. He stated on several occasions that he would come back before the end of January with a response to those concerns. He brought a formal memorandum to the Government yesterday and the Government made a formal decision. This is not a secret, backroom analysis-----

Why did he not bring it here?

Through the Chair, please Deputy.

-----but a formal Government decision. In this democracy the Cabinet meets on Tuesday mornings and makes its decisions in respect of issues on the agenda. We cannot announce everything in here.

The Government never announces anything in here.

Please, Deputy Adams. There are time constraints.

The Minister is entitled to report as he said he would on the issues before him. That formal Government memorandum concludes a particular section on non-ionising radiation, electromagnetic fields and health issues which are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The merger of two agencies will supply that information. The necessary information or expertise will be available to the McGuinness commission. The commission will require assistance in drawing up its terms of reference and how it applies.

I have had meetings with Deputies.

The public would be very reassured if they knew the overhead and the underground options were both fully investigated and if the already-published studies in the case of the North-South interconnector are sufficient to enable a similar comparison to be made by An Bord Pleanála when it comes to deciding on the merits of the planning application. As I said, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, is meeting the chairperson on Friday to discuss the programme of work. That programme of work by EirGrid includes Grid Link, Grid West and the already advanced work done on the North-South interconnector. I would like the commission's remit being extended to cover that so that there is equality of assessment and fairness for people all over the country and that whatever the decision at the end of the day is, based on costs and all those other factors, people will clearly understand the nature of the decision to be made. We need all three of these, as critical pieces of infrastructure in whatever way-----

The Taoiseach is over time.

We do not need them.

Will the Deputy stay quiet?

That is part of the process. Yesterday, we spoke about Grid Link and Grid West but the programme of work includes those two and the North-South interconnector.

I thank the Taoiseach for his prompt action last week in regard to the pension being reinstated to Annie in Ballyfermot.

I would like to draw out the points I made last week. Will the Taoiseach join with me in marking the passing of the folk singer, Pete Seeger, who wrote and recorded some of the most famous protest songs used by the civil rights movement of the 1960s? He was not just a folk singer; he was an organiser and a socialist activist and he and the Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Pete Seeger spent his life fighting for justice and against austerity, inequality and creed.

The recent report by Oxfam aimed at the World Economic Forum and its recent meeting in Davos, to which the Taoiseach flew out after I raised these issues last week, shows a world of unbelievable inequality and an enormous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few side by side with massive poverty, squalor and disease. The 85 richest people in the world, who could fit comfortably on a double decker bus, have wealth equal to 50% of the poorest of the world's population, that is, 3.5 billion people. The richest 1% own almost half of the world's wealth at 46%, leaving the balance of 99% for us. In Ireland, we have the same process of inequality where 1% of the population receives 10% of the national income. It has increased its share of the national income by more than 50% since 1980.

Some crocodile tears were shed at Davos but, as one woman leaving the conference said, the issue of inequality seemed to dissipate off the table. There was no serious discussion on, or support for, the pledges Oxfam asked the rich to consider, namely, to stop evading taxes and support progressive taxation-----

A question, please.

----- to stop using their influence to lobby and coerce governments to introduce policies in their favour, to disclose the real ownership of companies and to pay decent wages, but this is like asking a wolf not to eat sheep. We are dealing with a capitalist system based on creed, profit and inequality.

Could I have your question?

After attending that conference and hearing some of the comments and the request from Oxfam, will the Taoiseach reconsider his austerity programme and consider taxing the wealthy in this country and bringing in an effective corporation tax, which will deal with the issues of inequality and social equality?

The late Pete Seeger's words and music will last for a very long time. I am quite sure that sometimes I could take consolation from one of his songs, "If I had a hammer". It could be useful.


I recall the Seeger sessions in the Point with the Boss. They were quite incredible.

