Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Nov 2006

Vol. 185 No. 2

Telecommunications Structures: Motion.

I move:

"That Seanad Éireann expresses its concerns following recent reports in relation to the proximity of telecommunications structures to domestic dwellings, schools, hospitals and child care facilities and calls on the Government to review the existing national guidelines in relation to the proximity of telecommunications structures to domestic dwellings, schools, hospitals, child care facilities, workplaces and amenities and empowers the Radiological Protection Institute to carry out monitoring of the emissions from telecommunications masts and other installations that emit ionising and non-ionising radiation."

This motion was first tabled by Senator Bannon and has been on the agenda for some time. Anyone in rural Ireland knows that the greatest pressure from rural communities comes when it is proposed to erect a mobile telephone mast. There is conflict in respect of masts. When a mobile phone company decides on a particular location, it causes furore and there is a public meeting. The usual issues raised are devaluation of property, health concerns and the visual obtrusiveness of masts. Communities have a vocal lobby even in rural communities that do not have mobile phone coverage, where the strength and emotion of public feeling sometimes surprises me.

In County Limerick, An Bord Pleanála is adopting a different strategy. On three occasions it upheld the council's refusal in respect of the erection of a mast. The main reason given was the visual obtrusiveness of the mast. The Government amendment to the motion refers to the WHO and health concerns. The jury is out on potential health risks of mobile telephone masts. As a result of the Planning and Development Bill in 2000, exemptions were granted to the planning process, particularly when the OPW is involved. Mobile telephone masts can be placed in Garda or Government buildings.

In Abbeyfeale a giant mobile telephone mast was erected. The people protested but I had to inform them that they had no way of protesting. Limerick County Council was not involved because it was erected by the OPW. The Commissioner of the OPW stated at a meeting last February that masts were a lucrative source of revenue.

We should consider the legislation in this case. In 2000, we sought to stimulate telecommunications activity and introduced this exemption in the planning and development code. There is one law for Garda stations and Government property and another for masts on private land.

I understand why communities are annoyed. Mobile telephone masts are visually obtrusive. Lip service is paid to the co-location principle by telecommunications companies. The mast erected at the Garda station may have antennae for transmitters, which the mobile telephone companies can access on a group basis. ComReg informs me that 4,505 masts have been erected, of which 250 are co-location masts. Co-location is not happening very often.

Nobody is putting the jigsaw together. There is a brief reference to mobile telephone masts in county development plans. County development plans should have a section devoted to telecommunications. Mobile phone companies should provide local authorities with an indication of priorities for location of masts.

In recent times an application for a mobile telephone mast in Kilmeedy was appealed to An Bord Pleanála. The mast would dominate the small village. A member of the community suggested placing the mast in a nearby forest, where it would not be visually obtrusive. In Norway, dead and growing trees are used to camouflage masts. There is overall a lack of coherent planning in respect of mobile telephone masts. There is a protest organisation which travels the country meeting people who protest against masts, including people who say they have been affected by the electromagnetic activity of the masts. When one listens to them, it is hard to dispute the bona fides of their experience.

Statistically a few people are prone to the effects of mobile telephone masts but there is no certainty on the health issue. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources which is investigating this matter. I read recently of an objection to a mast in Dalkey, County Dublin, which was successful. The objector told a mast installer that in rural areas where there was a small population, a heavier density mast could be erected which would blast out over much of the area. I do not know what he meant by "blasting out". Is he referring to blasting out magnetic rays?

In the definitive document on mobile telephone masts, Sir William Stewart in the United Kingdom advocated the precautionary principle while recognising that there is no certainty on the health issue. He believes that masts should not be located near primary schools because the electromagnetic emissions might affect young children. This motion refers to defining the distance from areas of population density, community centres and communities of houses and schools at which to erect a mast to obviate people's escalating concerns.

A person who allows a mast be erected on his or her land can arouse a wave of local emotion which can divide a community but may have been tempted by a substantial financial inducement from the mast operator. Will there be a forest of masts throughout the country to accommodate 3G? In the United Kingdom the 3G licences were recently sold for £22.5 billion. This is big business. There are approximately 35,000 masts in the United Kingdom whereas we have 4,000. Does anybody know how many we will have in 2007-08?

I move this motion on behalf of people who are concerned about the erection of masts. Mobile telephones are a different issue on which medical research has raised many concerns. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and local authorities should encourage co-location. In a small area near my home there are at least three different masts. There is no justification for that. It is irresponsible and unfair to the communities in that area that these should be erected beside them.

Such communities are entitled to their concerns because while the amendment tabled by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources may offer reassurance on the health issue, when I built a house not so long ago, I was told to install asbestos fire retardant in the garage. We know now, however, about asbestosis, especially given the claims about the basement of Leinster House. Who would have said 30 or 40 years ago that asbestos would affect people's health? It is now a serious concern in respect of lung cancer.

An EU directive was issued in 2004 in respect of magnetic rays and magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, to the effect that people should not be near these rays over a long period. The United Kingdom will implement the directive in 2008. I do not know when it will be implemented in this country but talks must be held with medical authorities about taking precautions when using MRI equipment.

The Government must take stock of the situation, hold consultations with the telecommunications companies, consider the virtues of co-location and think seriously about where these masts should be erected. It would be remiss of me not to raise this issue because I constantly go to community meetings, attended by members of the Minister of State's party, where we all voice the same concerns. I have researched the subject in detail, including the UK and Scottish experiences.

Scotland has scenery similar to that in Ireland but in 2001 it provided that there must be planning permission for every mast. Eight weeks is the timeframe for planning decisions here and in the United Kingdom but in Spain and Austria the timeframe for a decision on a mobile telephone mast is 180 days, allowing time for consultation. Here there is no matching between the Department, the mobile telephone companies and the communities involved which all work at different purposes. No mobile telephone company initiates consultation with communities before placing an application to erect a mast. The company enters discussions only when the community puts the gun to its head asking that somebody meet it. The company then quotes scientific advice to allay the community's concerns and offers reassurance on health matters.

I would like the Government to examine this motion carefully in the context of structural changes that would allow for the proper use of this technology because I am not happy with the piecemeal approach it is adopting.

I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy John Browne, to the House to address this serious issue. I look forward to hearing his response and that of the Government.

In May or June last I raised this issue and was advised that the Government was studying the report of the all-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, published some years ago, and would make recommendations in a few months. That period must have almost expired. Will the Government respond soon to this report?

While we recognise that communities throughout the country are concerned about this issue, in this era of modern telecommunications we must ensure the public is as well served in this respect as its European neighbours. When the EU ambassador to Washington, the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, addressed this House previously, he said this country must remain competitive and maintain its economic progress. Telecommunications plays a key role in that regard. However, there are genuine fears in certain areas where proposals have been made to erect more telephony masts.

It is almost an invisible enemy, difficult to quantify. Senator Finucane pointed out how asbestos was viewed when it first became widely used. In 40 years' time people might look back with a different perspective on telecommunications masts and ask why stronger action was not taken at the time.

It is important that the Government has a national policy on telecommunications masts because local authorities have varying responses to planning applications for them. There is no standard approach to the erection of masts and co-location. Should they be placed near town centres, schools or shopping centres? An Bord Pleanála is taxed with many appeals on planning applications for masts. The Government must respond to the report commissioned by the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. A Government policy needs to be put in place to ensure planning applications for a mobile telephony mast, whether they be in Cork or Donegal, are to the same standard.

