– Tom McGurk.
They came in their thousands to the Dáil last Tuesday, eventually filling all of Molesworth Street and spilling out onto Dawson Street. They had come from as far away as West Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone and Donegal. Some had climbed into buses at six that morning with their protest banners, their effigies and their drums. Rural Ireland’s anti-on- shore wind farm and anti-pylon army was on the march.
Eighteen months ago in this paper I wrote the first piece suggesting that the attempted industrialisation of rural Ire- land by wind farmers and more lately by Eirgrid would create huge opposition. That has now come about as more and more communities are organising to prevent it happening. During that effort, rural Ireland has found in social media the sort of weapon that is energising citizen democracy and politics globally.
Watching the march go through Dublin city last tuesday one was above all else struck by the depths of the emotional crisis the onshore wind farmers and Eirgrid plans have created for these people. On the march they carried banners and posters bearing the names of their native places, their districts and their townlands. One huge banner read simply ‘Save the Moy Valley’. Imagine for a moment if pylons destroyed anything as unique?
It suddenly struck me that the wind farmers and Eirgrid — probably without realising it – have started a war on the most esoteric battleground imaginable. They are literally fighting rural Ireland on its ancient burial grounds. Its inhabitants’ sense of place and their passionate relationship with where they come from has always been the heartbeat of rural Ireland. Their bards and singers celebrate it; they bury their dead wrapped in its football and hurling jerseys; and who could deny it has been the defining and elemental force that powers the GAA? What we are talking about here is rural Ireland’s sense both of itself and of its historical legacy of dispossession.
To think that Eirgrid imagined it could take all this on with a room full of spin doctors and a cleverly rolled-out version of what was really intended, demonstrates how lamentably stupid – if not dysfunctional – this company is, in my opinion.
It’s a measure of its recent panic too that it has now resorted to claiming there will be a vast increase in electricity bills if the power lines are forced underground. That this public relations line has been carried and quoted unquestioningly by so many in my profession is in itself a measure of the wider failure of the Irish media to give this story the sort of clinical investigation it deserves. But then there won’t be any wind farms or pylons in the Dublin suburbs where most of them dwell.
Already there are large bits falling off the 2007 Eamon Ryan €30 billion energy bandwagon that initiated all of this. Last weekend, Britain finally walked away from the intended Midlands wind farm link-up. Energy thinking has moved on across the water. The onshore wind experiment has enraged communities to the point of serious political hazard and given the energy boom from fracking in the US, the David Cameron government is determined to follow that example.
But here in Ireland, despite the constantly and rapidly-changing global perspective on energy, we are stuck in a sort of 2007 stasis.
This week the Green propagandists were out singing the praises of the latest UN report on climate change which called for an increase in renewables, but few of them added that the UN report also called for an increase in fracking and nuclear energy. In Ireland no fracking is allowed (yet, anyway) and nuclear energy is illegal! (Don’t mention that a significant part of Ireland’s electricity is nuclear-generated in Britain)
What has fuelled the deepening rural anger is the way in which communities have been treated when they have sought to question what is happening to where they live. With the vast resources of government, money, public relations and an indifferent Irish media behind them, Eirgrid and the wind farmers have behaved without regard to anything except their own agenda.
It’ s an example of, again in my opinion, corporate bullying at its worst, where the real concerns of people have been treated variously as stupid, ridiculous, badly-informed or even simply none of their business.
If anything, the Minister for Energy has made all of this worse. Pat Rabbitte’s obvious impatience and his general aggressiveness around any discussion of the project have infuriated rural people. Maybe he has forgotten that all political power is local. When Labour’s local election count comes in in a few weeks time, he’ll be able to take a special bow.
In the meantime Rabbitte asked last Monday — in some exasperation – if any- one had any ideas about how he could update the Irish grid, if not through Eirgrid’s vast nationwide pylon project. Happily, this week I can tell the min ister that a group of former electrical network designers (many ex-ESB) have come up with a design that essentially utilises the existing electrical network, d including some parts that are still useable, but abandoned.
Their report has already been sent to Eirgrid. Now they are forwarding it to both Rabbitte and Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness (who is chairing the pylon inquiry). It suggests utilising the existing 220-volt corridors to take new double-circuit 220 -volt lines which will deliver 440 volts. This would actually deliver more voltage then Eirgrid’ s envisioned 400 volts. Critically, by doubling up on existing 220v lines the huge new 65 -meter-high pylons will not be needed.
Some of the group who spoke to me during the week said that from the outset they have watched Eirgrid consistently get everything wrong in their approach. They drew comparisons with the long years of the relationship between the FSB and rural Ireland which never descended into this type of fractious difficulty.
At this stage in the battle the question the minister has to face is whether communities all across this country, whose homes and communities will be devastated by huge pylons, have really no choice in the matter? Is it not outrageous to insist that it’s winner take-all here, that the choice is only between either a new grid with its legacy of vast amounts of social damage and environmental destruction, or huge potential economic damage if we do nothing at all?
Is there really no alternative? If the minister doubts that onshore wind farms and pylons will not impact on the value of family homes, then perhaps he might ask the mortgage companies why they have recently added the likely future presence of such structures as a new question on application forms?
Equally, the minister might also like to help out this weekend with the 2000 or so Midland farmers who originally signed contracts for prospective wind turbines – now cancelled – but now find that the control of all of their farm lands remains with the wind companies until the agreement expires in five years time.
It’s a busy job keeping abreast of the energy agenda these days. If you think this growing rural crisis has not the same potential for political fallout, just watch what happens in the May elections.
Tom McGurk, Sunday Business Post, 20 April 2014