MINISTER MUST RESOLVE INTERCONNECTOR IMBROGLIO

9 March 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A man called Tigran Petrosian might have studied the debating positions of the representatives of EirGrid and the members of Monaghan Co Council who met in Carrickmacross on Monday for another exchange of views on the controversial north-south electricity interconnector project and nodded with approval.
One of the great Russian chess grandmasters of the Soviet era, Petrosian was not celebrated for the imagination or daring of his play, but was deeply esteemed, and greatly feared, by opponents for his unrivalled capacity to construct labyrinthine defensive positions of all but irresolvable complexity.
If the persuasive stratagems being pursued by the advocates and opposition to this important but now considerably protracted and insistently divisive project resemble the moves of a chess game, they have become enmeshed in a protracted tangle of irreconcilable argument that appears to be heading deep into stalemate.
Petrosian would be alone in his satisfaction with the imbroglio – for all other parties involved the situation is deeply frustrating.
For EirGrid, the State body entrusted with the delivery of the interconnector project by the Government, there has been no lessening in the tide of opposition to their insistence that the use of overhead cables is the only practical means of the development’s delivery.
For the affected communities who have banded together in a devotion of considerable voluntary effort and expense to convince the powers that be of the feasibility of an undergrounding option, little substantive ground seems to have been gained despite their assembly of evidence and sincerity of argument.
While some councillors who contributed to Monday’s debate gave the EirGrid representatives a measure of grudging credit for showing some movement in their position from that adopted at the commencement of their engagements on this issue, it was hard to discern a trajectory for the movement that takes them any closer to the position of the anti-pylon activists.
EirGrid spokesperson Andrew Cooke made patently clear that they still considered the 400kv AC overhead line method of delivery “the least costly and best technical option”, that a project involving the 100% undergrounding of cabling was impractical because of cost and technical reasons, and that a ‘hybrid’ solution employing both systems – and even then with undergrounding over only relatively short distances – did not have the requisite environmental justifications to be employed on this particular development.
Nor did it appear that the recently published report by an Expert Commission on the methods of implementation for the project had carried much persuasive weight with the EirGrid personnel, despite the case it appeared to make for the feasibility, if not the practicality, of the undergrounding alternative.
It was clear from Mr Cooke’s comments that EirGrid interpreted the report as giving only qualified endorsement to undergrounding as a possibility, and that they regarded even those findings as being compromised by a lack of supporting technical data and the testing via modelling of this option.
This position appeared to surprise and disturb some members of the Co Council to the extent that calls for an entirely new independent assessment were made.
It is unlikely that such a course of action would at this stage receive Ministerial sanction – and it is, we would respectfully argue, not in any way surprising that EirGrid remain unconvinced by any arguments the Commission might have presented that can be cited in favour of the undergrounding method of the project’s delivery.
They are deeply wedded to their position and have long had in their possession authoritatively sourced technical data which they are patently convinced is sufficient to negotiate their way through the arduous planning obstacle course that presents to them, notwithstanding their rather embarrassing slip at the hurdle of the initial An Bord Pleanala oral hearing.
From EirGrid’s perspective the production by the Commission of a report that to some degree might challenge their position is not a cause for them to surrender it – the report rather represents a conflicting opinion that they see as their task to challenge and refute.
The situation is akin to that arising in the judicial arena when senior counsel present to the court conflicting but well grounded and legislatively coherent bodies of argument on a point of law.
In that context it is for the learned presiding judge to consider the argument presented to him, strip it of its decorative dialectic and make a determination based on objective analysis and the precedents and dictates of justice.
In this case we do not have a judge in the legal sense to make the decision – but we do have a Minister for Communication, Energy and Natural Resources in the person of Pat Rabbitte TD, and it is this newspaper’s respectful suggestion that it is time for him to intervene.
Monaghan Co Council’s decision on Monday to seek a meeting with the Minister was therefore a good one – but such an audience, if it is granted, will only be useful if it avoids the blind alley of seeking another independent report and concentrates on convincing the Minister that he must take a determining role in the overgrounding vs. undergrounding argument.
The Minister might, understandably, be inclined to refuse this onerous laurel – and could suggest it is the function of An Bord Pleanala to decide whether the renewed EirGrid interconnector application passes muster when it eventually comes before it.
But we would argue that it lies in the Minister’s remit to make a crucial preliminary finding – whether EirGrid go to An Bord Pleanala with their preferred overgrounding approach, or whether they are directed, as a matter of policy by the Minister in consultation with his Cabinet colleagues, to discard this plan and prepare either a hybrid or totally undergrounded system of delivery that can then be tested in the planning realm as to its merits.
The Minister will be advantaged greatly in reaching his decision by the recent hearings on the Expert Commission report held by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Energy, at which detailed presentations were made by all parties who possess a stake in achieving resolution of this difficult issue.
And he would have the scope to give their due weight to the many social, environmental, health and aesthetic issues that surround the development, matters that were not within the remit given to the Expert Commission, but which are of vital importance to the many people in Co Monaghan who are deeply and genuinely concerned about the manner in which this project proceeds, and whose concerns in these regards have to date been given very deficient attention by EirGrid.
Monday’s meeting of minds between EirGrid and Monaghan Co Council may not have produced much in the way of movement, but it was informative in some regards – and was also conducted in a commendably less adversarial and more reasoned atmosphere than previous engagements between the parties.
For all the concomitant frustrations that can surround it, it is important that this channel of communication is kept open and regularly refreshed.
But it is of considerably greater importance that Minister Rabbitte now acts to intervene before a defining issue for the future nature and quality of life for residents in many communities in our county plunges even further into stalemate.

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