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Irish Times: Ministers can’t play both sides in key projects

Irish Times: Ministers can’t play both sides in key projects

“The dispute between Shell and the residents of north Mayo spilled over into the British papers last week. With the clarity that observing something from a distance allows, the story was distilled down to the company being ordered by the Irish Government to dismantle a pipeline because it had been built illegally.”: It is not the sort of publicity that any company likes, particularly one with Shell’s sensitivities…”

John McManus

Aug 08, 2005

Business Opinion: The dispute between Shell and the residents of north Mayo spilled over into the British papers last week.

With the clarity that observing something from a distance allows, the story was distilled down to the company being ordered by the Irish Government to dismantle a pipeline because it had been built illegally.

The other key fact to be gleaned from the UK newspaper reports was that five local men are in jail in Ireland for opposing this apparently illegally built pipeline, the safety of which appears to be an issue, because the Government is ordering an independent inquiry.

It is not the sort of publicity that any company likes, particularly one with Shell’s sensitivities, and no doubt it contributed somewhat to the decision by Shell to extend an olive branch last week, when it put off the next stage of the project – the offshore pipeline – until next year.

It remains to be seen whether Shell’s gesture provides sufficient leeway for the Minster for Communications Noel Dempsey to broker a deal that will allow the five Mayo farmers to abandon their position while still retaining some dignity.

Regardless of what happens to the farmers, the concessions from Shell have underlined the continued existence of arguably the single biggest obstacle to the development of infrastructure in this State.

It is the general acceptance that, regardless of whether a project has been through all the legal hoops required to make sure that it is necessary, safe and environmentally acceptable, vested interests still have the right to object and to be bought off in some fashion – usually with the relevant Government minister acting as the go-between.

As Shell has learnt to its cost, it is all very well to get the Government – as represented by the Department of the Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, An Bord Pleanala and the rest – to back or at least approve of the your project. It is another thing entirely to expect the Government – as represented by Ministers – to back you up when your opponents decide that having not got the result they wanted through legal channels, they will proceed to obstruct your project.

The Mayo objectors are the latest in a not-so-proud tradition of this sort of behaviour. Their intransigence pales into insignificance when compared to the farming community – as represented by the Irish Farmers’ Association – which held the State to ransom over the national roads programme.

Its flat refusal to accept the same compulsory purchase terms that other taxpayers get held up the national roads plan for years and cost the exchequer millions more than it should.

The economic cost of the delays is still being felt, as will the economic fall-out from the Corrib saga.

The next verses in this litany of stupidity are already being written in Meath over the M3 and down in Cork, where Indaver is seeking to build an incinerator at Ringaskiddy.

Indaver is currently jumping through the same hoops as Shell – Environmental Protection Agency, etc – did over Corrib. The Indaver executives can do so in the certain knowledge that these are but formalities that entitle them to enter the next stage of the game. This is the bit where the various interest groups that oppose them ignore the legally binding views of the various State agencies set up to adjudicate on issues such as safety and environmental impact and decide to blockade the site, etc.

If past history is any guide, Indaver can expect no support from the Government whose agencies have given them the all clear and, if fact, should be prepared for the Government to side with the objectors. Given that two cabinet ministers – Micheal Martin and Willie O’Dea – have already indicated support for the Ringaskiddy objectors, the promoters of Indaver can take it to the bank that the Government will be of no use to them.

When viewed against this background the Government’s decision – on the recommendation of Environment Minster Dick Roche – to abandon the Critical Infrastructure Bill is an eminently pragmatic one. The Bill would have allowed for the fast-tracking of major projects over the various regulatory hurdles.

The net effect of the Bill would have been to speed up the day when the promoters of any major infrastructural projects had to engage in months, if not years, or guerilla warfare with local and vested interests. It might have saved a few months, but would have done nothing to really speed up projects.

Likewise, the Minster for Finance’s plan to create a “centre of expertise” to fast-track major building projects is likely to be a waste of time and effort. The new unit – to be located within the National Development Finance Agency (NDFA) – will be responsible for the assessment and management of projects before they are handed over to the relevant ministers.

But what exactly is the point of the NDFA breaking its heart to make sure that projects are going to come in on time and budget if the Minster in question is going to fold his tent at the first sign of some local pressure group opposing the project

What is needed is not yet another piece of legislation or another State agency: it is for Ministers to uphold the decisions of the State agencies charged with making sure that infrastructural projects fall within the law.

Until that happens, talk of another National Development Plan seems rather pointless.

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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