Constituency interests and ministerial responsibility: Gormley, Poolbeg and the politics of transparency

David Farrell, July 5, 2010

In a letter in today’s Irish Independent, a correspondent writes of how the “obsessive behaviour” of Mr Gormley:

“has become more than just an embarrassment to the Government, it has become a dangerous impediment to this country’s economic recovery and the creation of much-needed jobs. Along with business leaders, United States Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney has expressed his amazement at Mr Gormley’s repeated attempts to put the Poolbeg incinerator development on the back burner.
He has become so incensed and frustrated by the obstinacy of the Environment Minister that he has demanded a face-to-face meeting with him to explain why he continues to drag his feet over procedures for a project that already has full planning permission.
Meanwhile, 600 jobs that have the potential to take thousands of family members out of the poverty trap are on the line while Gormley continues to frustrate Covanta’s efforts to get things up and running….”

This letter raises important questions about whether it is appropriate for Mr Gormley to be left in charge of this decision.

The basic facts of the matter are as follows.

  1. Mr Gormley, in his capacity as a constituency TD in Dublin South East, has campaigned long and hard against the proposed Poolbeg incinerator. In this matter he has been entirely open and consistent in his policy position, prepared at every stage to express his forthright views about the economics and environmental consequences of the Poolbeg project.  Whether one agrees with him or not on this matter, the clarity and consistency of his position cannot be denied.  All fine so far.
  2. However, as it happens, Mr Gormley is now the Minister for the Environment, on whose desk this proposal now sits. This opens up a clear instance of conflict of interest — a point made by Stephen Collins in a recent piece in the Irish Times.  Collins observes:

“The project, first mooted over a decade ago, has been approved by An Bord Pleanála, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Development Finance Agency and the Department of the Environment itself. Site clearance work is complete but, before it can proceed, a foreshore licence is required for the construction of a water cooling system. Dublin City Council first lodged an application for a foreshore licence almost two years ago and until it is issued the US developer of the project, Covanta Energy, will not be able to proceed. All the preliminary work on the licence has been done and the paperwork has been sitting on the Minister’s desk for months but no decision has emerged.”

The Green Party have always made much of their desire to promote “new politics” in Ireland, yet here we have a situation where the leader of that party is open to the charge of abusing his position of ministerial power to service narrow constituency interests. Hardly a great example for the rest of us.

15 thoughts on “Constituency interests and ministerial responsibility: Gormley, Poolbeg and the politics of transparency

  1. In the general context of political reform, are you suggesting that Ministers should be debarred from making decisions on matters that involve or affect their own constituencies?

  2. If the process involved was transparent and accepted as being so, then it shouldn’t matter. The fact that there are questions to be answered implies the process is not transparent – as is the norm when it comes to decisions like this in the Irish context.

  3. Tying in with what amounts to almost an almost hysterical level of anti-Green Party discourse amongst the media and members of the commentariat, I think the NIMBYist accusations being thrown against John Gormley here do not amount to much. The reality is that the Green Party are against incineration as a means of waste disposal everywhere and not just in their own constituencies, whereas other ministers/former ministers (Martin, McDowell) have opposed incinerators in their own constituencies while essentially upholding the use of incinerators as part of their own government’s policy. Given Gormley’s well-stated opposition to incineration, it would be political hypocrisy for him not to do his utmost to oppose this development, or specific elements of it which would define Dublin waste management strategy along less sustainable lines for future generations. As such, legislation and the provisions of the 1996 Waste Management Act are largely tying his hands already – otherwise this development would no doubt have been shelved already That this development is based in his constituency is largely irrelevant here – his actions are not for the sake of earning him political kudos; indeed the fact that the development has progressed further in the past few years while he is minister (albeit with his hands tied legally) means that no matter what he does in the next two years he will expect to suffer a negative reaction around this issue the next time polling takes place in Dublin South East. Talk of 600 jobs I view as highly cynical and any of these jobs (which will undoubtedly be fewer than 600) would only be short-term construction jobs; ultimately this development is about generating profit for the operators and the manner in which it is carries out will reflect this. My only criticism of Gormley, who I still view as a well-meaning, though politically naive (and is this really a bad thing?), minister is that he has not managed to push through a revision of the 1996 Waste Management Act, which could hhave given the anti-incineration movement added teeth and also enshrined in law newer and more ecological developments in the field of waste management (which ultimately could create more stable employment than that promised by the Poolbeg development).