When environmental issues are debated at protest meetings, certain phrases take on a great life of their own. Five years ago, one would never have heard the term "precautionary principle". It is now wisely used because people are concerned. We must also strike a balance to ensure our ongoing economic progress. In many areas complaints relate not to a mobile telephony mast but the lack of a mobile telephony service. We must still respond to the fears about health issues. It is difficult to accept that mobile telephony masts would be positioned near schools, playgrounds or large centres of population. Even from a visual aspect they should be located in as isolated a place as is possible. The co-location argument is to the fore in several communities in north County Cork. Some townlands could end up with three masts. We must be strong in demanding co-location.

The Government amendment refers to the World Health Organisation and other reports. While they provide a scientific carte blanche, many communities find it difficult to accept. Further reassurances must be offered to these communities. The Government must be seen to have a strong national policy on the matter. The Minister of State is armed with the independent report commissioned by the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources which contained sensible recommendations made on locating telecommunications masts. It gives him a mandate to introduce the report’s recommendations.

People often inform their public representatives that the reassurances offered to them about the long-term health and safety aspects of living near mobile telephone masts are not strong enough. Where there are genuine fears, we must fully investigate them and put a mechanism in place to give more assurances. In ten or 15 years' time, the mobile telephony system may be entirely satellite-based. Currently, while the masts are a requirement, we must ensure they are located sensitively and in a reassuring manner. The Minister of State gave commitments several months ago to act on various reports on the matter. I hope he will fulfil them and a clear Government line is introduced shortly.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after ‘‘Seanad Éireann'' and substitute the following:

"recognising that:—

mobile telecommunications services play a pivotal role in the social and economic development of Ireland;

the advice from international expert scientific and medical bodies, including the World Health Organisation and the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation, ICNIRP, states that the consensus of the scientific and medical evidence is that there are no adverse health effects from exposures below the limits set by ICNIRP, endorsed by the European Union under Council Recommendation of 12 July 1999 on "the limitation of exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields (0 Hz to 300 GHz)", (1999/519/EC) and adopted in Ireland;

commends the Government:

on addressing issues outlined in the Oireachtas joint committee report by establishing an interdepartmental committee on the health effects of electromagnetic fields to advise the Government on appropriate actions in response to the Oireachtas joint committee's report and to examine Government policy; and

on ensuring there is continuing compliance with international guidelines on non-ionising radiation emissions from mobile telecommunications antennae."

I have some sympathy with the motion but, unfortunately, if it were followed to the letter, the probability would arise that masts could not be sited anywhere. Regardless of where a mast is located, it will inevitably be close to a domestic dwelling. That is the nature of our countryside and the manner in which people have provided their homes with a view to staying in rural areas. That said, given the way planners act regarding the building of houses in rural areas, perhaps there may not be a problem in siting masts in such areas in future.

In any debate in this area we must err on the side of caution as the health and well-being of our children are concerned. As Sir William Stewart said on radiation, it often takes a long time for such contamination to become obvious. Mobile telephone technology is still young and who knows what may be established through future long-term studies. For every expert there is a divergence of opinion. One medical expert will claim radiation is harmful, and will be supported in this by an engineer. Other professionals not only seem happy to promote mobile telephone use among the population but also seem content to use their own mobile telephones to the fullest extent possible.

Another international study, carried out by Dr. Roosli, stated the existing scientific knowledge is too limited to draw final conclusions on the health risks from exposure in the lower range. In other words, we do not yet know definitively whether non-ionising radiation is harmful; the jury is still out.

The term "radiation" is somewhat pejorative in that it is associated with illness, especially cancer. This particular dread may come from those films and documentaries made through the Cold War on the threat of nuclear fallout and the consequent widespread gamma radiation. While the word "radiation" strikes fear into people, it should not be forgotten that both light and heat are forms of radiation and in moderate quantities are not hazardous to health.

Many homes, probably a majority, have a source of radiation which they use regularly. No one is fearful of the simple microwave oven because it is used in a controlled and protected fashion. Wherever there is even a suggestion of risk from a particular source or procedure, control is of paramount importance and can be the difference between public acceptability and not.

In 2000 a UK independent expert group on mobile telephony produced a report on the possible effects of radio frequency signals, now known as the first Stewart report. This review of all scientific evidence to date did not find any definite adverse health aspects due to mobile telephone. It did not conclude that there are none either. The group felt that because of children's developing skulls and the likelihood they would have long lifetime exposure, they would be vulnerable to any as yet unknown health defects in adults. The group therefore recommended a precautionary approach to the use of mobile telephones by children.

I have expressed concerns in this regard in the past, with particular reference to the location of a mast in close proximity to St. Mary's national school on the outskirts of Waterford city. At the time, I said it was disappointing that Ballygunner GAA Club allowed this mast to be erected without consultation with the local residents or school. There is much cause for concern about radiation emissions from mobile telephone masts and until those fears are allayed by concrete scientific evidence, we should not site them close to schools or health centres.

In this instance, the mast was erected without planning permission, although this was subsequently granted by Waterford City Council. This decision is being appealed to An Bord Pleanála and we all must await the outcome of due process in this regard. I understand the mast was burned down for the second time last Friday, and I am glad the local action committee has dissociated itself from this wildcat criminal action. Nobody can condone this kind of behaviour by any individual or group no matter how genuine their motives or how fearful they might be for public health.

In June 2005, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources drew up a report on non-ionising radiation from mobile telephone handsets and masts. One of its recommendations was that such masts should not be sited near health centres, schools, or other sensitive sites such as playgrounds or playing pitches. The Santini report had recommended the distance involved should be 300 metres. Disappointingly, there has been no progress on this recommendation.

The Opposition motion proposes that the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, should be empowered to carry out monitoring of the emissions from telecommunications masts and other installations that emit ionising and non-ionising radiation. The joint committee too was of the opinion that the RPII should have its role expanded to include the matter of non-ionising radiation. The committee also came to the logical conclusion that the expansion of the role of the RPII would have an impact on that organisation. It pointed out that the RPII does not have a developed or natural expertise in non-ionising radiation and that it would require additional staff to enable it carry out its expanded role. To address this, the joint committee made the recommendation that the RPII be appropriately staffed to accommodate its expanded role and that staff with relevant expertise working elsewhere in the Civil Service could be assigned, subject to the usual industrial relations protocols, to work in the institute.

It is essential we collect as much information as possible through independent, reliable sources. As we can see from the regular stock exchange dealings for the various mobile telephone services, it is a multi-billion euro industry and one which is unlikely to produce the type of information the legislators and public require and deserve if there is to be reasoned, responsible debate and necessary, if unpopular, decisions taken.

We should not lose sight either of the possible negative effects of the use of cordless telephones and wireless Internet access, although it is generally a personal decision on the part of users to avail of those services. We might also take into account in our quest for information the possible effect of the creation of wireless Internet zones of the type normally found in airport waiting lounges, some hotels and even in small coffee shops, mainly abroad but likely to extend to Ireland. We need to know also whether this technology is harmful, whether it equates in strength or effect to the mobile telephone technology and what its long-term effects might be.

We have a long road to travel in this debate but, for now, we must protect young and vulnerable people, while not stifling the growth or operation of what has become a vital accessory in modern Ireland. I am pleased the Government has established an interdepartmental committee on the health effects of electromagnetic fields to advise on appropriate actions in response to the joint committee's report. I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

I am not at all technologically gifted but I wish to make several comments on this motion. My first observation relates to the way in which these motions are generally framed. In this instance, this side of the House — in which I include myself although I am an Independent rather than Opposition Member — has raised an issue about which, as I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, is aware, there is considerable concern. I regularly receive agitated letters from people, both in my constituency and in other areas throughout the State, who are suddenly faced with the installation of a telephone mast or similar installation. Some people believe they are made seriously ill by these installations. Not all such claims may be correct because some ill effects may be psychosomatic. However, the Minister of State knows well that 1% of people are what is described as electro-sensitive and that there is no doubt such persons are in danger from these types of developments.

