THE INTERCONNECTOR – POLITICAL ANTE NOW PYLON-HIGH!

29 October 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The politicisation of the issues raised by EirGrid’s plans to construct their North-South electricity interconnector project using overhead pylons is a process that has been ongoing for some time.

The outcomes of last Wednesday night’s public information meeting convened by the Co Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee in Aughnamullen should therefore be viewed more as a potent accelerant to the process rather than its instigator – a slow-burning Hallowe’en firework that will cast scintillating sparks of speculation into the air the closer we come to the finalisation of the date for the imminent General Election.

Since its instigation, this project has been innately political in the broader sense, touching, as it does on concerns over the trend of national energy policy and how both civic and civil society interact with the environment in an age when accentuated consciousness of our planet’s ecological fragility is being constantly urged upon us.

As another significant event which took place in our circulation area demonstrated – Friday’s climate change conference in Monaghan Town – there are strong and clashing views in our public discourse on the technological solutions being deployed to address energy needs.

While the concerns of those in Co Monaghan whose life and livelihoods will be significantly affected by the use of pylons to realise the interconnector development are in one sense particular and parochial, they also embrace environmental arguments for which there is a significant and burgeoning public sympathy.

The anti-pylon lobby has always insisted it is not against development – their favouring of the infrastructure of the EirGrid project being undergrounded stems, they say, from their wish to avoid the landscape being despoiled by what Monaghan Co Councillor Seamus Coyle has come to regularly refer to as “monstrosities”.

The threatened rupture of our drumlin-fringed skyline by pylons, in a county which has been making some purposeful attempts of late to shake off its Cinderella status as a player in the tourism sphere, conjures a lowering image.

When the picture is embellished by the persistent health concerns that attach to the electromagnetic fields generated by such structures, a force of argument forms around the anti-pylon campaign that extends its reach into the consciousness of all those inclined to a “green” way of thinking, whether they live in the shadow of the proposed development or not.

How we address our energy needs is therefore of general and abiding political concern – to what degree we need to has also become a moot point in the argument.

The projections used by EirGrid to validate the scale of its plans for major expansion of the national electricity grid have come to be undermined by opponents as no longer being accurate as they were conceived at a time of economic boom.

But at the present time we are no longer as tightly bound by the manacles of austerity as we have lately been. The tentative progress in the direction of economic recovery we are seeing surely demands some provision for increased energy demand to cater for growth in industrial and commercial activity – a more restrained revision of the EirGrid forecast rather than a complete rejection of it is therefore required.

To some extent the significant altering of course of the GridWest and GridLink proposals can be seen as a reflection of this revision process – that the same reimagining of the North-South development has not taken place is hard to reconcile in this context, and continues to feed the enmity and suspicion that has denoted the stance of principled public activism taken up in opposition to it in its current form.

With all these combustible forces in play, the potential for some party political detonation of the issue the closer we got to a General Election was high – and the blue touch paper was certainly lit at last week’s Aughnamullen meeting.

The threat by Fine Gael whip on Monaghan Co Council and Cathaoirleach of the Ballybay-Clones Municipal District Hugh McElvaney to resign from the party he has served as a local public representative for 41 years if a delegation is not met by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the interconnector issue was of itself sufficient to up the political ante considerably.

The veteran councillor is renowned as a straight talker and a straight dealer and the higher echelons of his party will know that this is no idle threat.

The vista it opens up on an election’s eve for Fine Gael is one they will not wish to contemplate long without reacting to shut it. The sad and sudden death last year of Colr Owen Bannigan, a forceful lobbyist for the anti-pylon argument, and the subsequent resignation from Monaghan Co Council for career reasons of his son and successor Eugene, has deprived the party in the Mid-Monaghan area of a figurehead around whom community feeling on this issue could naturally coalesce. Were the same area to be shorn of its FG figurehead, the resultant vacuum could have all sorts of negative implications for the party’s General Election aspirations. The filling of the currently vacant FG seat on Monaghan Co Council seems to assume accentuated significance against this backdrop.

The pressure exerted on sitting Cavan/Monaghan FG TD and Government Minister Heather Humphreys at the Aughnamullen meeting will also not have gone unobserved in the party eyrie.

While Deputy Sean Conlan has long been closely associated with the anti-pylon lobby, being active in the cause even before his advent onto the national political stage, Deputy Humphreys has pursued a more nuanced stance on the issue. Her attempt to carefully measure sympathy with the concerns of her constituents with support for the Government’s energy policies has become a finer balancing act since she attained Ministerial office.

The mood of last Wednesday’s meeting hinted that for some nuance has strayed into the realm of ambiguity – not a kingdom in which politicians customarily reign for long.

If the signals being sent in the Minister’s direction were not clear enough, the possibility opened up at the meeting of an independent candidate entering the General Election field in anti-pylon colours surely made them patent.

For those affected by it, the interconnector issue is as deeply meaningful as the future of Monaghan General Hospital once was to the county as a whole – and when that issue was at its height, the Cavan/Monaghan political landscape was upheaved by the entry of a strong independent candidate into the national electoral fray.

In Co Monaghan, the pylons issue is suddenly intimately and intensely political. EirGrid will surely be hoping that it soon passes out of that uncertain testing ground and into the more measurable territory of a public oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála into their planning application for the North-South project.

But if that process commences as expected early next year, it is likely to be played out against a very colourful political backcloth, one in which the stakes have been risen pylon-high by the chips thrown onto the table in Aughnamullen last week.

Even at this late stage, the proponents of the interconnector could well be thinking: Do we stick, or do we twist?

 

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