  4. Adrian is right – Gormley’s stance is pretty clear and consistent (even if it’s questionable). And ministers will always have to make decision that affect their own constituencies. It would seem unreasonable and impractical to debar ministers from decision making affecting the people that vote for them. Would it not be contrary to representative government?
    But it does point to the problems with ‘double-jobbing’. Ministers are suppose to make decision for the whole country. They are responsible to the Dáil to do this. But in reality they are held accountable only by the voters in their own constituency (as Gormley knows well), and this will affect their decisions. Separating the role of minister from the role of parliamentary representative 9by selecting ministers from outside the Dáil or making ministers resign their seats) would make the Dáil more likely to hold ministers to account and remove this problem of dual -principals.

  5. Eoin’s point is well made. If John Gormley has a conflict of interest here, then it’s a systemic conflict which arises from our system of government, and which has presumably applied to every Minister to a greater or lesser extent.

    I’m not sure what characteristics of the present case raise it into a special category.

  6. Don’t want to be either way but this my brief take on the Ministers view.
    Minister John Gormley’s aspirations of 70% recycling, and waste disposal through MBT, are true aspirations. With a small population, Ireland can never hope to reach continently standards of recycling. Germany and other large countries struggle to reach 50%-60%, Ireland has low waste output and poor infrastructure, making waste recycling very expensive. Minister Gormley’s other claim about MBT waste processing lacks detail analysis, MBT processing produces some of the worst odor problems in the world and if used in Ireland would find plenty of NIMBY. Also MBT plants are slow in processing and tend to be small necessitating more transport and storage, electricity can be produced from MBT plants but only low voltage, individual plants would not be able to power themselves. Wanted to be green but not with Gormley in power.

  7. On reflection Ireland might reach 70% recycling because of the recession with the reuse, and lower production of packaging. But I think it might be more to do with people avoiding the cost of disposal. People get rid of waste illegally and when waste volumes decreases the Minister claims success
    It is very easy for the minister to use shaky facts for his denial/not accepting reality about Irish waste.

  8. I’ve had a direct approach from a Green party member who asks me to clarify my position. I prefer to continue the debate on this forum rather than by email and have advised my correspondent accordingly. Here’s an attempt to set out my position a bit more clearly.

    I have no particular beef on whether or not allowing Poolbeg to proceed is a ‘good decision’. All I know on that (as a taxpayer) is that if the press reports (which are consistent in saying that Mr Gormley is acting inappropriately) are correct, then we could face a nasty bill at the end of this.

    My point is quite simple. We have serious problems with out political system, among them problems of lack of accountability and transparency. The Green party has made much of the need for good governance. We have a particularly difficult case here of a decision that has potentially huge financial implications for this state. The decision not only has national implications, but also affects the constituency that Mr Gormley represents. He is on record in stating his objections to it proceeding, and by all signs is doing all in his power to ensure that it doesn’t (despite the fact that it appears that pretty much all other relevant bodies are in favour of it proceeding). As we can readily see, as Minister for the Environment he has a key role in determining the fate of this process.

    In short, we have a case of conflict of interest. Eoin O’Malley is right to say that we have to allow for such conflicts of interest from time to time, but: (1) this is a highly significant case with important financial ramifications and (2) this is a politician representing a party that supposedly prioritises good governance. And, ultimately, (3) why can’t we institute procedures to ensure that, where genuine concerns are raised about conflicts of interest, the minister in question can follow a set of steps to ensure that there can be no doubt that the decision that is taken is truly in the interests of the state and not of his/her party.

    Mr Gormley places a lot of store on sticking to his principles regarding Poolbeg. Why can’t he also stick to his principles regarding good governance: i.e. set an example?

  9. Thanks for your reply David.

    On your third point, ‘why can’t we institute procedures to ensure that, where genuine concerns are raised about conflicts of interest, the minister in question can follow a set of steps to ensure that there can be no doubt that the decision that is taken is truly in the interests of the state and not of his/her party’, this is an interesting suggestion. What might these steps look like? Presumably Gormley believes that the proliferation of incinerators isn’t detrimental to his party per se but to the state. I’m not sure that he, or any other Minister could ever objectively satisfy your ‘best interests of the state’ condition, simply because the notion of ‘best interests of the state’ is contested- that is why we have different political parties advocating different visions of society.

    I’m inclined to think that, as Eoin suggested above, separating the role of minister from the role of parliamentary representative would be a tidier and less ambiguous solution to this problem, as well as solving a host of other problems in the process.

    One fact that seems to get lost in the media coverage of this issue is that Green policy has consistently been against incineration for years.
    In the media commentary on this, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the potential financial implications of Gormley’s efforts to undermine the incinerator, in terms of lawsuits and fines. Conversely, little or no discussion has taken place as to the long-term implications for Ireland’s waste management infrastructure. Surely this is of greater significance than a ‘nasty fine’ arising from a breach of contract lawsuit?

    This is so much more than a case of a self-serving Minister attempting to impress his constituents. This is a struggle for the future of how we deal with our waste.