As usual, however, the Government has deleted the entire text of the Opposition motion after "Seanad Éireann" and proceeded to praise itself. This approach is ludicrous and entirely childish. Moreover, it is proof we are on a slide towards an election and that the Government is unlikely to take effective action on any matter. Instead, it praises itself for dealing with issues it has not addressed and for establishing a committee. The gentle persons in Government have done well. The Government expresses its concerns and pledges to tackle this issue head-on by establishing a committee. This is not good enough in view of the genuine concerns of those affected by this issue. The Taoiseach and the Minister are aware there is a considerable level of anxiety about this matter. So too is the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, who was picketed in Dalkey by a group of people who are not keen on this type of development .

The Green Party's Deputy Cuffe raised this issue in the Dáil last May. It is worrying that in his reply, the Minister, Deputy Roche, accepted that telephone companies enjoy certain planning exemptions. We must address this regrettable situation. If we are concerned about the welfare of citizens, it surely should be the case that where the public has concerns about new technologies, such developments should be subject to planning controls.

I have a personal and anecdotal basis for some of my concerns in this area. As a news addict, I carry a small transistor radio on which I listen to the news using a set of earphones. I often listen to it as I walk through Leinster House, as I did just now, hoping for news of further success for the Democrats in the United States elections. As I pass through the corridors, I invariably hear all types of whizzing noises, bleeps, expletives, pious ejaculations and so on emitting from various types of machines.

This building contains sophisticated communications systems, including computers and other devices the names of which I do not know. It is obvious they are emitting radiation and that we are passing through enormous fields of radiation. If the interference is enough to blast my small transistor radio off the airwaves as I pass through the corridors, there is no doubt it is going through our poor, limp bodies and may well be doing damage. This radiation is assumed not to be there because it is unseen but I am aware of it from the simple and not entirely scientific test of walking through the corridors of Leinster House as I listen to my transistor radio.

In the light of the concerns that have been expressed in this area, and the well advised interest taken by Fine Gael in particular, it is simply not sufficient to say a committee has been established to examine the issue. We already have the report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. What is the point of establishing committees of the Oireachtas if we do not trust them? The joint committee recommended that the planning guidelines to which I referred should be amended to ensure mobile telephone masts are not located near schools, playgrounds or health centres, which are peopled by vulnerable groups. However, I understand this has not been done. Perhaps it is another of this committee's reports that is being kicked into touch.

There was a criticism from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that the agency in charge of monitoring radiation does not even know the number of telecommunications masts. It does not suggest there is a high or active level of monitoring if the agency charged with monitoring does not even know how many masts exist.

A submission from the Irish Doctors' Environmental Association indicated that 1% of the population is electro-sensitive and, as a result, feels unwell when close to electricity or radiation. Does this group not have the right of protection? There must be a balance in respect of users. Unfortunately, one cannot set the clock back in terms of telephones and there is a demand which must be served. Unfortunately, the market prevails but the balance must be such as to include the welfare of people who are electro-sensitive.

The Senator has one minute remaining.

In that one minute, I will ride my hobby horse. The telephone companies should be regulated as well. They have got away with murder. While I know this is not directly relevant, it is disgraceful for a Fianna Fáil-led Government to accept that Irish citizens should still pay line rental to an Australian investment company for a line laid by the Irish taxpayer. One cannot get through to a person on a telephone; it is all robots. One is then told one's conversation is being tape-recorded for educational purposes. I used to get paid for educating people in the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin and I see no reason people should have an unlicensed right to tape-record my telephone conversations.

My final point may not be relevant but it is quite surprising how the most irrelevant things one says in this House travel in the right direction and have some effect so, therefore, I am not really repentant about it. I refer to the banks and the way they treat their customers in regard to telephones. We are all forced to withdraw our money from ATMs on the street but there are huge queues at them. The reason for these is that all our migrant workers and foreign guests, who are very polite, queue up to top up telephone credit. The banks are so mean that it is not enough that they swindle and scam every customer they have, they then force people out on to the street in the wind, rain and sleet to get their money out of ATMs. People must queue because the banks get another few percentage points from the telephone top-up facility. Let us look at the entire telephone industry while we are at it.

I appreciate the opportunity to comment on this debate and the amendment to the motion which I broadly support. It is a timely debate because there has been widespread unrest at some of the developments taking place in my constituency and in some of the country areas, especially adjacent to schools, play areas, hospitals, etc. While no major problems have been identified to date from emissions from the transmitters on these masts, there is a general belief that they have a detrimental effect. It is almost impossible to convince local communities that they do not do damage.

At a recent meeting I attended about a proposed mast in the area in which I live, there was much adverse comment. However, the proposal was withdrawn at the request of the landowner. For many years people did not seem to have a great problem with passive smoking and it did not create any major controversy but suddenly tobacco smoking was associated with cancer and we all know how that developed. There is a belief in the communities in which I have been involved — unfounded or otherwise — that these masts will eventually damage people's health and welfare and that they are particularly damaging to children, especially where they are adjacent to schools and recreation and leisure areas.

There is also a commercial aspect in that the location of masts adjacent to areas in which there is widespread housing has had a detrimental effect on the value of property. If somebody pays €500,000 for a house, which happens in many towns, and finds a mast located next door which will possibly reduce the prospect of selling that house, he or she has a legitimate concern that this development is detrimental to his or her economic stability or otherwise. This is a cause of much concern, certainly in many of the areas in which I have been involved over the years. The underlying fear is the effect it will have on property values and the fact it might damage the prospect of selling a house and moving. For that reason, this debate is timely.

It is important to use an opportunity such as this to convince the public, as is being done in the amendment, that all the scientific research has been provided. I saw some of the documentation connected with this from various professionals. The difficulty is that one finds professionals arguing on both sides of the argument. All the available material and research done nationally and internationally, especially in Europe, shows there is no major health risk arising from these masts. However, how does one convince the public of that? The public is not convinced, especially in Ennis.

Last July I attended a protest march in Ennis against the proposed erection of a mast by the Electricity Supply Board. The local council refused permission for it which is where the dilemma arises in many cases. Where a local authority refuses permission and the body concerned appeals the decision to An Bord Pleanála, evidence suggests that the board, by and large, overturns the local authority decision because of the necessity for economic development and good communications networks. In some cases, it has not done so but in most cases where councils have refused permission, having taken into account the views of local councillors and others, the board has overturned the local authority decision on appeal.

This is the case in Ennis and it is causing widespread anxiety for a large number of people living adjacent to the town and the bypass. They cannot understand why the Electricity Supply Board, which is involved in this development, cannot find an alternative site away from the built-up area. One should also bear in mind that it is adjacent to the new bypass and that hectares of land will be neutralised because of the bypass and it would be possible to find an alternative location for the mast away from dwellings, schools and Cahercalla hospice, which is quite close to it.

Attempts to date to convince the public it will not be detrimental to health and the value of their property have been unsuccessful. We have had several meetings attended by the ESB and the local community. Although we had a very useful discussion, we could not reach a compromise. What bothers me about the particular development in Ennis is that although there will be a judicial review, the ESB has notified local people that one way or the other, it proposes to go ahead with the erection of the mast and that if the judicial review determines that it should be taken down, it will do so then. That is a negative way to approach this issue and I appeal to the board of the ESB to refrain from erecting the mast until such time as the judicial review is heard. If it does not do so, it is quite likely an injunction will be sought to prevent it proceeding with the erection of the mast until the promised judicial review is heard.