The Deputy made a serious point about the World Economic Forum. I have been there on three occasions. On the first occasion, Ireland was in very poor shape. Last year, it was a case of engaging in discussions on the promissory note and what progress we might make. This year, there was a very different interpretation and perception of our country. I had the opportunity, as Taoiseach of a small country, to tell our story in an extraordinary meeting with people from the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD etc. - all of the people who carry real influence. I pointed out that we live in a world where 1 billion people are starving, 1 billion people are obese and 4.5 billion are in between. For the first time in human history, dietary problems have surpassed medical problems. The influence, responsibility and capability of world leaders to impact on these things is quite striking but it requires political decisions and a fixing of objectives in terms of what we can actually do.

In this country's case, I pointed out, the exceptional humanitarian contribution our people have made over very many years. This is one of the few countries which can say that since the United Nations was founded, it has had people on peace-keeping missions or involved in humanitarian efforts in locations around the word. Ireland's story of progress to date is one in which other countries have an interest but it requires clarity of strategy, a clear plan and decisiveness to implement it. If one got that response from the European Union, think of the potential one of the largest markets of 500 million could achieve in the context of what the Deputy mentioned.

At home, that is why we reversed the reduction in the minimum wage; took 300,000 out of the universal social charge net; did not increase income tax and improved the options for research, innovation and development. Two days ago, I was glad to see a firm coming back to Ireland and announcing 500 jobs. The chief executive of that company referred specifically to the benefit to families where people are able to contribute to the local economy again.

Of course, there are real challenges but they are ones of which the Government is not ignorant. We are very cognisant of what it is we have to continue to do to hold the momentum and to keep our objectives in sight, which are to sort out our public finances and put our people back to work.

The specific pledges Oxfam asked people at that conference to consider were not to dodge their taxes, not to use their economic wealth to seek political favour, which is lobbying governments to implement their policies in privatising essential services such as water, waste and other utilities, to make public all their investments and companies, to support progressive taxation on wealth and income, such as wealth taxes and corporation taxes, to challenge governments to use their tax revenues to provide universal health care, education and social protection, which has been decimated in many countries, and to pay a living wage to workers in companies they own or control. This is about transparency, accountability and fairness but that was not dealt with, nor was it ever going to be dealt with, at that conference.

A question, please.

After seven austerity budgets, will the Taoiseach continue with the same type of policy of not taxing wealth and not diverting that money to where it should be, namely, social structures? Does he believe that if he continues in this way, there will be social revolution, as was said by commentators on the Davos conference?

Of course, I understand the challenges so many people have had to face with the challenges of the past three budgets. This has not been easy for so many people but that is why the Government has introduced a whole raft of opportunities for those in mortgage distress to be dealt with, for small businesses to have access to credit and for opportunities to take people off the live register and put them into the world of work. The situation is very different from what it was. The Government, in concluding the past three budgets, published its medium-term economic strategy to 2020. The signposts and objectives in the coming years are very clear and we intend to achieve those. That is all based on strengthening our economy and providing opportunities for jobs and work because, irrespective of what else happens, that will give people the opportunity to contribute, to have a life, to be able to raise their families and to contribute to their country.

One cannot do that if one is living beyond one's means. We could not do that with the desperate situation we were in. For instance, the decision by Moody's to change its rating of Ireland to investment status means that some of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world are able to come here and consider investing in Ireland, which they could not do when we were not rated by all of the rating agencies. I assure the Deputy that we intend to continue to provide opportunities to people. We want to ensure employers can access credit and take people off the live register. We want to give small businesses an opportunity to set up in niche areas which can grow. I remind the House that two thirds of the 58,000 new jobs that were created in Ireland in the last year were created by firms that have been in existence for less than five years. In the next decade, the vast majority of the jobs that will be provided in Europe and beyond will be created by companies that have not yet been heard of. Over 10,000 innovators turned up at the Dublin Web Summit last autumn. We have enormous opportunity and potential. The Government intends to give that its head in the time ahead.

If the Taoiseach had read The Price of Inequality, his answer would have been very different.

Go over and sit on Gerry's knee.