    Admittedly, whilst this struggle plays itself out, we’re left without a comprehensive and sustainable solution, opening us up to the prospect of EU fines for over-reliance on landfill. This is not a good position to be in, but again, the Green argument that this is a decisive moment for waste management in Ireland and that if we are to reverse course from an incineration-dominated policy it must happen now makes sense, even if you disagree with their argument about incineration.

    David, your central issue that the Minister is ‘open to the charge of abusing his position of ministerial power to service narrow constituency interests.’ is deeply unfair. You acknowledge yourself that Gormley himself has been consistent on this issue, and indeed it has been longstanding Green policy to oppose incineration. Not just in South Dublin, but nationwide.
    I think a far more important issue is the issue of appropriate governance.
    I feel that it would have been much more appropriate for the Greens to negotiate for a full-scale revamp of waste management policy within a Programme for Government rather than Gormley attempt to undermine incineration and reorient policy in a piecemeal way by using his various ministerial powers. I feel that David is correct that as a Green who espouses a desire for transparency, accountability and good governance, Gormley’s behaviour in this case is questionable- although understandable.

    Gormley does not wish to be party to a waste management infrastructure that goes against his party’s core beliefs. In that context, is it not inevitable that he would seek to use his ministerial powers to effect change? From a more philosophical point of view, you could ask the question: What is the higher responsibility of a Minister- following his own personal and/or party convictions, or complying with decisions he feels to be against the national interest?

    Part of the answer may be that ministerial powers need to be more closely vetted and reduced if necessary. I believe that fundamental reform is required in our political institutions, as well as massive reform in accountability, transparency, and preventing conflicts of interest. Yet, in this particular case, I think it would be a mistake to reduce it to soundbites. There are nuances here, and black or white positions are unhelpful (such as headlines decrying the postponement of jobs at the incinerator site).

    There are plenty of difficult questions here, and few easy answers- but I think it’s a really positive and interesting debate to have.

  10. Another way of approaching this issue is to ask is this yet another case arbitrary interference by a member of Government?

    At the start, we should note that the Revised Programme for Government (October 2009) states

    • We will adopt and implement a new Waste Policy following the completion of
    the current review.
    • We will develop and implement a Food Waste Strategy, with the goal of
    reducing the waste of fresh food through public education and other
    • We will use a resource management approach to waste and embed resource
    recovery and sustainable production and consumption systems in waste policy,
    leading to increased employment and new opportunities for business.
    • We will place a cap on incineration capacity to prevent waste being drawn to
    incineration which could otherwise have gone to recycling, having regard to
    the recommendations of the International Review of Waste Policy.
    • We will use producer responsibility to reduce levels of the packaging waste
    that is generated and increase the target for recycling of such waste to 75% by
    2013, in line with the recommendations of the International Review of Waste

    Click to access Renewed_Programme_for_Government,_October_2009.pdf

    1) Are we to take from the silence of other members of the Government that John Gormley is simply implementing this policy?

    2) Is this policy “new” in so far as it differs, at least in wording from the Programme for Government agreed after the 2007 election, set out here see p.22

    Click to access Eng_Prog_for_Gov.pdf

    3) Or are we seeing another minority party in Government hi-jack what appeared to be settled policy, in so far as very serious (and expensive) steps have been taken to build an incincerator?

    4) Is this yet another case of government by whimsical interference in what was settled, regardless of cost to the Exchequer and thus to us?

    We have been here before eg. the made up contorversy over the height of the Dublin Port Tunnel, LUAS.

    As an example – in some boring detail – I will give an account of LUAS, as this is still a live issue in that An Bord Pleanala’s public consultation on “joining the dots” as Ciaran Cuffe put it, is currently under way. (

    The summary of what follows is that the dots will not be joined as far as passengers are concerned, despite the promise made in the 2007 programme for government and the absence of the same committment in the Oct 2009 revision.

    During the 1990s, the policy of having a Light Rail Transit (LRT – now known as LUAS) running on-street in Dublin was developed and adopted.
    In the 1997 General Election, FF promised to commission a study to review this policy. On entering Government with the PDs, the relevant Minister Mary O’Rourke commissioned a study on whether the LRT should be underground in the city centre or on-street. She reassured the Dail twice that she would follow the study’s recommendations.

    The PDs has no specific transport or environmental policies for the 1997 General Election.

    In the interval, there was a by-election in Dublin North, caused by Ray Burke’s resignation as a TD.

    For this election, the PD’s then produced a transport policy for Dublin. This advocated putting the LRT underground in the city centre. Of the 30 pages, a little over one page was devoted to an economic analysis which did not contain any calculations. In other respects, the document was so poorly researched that it ignored some major aspects of Dublin Transport options – which were in the public domain.