It is a complex matter and I do not believe we can find a resolution to it tonight. In the course of a meeting I attended regarding masts, three or four mobile telephones went off. This brought home to people that although they objected to the erection of telecommunications masts, they were all dependent on them to an extent for their communications needs. If people could be convinced that their health and that of their children will not be damaged, one could certainly proceed. If the public can be convinced that the erection of such masts will not in some way undermine the value of its properties, land and expensive houses, agreement for them might be achieved.

However, in the present climate, there is a range of problems. For example, widespread problems exist in Moveen, which is near Kilkee, Ardnacrusha, which is near Limerick and Ennis. The publication of the report from the interdepartmental committee, which is expected at the end of this year, will be timely. I recommend that Members should wait until its arrival before following up this matter further.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I agree with Senator Daly that our confidence in the systems around us is not as advanced as one might wish. As we live in a society with advanced telecommunications systems and information technology, we must embrace change and while so doing, we must embrace new technologies. There are obvious benefits to the forthcoming new technologies. For example, coastal areas that rely on coastguard emergency response units or Royal National Lifeboat Institution units cannot live without instantaneous telecommunications systems.

However, the new telecommunications systems also have drawbacks. For example, it has been noted recently that boy racers are able to use technology to anticipate the location of checkpoints. Such challenges posed by the new systems must be considered. Moreover, given the presence in the Chamber this evening of the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy John Browne, Members have a unique opportunity in respect of drift-net fishing. While I do not wish to raise the entire debate again, I refer to poaching. As the Minister of State is aware, advanced telecommunications systems contribute to an extremely healthy and fruitful poaching business. One of the real issues with which Members must contend is that units of sub-aqua professionals are on stand-by, ready to enter rivers to poach and use telecommunication systems to so do.

While I digress from the present debate, I am glad the Minister of State is present because in any debate regarding salmon, a sharp focus should be kept on this matter. However, this aspect was lost in the past couple of weeks. Anecdotal information I received last weekend suggests the operation of a slick, professional poaching outfit. Such poachers do not enter rivers to take 50 or 60 salmon, but to take a couple of hundred salmon and can do so within a few hours. This issue must be addressed.

While I appreciate the point made by the Senator, we are drifting sideways somewhat.

The Senator is discussing telecommunications.

Naturally there are fears regarding masts and structures if people live in urban areas in which a national school is near a Garda station with such telecommunications infrastructure. One of the most significant reasons for such fears is that masts are erected without any form of communication with the local community. There is no contact with the people before such masts arrive, which leads to a barrier straight away.

I will cite another example regarding North West Electronics. The Minister of State will be aware of the positive elements of the group broadband schemes. An article in SiliconRepublic.com states that group broadband schemes have been an abject failure. While that may be the case nationally, North West Electronics, an energetic private company in Donegal, has been rolling out an expansive group broadband scheme. It uses masts and the telecommunications antennae required for such infrastructure. They do so in two ways. First, they locate such masts away from population centres. Second, it has embraced the positive measure of consulting local communities. It asks people what would be the prime locations for such masts from the perspectives of topography and sensitivity in respect of distance from population centres. This is the kind of best practice on which Members should focus. Moreover, when dealing with the public, other private companies could learn a lesson in this respect.

When the past four or five years are considered, O2 and Vodafone may ask why there was such a revolt in rural areas. County Donegal lacks widespread telecommunications or telephone cover because of people's objections. However, the main reason for this is that the companies arrived without contacting the local communities. The lesson to be learned regarding telecommunications infrastructural investment is to contact the local people first and get them involved from the outset. I know of no one in a rural area who does not want advanced communications systems.

Many difficult questions must be answered regarding an integrated approach on the part of State bodies. On one hand, Donegal, Leitrim and Cork county councils may be working in one direction, while on the other, health boards may require their own telecommunications to provide for their emergency response units. Although RTE possesses the prime locations, it charges local authorities and emergency response units. In other words, one branch of the public service sector charges other sectors of the public service. Difficult questions must be answered in terms of value for money and the integrated approach. Lessons could be learned from the approach adopted by O2 and Vodafone, which share masts. This also must be done at a State level and the subjects of value for money and integration must be examined. A better managed system in terms of mast-sharing should also be examined. Perhaps a more comprehensive roll-out in a more imaginative manner than obtains at present might follow.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for permitting my digression in respect of salmon. I appreciate it.

The Senator did so in a cute manner.

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. I even include Senator McHugh's contribution regarding salmon. I am sure the House will return to that issue on another day.

Mobile telecommunications services play a vital role in the social and economic development of Ireland. The deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure, including the latest generation of mobile telephone networks, is critical for Ireland's competitiveness. The quarterly report of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, of September 2006 shows there are 4.37 million mobile subscribers in Ireland. There are now more mobile telephones in operation than people in Ireland, with a penetration rate of 103%. In that quarter there were more than 1.7 billion minutes of mobile voice calls; almost 1.5 billion SMS messages; an average of 114 SMS messages per subscription per month; and almost 7.7 million multimedia messages. These statistics highlight clearly the importance of the mobile telephone in Irish society today.

However, I am always aware of the concerns people raise regarding the potential health effects, if any, of the use of mobile telephones and the base stations required to build efficient and effective, national networks. I acknowledge that real fears exist among certain parts of the community in respect of the health impacts of such networks. I am sympathetic to and understanding of such fears and the concerns that underpin them.

While being cognisant of these concerns, the Department is also responsible for policy regarding the development and promotion of wireless communication technologies for the benefit of Ireland. It constantly seeks the most accurate, expert and up-to-date information on any potential health risks of these technologies. My Department is guided in these matters by the advice from international expert bodies, such as the World Health Organisation and the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, ICNIRP. These bodies continually examine the totality of the scientific and medical evidence available so we have the most up to date and accurate information in regard to the potential health effects, if any, of electromagnetic fields.

My Department participates in the process of scientific review and the setting of standards, working with the World Health Organisation and other bodies such as the International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety, to ensure that the technologies we use are safe. The World Health Organisation co-ordinates scientific research on an international basis through its EMF project, to which Ireland contributes, and periodically publishes environmental health criteria documents analysing the most up to date research. I am advised that the World Health Organisation is currently preparing an environmental health criteria report on the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields used by mobile telephony. ICNIRP is an independent body comprised of leading international medical and scientific experts. It works closely with the World Health Organisation and continually examines the available scientific medical evidence to set limits for the protection of the public.

The international scientific and medical consensus is that no adverse health effects have been demonstrated to have been caused by electromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by mobile phones and telecommunication masts below the limits developed by ICNIRP and endorsed by the World Health Organisation and European Union. These limits have been adopted in Ireland and are enforced for mobile and other telecommunications services, as appropriate, by ComReg, the regulator, which audits approximately 100 sites annually. In 2003 and 2004, ComReg conducted, in liaison with my Department, an audit of 401 sites. No site audited to date has been found to breach the limits and most measurements are typically less than one-thousandth of the limits. To date, over 12% of sites nationwide have been audited.

Planning permission is generally required for communications masts. I am advised by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government that the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 set out certain exemptions in this area. These include, subject to certain conditions, the attachment of additional antennae to an existing antenna support structure; the erection of an antenna support structure in place of an existing antenna support structure; and the attachment of antennae to certain existing structures, such as telegraph poles, electricity pylons and certain public or commercial buildings.

The demand for additional antennae arises from the expectation of the public to be able to use its phones anywhere and at any time. Where the demand for services is high, a large number of base station antennae, each serving a very small area, are required. These are mainly required in towns and urban areas and particularly in the commercial areas. The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government published guidelines for planning authorities on telecommunications antennae and support structures in 1996. These guidelines facilitate planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála, the licensed providers of mobile telecommunications services and the public by providing guidance on dealing with these developments within the planning system.

The guidelines set out a locational hierarchy in respect of the siting of radio masts and advise that free-standing masts should only be located within or in the immediate surrounds of smaller towns or villages as a last resort. If such a location should become necessary, the masts and antennae should be designed and adapted for the specific location. In the vicinity of larger towns and in city suburbs, operators should endeavour to locate in industrial estates or in industrially zoned land.

The guidelines further advise that free-standing masts should only be located in a residential area or beside schools as a last resort and if all the alternatives are unavailable or unsuitable. Under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, planning authorities are required to have regard to any ministerial guidelines in the performance of their functions. The health concerns of some members of the public of the public were highlighted in the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on non-ionising radiation from mobile phone handsets and masts, which was published in June 2005. This report made a number of recommendations about the continuing safety of mobile phones. Among these recommendations were that the Radiological Protection Act 1991 be amended so that the monitoring of non-ionising radiation would be within the remit of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII; that an independent board be appointed to review the published scientific data from the Irish perspective; the setting up of a non-statutory-advisory mobile phone safety users group; that no mobile phone handsets should be allowed for sale in Ireland unless they are certified as complying with the ICNIRP standard; that results of emission testing on masts and antennae be published on the websites of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the RPII and ComReg; and that planning guidelines and planning exemptions be examined with a view to ensuring that no electromagnetic emissions or radio frequency emissions-emitting equipment is permitted to be sited near health centres, schools or other sensitive sites such as playgrounds or pitches.

The Government set up an interdepartmental committee in September 2005 to report on appropriate actions on these recommendations and examine Government policy with regard to any potential health effects of electromagnetic fields, if any. My Department is chairing this committee, which includes representatives from the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; the Department of Health and Children; the RPII, the Health and Safety Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Chief Science Adviser. In an effort to ensure it has the most up to date scientific and medical evidence available to it, the committee has established an expert group to prepare a report on the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields. This report will provide both a comprehensive review of the latest scientific evidence and international consensus in regard to the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields and recommendations on policy options based on this scientific evidence.

The expert group is chaired by Dr Michael Repacholi, the former co-ordinator for the radiation and environmental health unit in the World Health Organisation. In addition, Dr. Eric van Rongen from the Health Council of the Netherlands; Dr. Anthony Staines from the faculty of medicine, University College Dublin; and Dr. Tom McManus, the former chief technical adviser to my Department, have participated in the group. The group brings many years of knowledge, expertise and experience to play in the provision of independent and impartial advice. Covering many of the diverse specialist areas required to interpret and assess the multitude of international research studies, their combined experience will prove of great benefit to the work of the interdepartmental committee and to Ireland. The group is now finalising its report, which will cover all aspects of potential health effects of electromagnetic fields, including radiofrequency fields used in mobile telephony, extremely low frequency fields used for electricity power distribution, static fields used for medical imaging, potential risks to children and the question of whether some individuals may be sensitive to these fields.

As part of its review, the expert group sought submissions from individuals, local authorities, industry and concerned citizens' groups. These submissions provided the group with the key relevant questions raised by the respondents. It met with representatives of some of these in February 2005 where further information was sought by the expert group regarding the issues faced from an Irish perspective.

The issues raised with the expert group included the question of how the Government and key stakeholders can communicate the potential risks more effectively, the medical and scientific basis for the condition known as electrosensitivity, the scientific basis for the ICNIRP guidelines, whether a minimum distance should be set for locating antennae near facilities such as schools and hospitals and the research and international participation that should be undertaken by Ireland in this area. This information has allowed the expert group to address its report to specific concerns of the stakeholders, including the Irish people; to ensure the important issues can be fully addressed; and to include answers to those questions that have been raised by the public. It is not possible to present the recommendations of the interdepartmental committee at this time as its work is ongoing and is not due to completed until the end of the year.

I recognise that the issues raised here today are important. I am conscious that my Department is responsible for the development of communications infrastructure. However, at the same time, my Department is also responsible for advising the public of any potential health risks of electromagnetic fields arising from this infrastructure. This creates a potential conflict of interest within my Department. I am satisfied that the advice I have received to date is unbiased and the most accurate available. However, given the potential for a conflict of interest, an independent source of expertise and advice outside of my Department would be preferable.

The motion calls on the Government to empower the RPII to carry out monitoring of non-ionising radiation emissions. The report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has also recommended that responsibility for non-ionising radiation matters must be given to the institute. The institute has statutory responsibility solely for matters pertaining to ionising radiation. I recognise the benefits in having an independent one stop shop for the public to access all relevant expertise and advice in regard to ionising and non-ionising radiation. Though these are separate issues, the dangers of ionising radiation are real and proven and many of the necessary skills regarding communication with the public could be shared resources.

The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and I eagerly await the publication of the expert group's report and the outcome of the interdepartmental committee's deliberations. The Government will be then in a position to make a decision on how to ensure that, going forward, the Government and the public can receive the best, most impartial and expert information on these matters.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his contribution. It is important we discuss this issue although I do not understand why the Minister of State did not simply accept the motion. There is very little in it to which he could be opposed and he could have made a minor amendment to it if an empowerment provision needed to be included. There is very little in it that would cause a problem for the Government.

It is important to amend the guidelines because we need to give ordinary people confidence in regard to this issue. People are all over the place in dealing with it. They do not understand it and because of that they are worried, and because they are worried, they oppose proposals in regard to it. It will be a mistake for the House to divide on this motion tonight. It was a mistake by the Government side to oppose it. If minor amendments were required, they could have been made through negotiation and discussion.

The reality is that every change of significance in society confuses people and leads them to react against it. When the first motor cars came on the scene, a motorist was required to have a person walk ahead of the car carrying a white flag to indicate a car was approaching and for people to take care. Concern has been expressed about every social development. When I was young, I remember a debate such as this on the danger of radiation from luminous watches. It was said at the time that they would radiate the country. It was predicted that we would all die from radiation emitted from luminous dials on our watches. It was said they would exude radiation, but nobody has died as a result of their introduction.

When mobile telephones came on the market prior to concerns about telecommunication masts, it was said we would all develop brain cancer and that our ears would be affected. There were copious acres of newsprint on this issue. The problem with these issues is that the debates on them gain legs until such time as issue no longer has any impact.

It was right for Fine Gael to table this motion. We could all have said that if there is a problem, we will find out what it is, advise people — who are genuinely concerned about the issue — of all the information we have on it and let them make up their own minds. That would have been a confidence building measure, which would have been hugely important.

We are discussing an area that is very transient. The Taoiseach made a comment at the weekend that broadband would be connected to every single house, although he did not say when that would be done. I am not sure how broadband will be provided but more than likely some of it will be provided via satellite. Masts will be obsolete is a short period. The first time we discussed the 087 system in this House, which must be ten years ago, I asked why we were going to the bother of erecting masts and why we did not simply use a satellite system. Such a system is now available to people who travel all over the world and people giving news reports from the middle of a desert or elsewhere can tune into a satellite and use it. It enables global coverage. Prices have come down and it now costs less than a dollar a minute to use a satellite telephone. That is the future for this industry.