    In May 1998, it seems that this document was central to the Government decision to build two separate LRT lines, which do not interconnect and are not planned to interconnect for passenger carrying operations, on current plans, see below.

    What does it say about the cast of mind of those who design and build railway lines that do not interconnect during hte first 10 years of the 21st Century? Note that many of the same people are in Cabinet advocating a Smart Economy.

    Ciaran Cuffe did argue forcibly for “joining the dots” of the two separate LUAS lines. As can be seen from the existing Railway Procurement Agency (RPA) proposal for Line BXD (Stephen’s Green to Broombridge, via O’Connell Street), the policy is not to interconnect the Red and Green lines for passenger service purposes – ie passenger will have to change to a different LUAS tram – just as they will if Metro North is built!!!

    “This northbound single track line crosses O’Connell Bridge and then travels along the west edge of the centre median on O’Connell Street Lower. The track crosses the Luas Red Line tracks at Abbey Street where an engineering link (for occasional use by trams out of service) is provided between the two lines. The proposed O’Connell – GPO stop will be located on the median between Prince’s Street North and Abbey Street, allowing passenger interchange between the proposed line and the Luas Red Line.

    From Parnell Street to St. Stephen’s Green West
    Leaving O’Connell Street Upper, the single track line enters Parnell Street to the proposed Parnell stop. The line then turns south into Marlborough Street…..The line then crosses the existing Luas Red Line (where an engineering link is provided between the two lines) and continues south and into the west side of Marlborough Street to Eden Quay……The single track route then rejoins the double track line at College Green.”

    see here

    Despite waste management being a part of the 2007 and 2009 Programmes for Government, I find the similarities with the “joining of the LUAS dots” on/off policy striking.

    Why do we allow our governments to continuously waste money, brains and time undoing things to which considerable resources have already been used to arrive at badly needed solutions, however imperfect these may be, to issues that assail us?

    Many of these issues need consistent work and applied over time – measured in years often longer than the lifespan of any normal government. They are not things that can be changed by the simple steps that we users take when changing documents using word processors or spreadsheets what-ifs.

  11. “Despite waste management being a part of the 2007 and 2009 Programmes for Government, I find the similarities with the “joining of the LUAS dots” on/off policy striking.

    Why do we allow our governments to continuously waste money, brains and time undoing things to which considerable resources have already been used to arrive at badly needed solutions, however imperfect these may be, to issues that assail us?”

    Everytime I hear Gormley’s idiot statement that his “Hands are tied”
    I get more annoyed. The Greens decided to go into Government as the
    Junior coalition partner with Fianna Fáil. This resulted in the
    loss of high-profile (mostly women candidates, Mc Kenna, Maher,
    De Burca), it also imo resulted in a split between the Pariamentary
    party and the ordinary membership. I am opposed to that incinerator
    BTW but the fact of the matter is they agreed a programme for Government
    with a party that is on the brink of huge EU fines, has not transposed
    The Aaarhus Convention into Irish Law (and has no intention of so doing)
    and that under the SIB 2006 has instituted developer-led policy in
    planning legislation along with a sweeping restructuring of our courts.

    Fianna Fáil will continue these policies with or without a green
    fig-leaf to cover the fact that they are the planning party and
    have continued thusly, quite simply because the Greens have
    propped them. If the average voter is aware of these issues
    which are a matter of public record , especially the Strategic
    Infrastructure Bill , then one would hope that Gormley , who
    led his party in Government with FF is also aware. maybe he
    feels he can work with a party who cherrypick laws to suit
    development concerns, who knows?

  12. This is the SIB (June 16th 2006) in which elements
    of the Aarhus Convention were transposed onto the
    Irish Statute : (the link is to Seanad Doc)

    It is mostly remembered because the FF faithful were
    at the burial of Charles J Haughey and the Bill was
    introduced into the Dáil (Sponosred ny Mc Dowell).
    Michael Ring gave an impassioned speech against it,
    particularising the envisaged restructuring of the
    Irish Courts to accomodate the developer lobby.

    This link explains the Aarhus Convention -elements
    of which were transposed into Irish law as part
    of the SIB :

    That means that it was chopped up to suit the aims
    of the previous FF/PD Govt in Planning, whilst
    the Greens had made the Aarhus Convention part
    of their framework for Govt (!)

    I was at the Launch of the SIB (at Environ) and
    asked why the raft of planning laws, with no
    separate commitment (or laws) for protections/
    Aarhus transposition/Heritage preservation ? To my mind, it does
    not appear to be high on the agenda of any Govt
    to ensure that laws on civil society/protest
    or habitat directives are ensured in our legislation.

    Planning is wholly geared toward reducing civil input
    into planning through hackneyed approaches to
    issues like Aarhus (or if you will- evsiceration
    of Conventions and directives).

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