What we are discussing will become irrelevant. No doubt somebody will say the satellites will fall on top of us, drop poison on us, radiate us out of existence or whatever other story a next news editor or features editor, with a gap to fill on a Tuesday morning, decides to include in a newspaper. Our job is to simply reassure people. I do not believe there is a problem with the masts. However, that means nothing as that is simply my personal view. If somebody asked me to prove that, and I suspect this is the point of the Fine Gael motion, I could not prove it. If I were asked how I know that, and told I am wrong, I could not produce the chapter and verse on it. However, I would like to be able to say that this is an issue about which public representatives are also concerned, that we have examined it and the general view of all parties is that all the information on it should be available to all the people. In that sense, we should do what Fine Gael is asking for tonight. If the Radiological Protection Institute is not the appropriate body to do what is proposed, we can agree on another body to do it. The Fine Gael motion is not tied into one issue in that if a person put forward an amendment to the effect that some other body should do what is proposed, I believe it would have been accepted.

It is six or seven months to an election but the wording of the amendment to the motion in commending the Government and so on has changed the motion beyond recognition. Under genuine Standing Orders, this amendment would not be acceptable because it is a direct negative of the motion. I know that does not happen any more. The amendment is a direct negative in that it proposes voting against the motion. It does not make sense. It does not help any of us on any side of the House. We should simply do what is required. If Members in their contributions want to commend the Government, that is fine. There is no doubt much work has been done by the Government in this area. I do not deny that and I have no problem with it but it is not the issue with which we are dealing.

We are totally dependent on mobile telephones. Many people object to the siting of masts, but there is an element of hypocrisy in this respect. For example, people give interviews on mobile telephones complaining about the masts that are driving the technology to enable the interview to take place. That is happening throughout the country. There is a double think on this issue. I do not know the answer but we had a way tonight of finding it. In fairness to Fine Gael, it did not attack the Government in the motion. It simply expressed the concern of the House about this issue. The motion does not drive a shaft into the heart of Government. I thought the wording was reasonable and that it could have been accepted.

I will not take up the time of the House any longer on this issue. Mobile telephones are an essential part of our communications and infrastructural systems. They are crucial to all businesses and people in all walks of life. They are essential for the security of children and people travelling alone. We would have difficulty living without mobile telephones now. I am not talking about so-called nerdy people but people who use them in all walks of life. Mobile telephones have brought reassurance and protection to many people.

We are all committed to mobile telephones. The calls must be transmitted in some way. It is being done currently through masts. If there is a problem with masts, we must be told about it. We can deal with it by simply putting the whole system on satellite. There is no difficulty about doing that. In fact, it is much easier. With one geostationary satellite we would have a footprint for the whole island. We should take up the space for that and deliver it on that basis. It could be done easily.

I support what Fine Gael is trying to establish in this motion, which is to obtain the necessary information to reassure people. I ask the Government, even at this late stage, to consider not pressing its amendment and to support the motion.

I wish to share my time with Senator Dooley.

The Senators will each have four minutes.

Along with other Members, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am glad to have the opportunity to make some points on this issue. I agree with Senator O'Toole, and there is much agreement on this issue. No Member would say there is not genuine concern about the possibility of health risks when it comes to radiation from masts and pylons, and I am not saying there is not. I support the amendment, which I second if it has not been formally seconded.

The main truth in the debate came from Senator O'Toole, in that a frenzy of fear is generated every time a mast is erected in an area. I was party, as was Senator Finucane, to the joint committee report on this issue. It came up with a number of recommendations which the Minister of State has acknowledged. His expert group is now determining the actions that can best be taken in line with the recommendations in the report.

The bottom line on this issue is that the World Health Organisation indicates that there is nothing to suggest within the criteria it recommends that such structures are damaging to anybody's health. Equally, there would appear to be nothing to guarantee or state conclusively there is not. In the meantime, while the expert group is determining what actions are to be taken and while we are monitoring best practice, we have been somewhat negligent in getting the facts as we know them out there. This would put many people's minds at rest. I am interested to see what the scientific research produces, and whether there is a conclusive finding one way or another. One can well ask what could come from a mast that does not come from a hair-dryer when we hold it up to our head, or from a microwave oven when something is being heated at a high temperature? We have so many different appliances around our homes which are essential to our lives that it would provoke a major outcry were we to suggest hair-dryers were to be removed from the market or microwave ovens could not be used in the home.

We should view these issues in perspective. Perhaps what we have failed to do heretofore is to make the information we have available, namely that the World Health Organisation states that, provided we operate to its criteria, there is not a major problem. Notwithstanding that, we could do better in terms of other issues relating to masts. I acknowledge what Senator O'Toole stated in regard to satellites. We may end up going that route. Each local authority should select a number of sites where masts can be best placed and then, effectively, market those to the whole range of people who wish to put antennae on them. This could lead to the resolution of many disputes and unrest in the community. It equally could be a source of revenue for local authorities.

I do not wish to eat into Senator Dooley's time. I commend the amendment to the House. I hope we will continue to carry out research in this area and find a conclusion but, in the meantime, all the information we have at our disposal should be made available to mobile telephone users, people in relative proximity to masts and the public in general in order that their minds can be somewhat set to rest.

I thank Senator MacSharry for sharing time with me. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. It is interesting the Minister of State who is now in attendance is attached to the Department of Health and Children. Considerable concern has been expressed in this debate on the issue of health and how telecommunications antennae have the potential to affect the health of certain sections of society, especially children.

There are two elements to the debate. The first one relates to antennae. Some people confuse the issue of masts and antennae. A mast has no impact on one's health. It is the piece of equipment on the mast — the antenna — that is the cause of concern. Many people are concerned about the visual presence of masts and their capacity to affect the value of their property. They are concerned only with property values. It is the antennae which, in effect, emit the non-ionising radiation. They are on the sides of buildings in many locations. In some cases they do not even require planning permission. The mast is the structure that requires planning permission. An unnecessary hype is often created around masts when the focus should be really on antennae and what they do.

A number of contentious issues surround telecommunications masts in County Clare. Some of these relate purely to masts and property values but others relate to concerns about the siting of antennae close to children. I welcome the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, that he hopes to have the interdepartmental committee's expert review of the Oireachtas joint committee's findings dealt with quickly, hopefully, if not by the end of the year then early next year. In some cases with which I am familiar there are concerns in the localities because the masts are sited close to schools. Senator Daly referred to a contentious case in Ennis where a mast is located next to the playing grounds of Éire Óg GAA Club. It is also next door to the location of a new school which was announced today on the Ashline site for Ennis national school and it is close to Cahercalla Hospital and a residential area. The mast is in close proximity to centres where there are large numbers of people for a continuous period of time. I accept the mast may have an effect on the value of neighbouring properties but of more concern is the impact on the children who will be studying and playing in close proximity to it and on the patients in the hospital.

We need clarity in terms of assuring the public on the safety of antennae. Information would appear to suggest that some people are sensitive to non-ionising radiation. The Minister of State referred to this in his contribution. We have seen people who have been affected by it. Nobody is able to determine the long-term ramifications and more information is required. Until such time as the information is available we must be careful to adhere to the guidelines that are set down. It is not good enough to state there are no findings that show potential negative impacts on people's health. It is important that guidelines are in place to ensure masts are located as far as possible away from people and that their lives are not affected by them.

Everybody in the House is aware that few concerns bring communities together more than the proposal for the construction of a mast. Every public representative, both local and national, has been called to meetings in communities in his or her area because of concerns and objections to the proposal for the construction of a mast. People's concerns arise from fear of the inherent danger of antennae and an objection to the intrusiveness of the construction of a mast on the landscape. Health concerns predominate.

The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, stated that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government published guidelines for planning authorities on telecommunications antennae and support structures in 1996. The guidelines have been ineffective and little applied. I am unsure whether they were ever intended to be implemented. The Minister of State also indicated that the guidelines set out a locational hierarchy in respect of the siting of radio masts and advise that free-standing masts should be located only within or in the immediate surrounds of smaller towns or villages as a last resort. He further stated that if such a location should become necessary, the masts and antennae should be designed and adapted for the specific location. These guidelines neutralise the original statement. Who will decide what is a last resort? Has there been any examination of the research done by companies seeking to erect masts?

It is laughable for a Minister to say these are the guidelines and that local authorities will have an opportunity to assess and modify them if necessary to suit a particular location when, at the same time we are saying masts should not be located near schools, playgrounds or health centres. The fact is many masts are planted right beside such locations throughout the country. Local Garda stations are a popular location for antennae. Communities are concerned that they are being bullied into a situation by the local authority or the companies involved. If ever an element of consultation were needed, it is when a company chooses a location. It should consult with the community and an ideal site, if it exists, could be found.

EU Directive 2004/40/EC concerns the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risk arising from electromagnetic fields. The expected transposition date is 29 April 2008. Have the Government and Minister of Sate prepared for the transposition of this directive into our legislation? That is the commitment this Government has made regarding effective legislation in this regard.

The guidelines are laughable. Any Minister proposing them in response to the motion does so as nothing more than a packing operation. They have no substance. The Minister of State pointed out that ComReg conducts an audit of a minimum of 100 sites annually. We have approximately 4,500 masts in the country. That shows who within the Department is concerned about potential risks to health. If we were serious about this the reports on those audits would be given to the communities in which the masts are located. Members of the public who expressed concern and objected to masts should be entitled to know the results of these audits.

One might glibly state the results of these audits are available if one seeks them. I know of a group concerned about the location of a mast within 5 metres of a schoolyard. It asked whether an audit was ever conducted by ComReg. The group was told the report is a public document which it could obtain for itself. Unfortunately such a reply from ComReg, the agency charged with responsibility to carry out the audits, gives the two fingers. For that reason more than any other, all hell breaks loose in an area the minute a notice appears that a particular company intends to erect a mast. Communities have been divided on this issue and people take sides. Somebody may get an over-the-top price for a site to be used for a mast. Often, such a site is not of great commercial use. The person providing the potential location for the mast is ostracised by other people with genuine concerns about risk to health.

No local authority can monitor the concept of co-location. It should not be the responsibility of a local authority to direct the planning section towards a co-location site. Those who wish to erect a mast should be forced to prove no other alternative exists. Co-location should occur wherever possible.

I wish to share my time with Senator Mansergh.

Each Senator will have four minutes.

I will be brief because many of the same points have been reiterated. I am glad this motion was put down, even though it was by the Opposition. This debate should take place. Every public representative in Ireland has faced the problem of these masts suddenly appearing. One must agree with aspects of the motion put down by Fine Gael. Concerns are raised when a mast goes up in close proximity to a school, child care facilities or a hospital which must be taken into account. We must also get the balance right to give reassurance that no health problems exist.

It is important that local authorities do not wait until a planning application is made for a mast. They should be ahead of such an application and well-equipped with guidelines on what is acceptable. Where it is necessary, local authorities should facilitate a community in an area where work on a mast begins. My experience suggests nothing causes more disturbance in a community than the erection of a mast. Often, an objection is made to a mast because of its scenic intrusion. The mast itself is not a cause for concern. The problem is the antennae which will emit radiation. It would be useful to suggest to local authorities that they discuss the matter before it arises. Often, we react to a sudden situation when a planning application for a structure is made and then all hell breaks loose.

Most local authorities should be well-acquainted with the national guidelines to give reassurance. Such reassurance has been given in the amendment regarding the two reports of the World Health Authority which state no indications of any effects on health exist. In light of this we must focus on the area of planning. If we got that right we would not have fears. A public campaign is necessary to allay fears that these masts are of great concern to our health. Local authorities have a major role in this matter. This discussion is welcome and long overdue.

While I welcome the Minister of State and support the Government motion, I commend Fine Gael for putting down the topic for discussion as it is a matter of concern throughout the country. I agree in particular with the previous speaker and with all of the points made by Senator Dooley.

Mobile telephones are of enormous benefit to individuals, families and the economy. In a Third World context, we heard about the benefit they are to continents such as Africa. None of that is in dispute and given the current state of technology we probably need masts. Perhaps as Senator O'Toole suggested, the problem will disappear as technology advances.

I agree with the conclusions with the World Health Organisation. In the majority of cases, no health effects occur. However, the precautionary principle applies regarding location. I would be only secondarily concerned with matters such as aesthetics and property prices, which I do not believe to be key issues. However, there is evidence that a few individuals are hypersensitive to radiation and there certainly will be doctors who would provide evidence in writing of the effects that a few individuals appear to be suffering.

A well known case is that of a Tipperary farmer, John Ryan, who has received much publicity in the national media. I admit that every time I pass the mast site, which is perhaps one mile from the Tipperary to Cashel road, my mobile telephone lights up in a way it does not do anywhere else on the journey, which suggests there are pretty powerful signals in the vicinity. My concern is that the agreement with the farmer was totally unbalanced. Vodafone, the company concerned, had the option of getting out of the agreement within one year if that was in its interests, or if the mast was in some way ineffective, but the farmer was forced to live with the mast for several years. It scarcely would have been in his or his family's financial interest to object to the mast given that quite significant sums are paid each year to farmers.

As legislators, we must take into account the very real possibility, or even likelihood, that there will be an impact on a few hypersensitive individuals. We must create a regime that caters for such an eventuality and that perhaps in extremis allows a mast to be relocated.

Senator O'Toole referred to the many different types of technology. There is undoubtedly a question of adjustment and of people's need to get used to technology. We must bring the public with us and I am not sure dismissing all fears as groundless is necessarily the right way to proceed given it is difficult to know for certain whether this is the case. My view is that the effect of masts on most people is minimal and not damaging to health but we must apply the precautionary principle. We need to cater for individual cases of hypersensitivity and should not pretend such cases do not exist.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith. I did not have the opportunity to listen to all the other contributions but I have heard a few speakers from the Government and Opposition sides. It is a puzzle to understand why the Government put down an amendment as all of the Government speakers to whom I listened agreed with the motion. There is nothing controversial in the wording of the motion, particularly given what Government speakers have stated during the debate. The motion is a simple one which expresses concerns following recent reports, calls on the Government to review the existing guidelines and empowers the Radiological Protection Institute to carry out monitoring. The Government amendment is unnecessary.

I am happy to support the motion. As one who is involved in politics, I could not be against the use of mobile telephones. They are a curse in many respects but a necessary evil given we would not be able to do our jobs without access to mobile telephone technology. However, the crucial issue is the location of masts and antennae.

Two arguments are ongoing. Senator Mansergh stated that he did not have a problem with the aesthetics of masts but I do have such a problem. There is a proliferation of mast structures at a number of locations in my area of Carlow and Kilkenny. I served on Kilkenny County Council in its previous term and know it included a paragraph on co-location in its last two county development plans. Despite this, I am not aware of any location in County Kilkenny where more than one mobile telephone company uses the same mast structure. This does not make sense if it is the policy of the council to implement co-location. None of the companies co-locate whereas some locations have five or six masts.

Last year at my clinic I received a planning query from a gentleman who noticed the erection of a new planning application at Corbally Wood, Piltown, County Kilkenny. I asked the local authority to investigate the number of masts on the hill. It took a couple of months to do so but the council eventually discovered five masts located there in varying degrees of obedience to the planning laws. It beggars belief and makes no sense that each of the major mobile telephone companies had a mast structure on that hill but could not share a mast for their antennae.

Senator Kenneally will be familiar with the village of Dungarvan, County Kilkenny, which is located on the N9 Dublin to Waterford road. As one enters the village from Dublin, the facing hill is known as Coppenagh Hill, which is located between Thomastown and Graiguenamanagh, a very scenic part of the world. Three masts of different mobile companies are located virtually back to back at the most visually obtrusive point on the hill. It makes no sense that the companies could not share the one structure. It will take effort by central Government to ensure local authorities insist telecommunications companies share masts. I encourage the Department and the Government to take that route.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of booster antennae in different locations throughout the country, mostly in urban areas. A conflict of interest arises in County Kilkenny where the county council has allowed a telecommunications company to install booster antennae on a water tower immediately behind a local authority housing estate. It transpires such antennae do not require planning permission as they are within the exempt category. However, it is not appropriate or acceptable that a local authority would accept funding from such a source. It clearly suggests a conflict of interest would arise if and when the council deals with planning applications from the same company for different locations. This should not be allowed now or in the future. I ask that whatever guidelines are issued from this date would take account of that and make sure the problem does not arise.

A similar situation has arisen throughout the country with regard to Garda stations and many of the agricultural companies, creameries in particular, which have similar arrangements with telecommunications companies. Booster antennae are supplied, most often in built up areas where there may have been a coverage problem in isolated pockets. These antennae are often located very close to schools or community facilities. Irrespective of whether we like it, significant questions hang over the possible health implications of masts. I do not claim to possess any in-depth knowledge in that respect but Senator Mansergh referred to the precautionary principle and I agree with him wholeheartedly on that point.

My final point concerns another problem I have seen emerge in counties Kilkenny and Carlow since my involvement in politics began in recent years. Most local authorities grant permissions for these structures for period of five years. Almost invariably these telecommunications companies allow the planning permissions to lapse before re-applying. I have yet to find an exception in Kilkenny. If they have planning permission for five years, they operate for six years before submitting a new application to continue at that location, usually after a complaint or inquiry. That is unacceptable and should be held against them when they re-apply for planning permission. They deliberately allow the permission to lapse for as long as possible and do nothing about it until somebody questions them.

There are three issues involved, namely, allowing planning permission to lapse, booster antennae and particularly the role of Government agencies and local authorities in allowing their facilities to be used to hold them, and co-location. If those three points could be addressed we could have a resolution. I am disappointed the Government has an amendment to a harmless motion, which seeks only to get information on this contentious issue. I am glad to support the motion in the name of Senator Finucane and my colleagues.

How long do I have?

The Senator has five minutes.

I thank all the speakers. Oireachtas representatives in most parts of the country have been under pressure on this issue. Senator John Phelan is correct that the motion was on the Order Paper for some time. When it was put on the Order Paper we tried to ensure we got cross-party support for it. We expressed our concern, which had been expressed by most people here, and asked for a review of the national guidelines and for the Radiological Protection Institute to monitor emissions from telecommunication masts and other installations that emit ionising and non-ionising radiation. Monitoring by the RPI was recommended by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and National Resources. As the RPI was responsible for that activity, we felt it would carry much respect with people regarding its work on the masts and any emissions from them.

We used the plural "houses" because we are conscious of concentrations of houses together, schools, community centres or areas that attract a large population. This was stitched into the record. We are particularly concerned about primary school children, but also older children. In his statement the Minister said, "Under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, planning authorities are required to have regard to any ministerial guidelines in the performance of their functions". He also said, "The guidelines further advise that free-standing masts should only be located in a residential area or beside schools as a last resort and if all the alternatives are unavailable or unsuitable". The guidelines should be more definitive. They should specify that no mobile telephone masts should be erected near schools, community centres or areas of high population density.

I go further than that. Mobile telephone companies must go through the planning process to erect their masts and all the attendant apparatus and this allows people to put forward their objections to the siting of the mast. At least there is a process to go through. However, because of a decision made in 2000, it is possible for the OPW, or any Government body or Garda station to erect huge masts with transmitters and antennae without allowing the community to protest. Garda stations are usually surrounded by large urban areas. It is farcical and unjust. What happened in Scotland in 2001 should happen here. None of those masts, antennae or transmitters should be exempted from planning.

Hear, hear.

Even if they put up an antennae on a mast there should be communication with the council to approve it. It is fine to say we included exemptions in the Planning and Development Act 2000. The impetus at that time was to accelerate the development of mobile telecommunications. The Department put pressure on us saying that modern telecommunications would enhance industrial development. The Planning and Development Act took that into consideration. Although we have more than 4,500 masts around the country, any of us will have noticed that there are two or three planning applications for masts per month. That is surprising to many people who would have thought with the length of time we have had masts and mobile telephones we would be reaching saturation. The Minister said earlier that there are more than 4 million mobile telephones in Ireland and a penetration rate of 103%. One would have anticipated a diminishing rather than an increasing number of mast applications.

I made the point earlier that there is no justification for three different companies within a small area in a townland having three different masts. It is wrong.

Hear, hear.

Co-location should be encouraged in that situation. Because of commercial discipline, the mobile telephone companies will not make that decision unless a directive is given to them. They will pay lip service to the idea of co-location, but because of a tested arrangement in different companies, they can always say they requested co-location with the other companies but it was not possible. It does not happen. As we have more than 4,500 mobile telephone masts in this country, only 250 of which are co-located, it is time we examined the situation.

Local authorities should include a telecommunications section in their county development plans. When a mast is erected in an area most of us are invited to a public meeting. Concerns are often expressed in such meetings about people accessing the Internet and finding out information about health risks and other issues. It is a pity the local authorities or the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources do not have a fact-finding thesis about these masts on their web sites to explain the situation rather than leaving people to go through the planning process and make their objections by trial and error.

I have been interested in the discussion about this motion. It is disappointing the motion was not supported by the Government. The Minister has emphasised what we said about the WHO jury being out on the health aspects of mobile telephone masts and we agree with him. I would take cognisance of what Sir William Stewart said in his definitive 2000 document on mobile telephones in the UK. He advocated the precautionary principle in school situations. A directive should be made that masts should not be allowed near schools, community centres or large concentrations of houses. If we were sincere in our approach we would do that.

I expressed my concern earlier on 3G licences and the new technology. Will this lead to a forest of extra masts throughout the country? In the UK, £22.5 billion was paid by a number of companies to get a 3G licence. It is huge revenue for the Government. The Office of Public Works stated recently that erecting masts at Garda stations and so on is a good revenue earner.

It is time we considered this matter and that is why I tabled the motion this evening. I am glad I did so and I thank Members for their support.

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 26; Níl, 15.

  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brennan, Michael.
  • Cox, Margaret.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • Dardis, John.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fitzgerald, Liam.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lydon, Donal J.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Minihan, John.
  • Mooney, Paschal C.
  • Morrissey, Tom.
  • Moylan, Pat.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.


  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Browne, Fergal.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Finucane, Michael.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • Norris, David.
  • Phelan, John.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Cummins and Finucane.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

It is proposed to sit again at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow, Thursday, 9 November 2006.