Full Interview: Inside the Mind of John Gormley

The following is the full transcript of Tony Lowes’ interview with John Gormley, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. To see the version as it was published in Village’s March-April edition, click here.


John Gormley
John Gormley

The interview took place in a Cork restaurant with The Ministers’ Private Secretary, Eddie, his Press Officer Liam Reid, and Senator Dan Boyle; and lasted almost 2 hours. A supplementary session was held by phone on the following Monday morning. The total transcript was more than 13,000 words and the publication limit 3,800, so much material was omitted and is published here for the first time.


TL: What drives John Gormley?

JG: What motivates me you mean? Its been something I’ve done, been involved I suppose for Environmental Politics and environmental campaigning and I see myself – believe it or not – as a campaigner who happens now to be a politician.

. I’ve been involved for 28 years and the motivation I suppose to begin with is that Green Politics is based on common sense and when you look around and see what has occurred you see so much you would regard as not making sense, as being irrational. I suppose that drives me on – it just doesn’t make sense.

TL: Does it make you angry?

JG: Very much so. But I suppose I have tempered my anger to try and channel it. You have to – I mean anger is quite destructive. It doesn’t do anything except get your emotion out – you have to channel it and do something with it. And I came to the conclusion that as a campaigner you end up in lobbying politicians; we said to ourselves as Greens and we all started off – and we had no political experience at all – we were political neophytes – we said the only way we could exercise any power or exert any influence was to become involved in the political process, as flawed as that political process is but I know We have achieved more in the last two-and-a-half years than we did in all our time in opposition – that you have to use that energy and that discontent to bring about change.

I suppose too I’ve seen it over the years. And what motivates me as well is my interest in nature. Where I grew up was on the banks of the Shannon – you could swim – all sorts of fish – salmon, pike, bream, perch, the whole lot. And that river subsequently was destroyed by pollution. That to me is shameful, and the focal indictment of us as a species that we would allow things likes that to occur. I’ve always had that interest in nature – and if we lose that – we allowed it to happen over the years – we’ve lost something special, something very integral to our lives – I suppose that’s another element as well, if I was to analysis it.

TL: Do you think our society turned its back on nature as it changed from the 1950s?

J: I don’t know if that’s intentional. I don’t know if anyone makes a decision and says I’m going to turn my back on nature. But it happens as a consequence of an economic system and of a way of conducting out lives that is destructive of nature and I think certainly as a consequences of that we have seen the destruction of habitats and species and we have allowed it to happened. We have allowed it to happen at an alarming rate in this country and one of the things that we have and it doesn’t get much play  – this is the year of Biodiversity as you know – biodiversity just doesn’t figures as a political concept but the rate but to me biodiversity is as important as climate change and they are both very much interlinked but biodiversity the loss of biodiversity is quite alarming, and that surely is also the canary in the coal mine you know that it can’t sustain those weights of loss of biodiversity and have a secure future for the human species – so I certainly feel the irony – the irony is that because I work so hard as a politician I don’t really get chance to enjoy nature any more.

TL: If we pulled out an example of that – the raised bogs and turf cutters. This is a pretty classic case and its one that’s entirely in your hands. I saw you in the Dail actually saying that this derogation is entirely awarded to ourselves.

JG: Yes indeed

TL: A third of our raised bogs have disappeared since the Habitats Directive came into force in 1998 to protect them. Are you going to stop this?

JG: You know it saddens me to see that level of destruction. The difficulty in this country is this so-called ‘attachment to the land’, which is enshrined in the Constitution – ‘my land and I’ll do whatever I like with it’. Right. What we need to recognise is the ‘common good’, which is also in our constitution.

There is now an organisation called ‘Rise!’ trying to make out that we are trying to undermine rural life style – that we’re banning angling and shooting: no we’re not; that we’re trying to stop all turf cutting:  no we’re not; that we’re trying to stop building houses everywhere – no we are not. To my disappointment members of the opposition have not been responsible because what they have put out there is that someone how we want to stop people cutting on all the bogs – and that isn’t the case. We need to get that message out there – that this is only 32 bogs that we’re going to protect.  But the bottom line is – to answer your question – the bogs have to be protected because that’s my commitment – but it’s also something we have to do, legally.

TL: Have you actually been refused compensation? Have you gone to your own party let alone Fine Gael or and asked the Minister for Finance and Taoiseach is you can have compensation?

JG: Well there’s different ways of compensation – there can be land can be given to people. You can do this in a number of different ways. It’s not just about money. If people are interested – I mean the question is…

TL: Does that mean there has been a ‘no’ to money?

JG: No, no – the Report hasn’t come back to me – I genuinely haven’t seen this Report yet – it’s not a question of no to money. It a question of how can we do this – some people have been cutting turf and some people haven’t – so you have to look at each case on a case by case basis.

TL: You feel you’ve done a lot since you came into power?

JG Look, electorally we’ve paid a huge price, there’s no doubt about that. We had a disastrous election. That happens. I mean look in the United States you have Obama – marvellously charismatic leader – goes in – as soon as he goes in he’s criticised – and our problem is the same as the Democrats – there are people who are Democratic supporters who feel that Obama is not doing enough and there are Republicans who say he is doing too much. We’re in the same – we’re verifying much in the same area – you know we can guarantee that Obama will suffer in the mid-term elections – we suffered in out mid-term elections. We had a disastrous election. Why? Because we are in Government. We are in Government in recession and we’re in Government with Fianna Fail who have been seen as the cause of some of these difficulties.  That’s being very blunt with you – that is – I don’t think any people would disagree with that analysis. But having said that could we have achieved what we have achieved – no we could not.

TL: What are the big things you feel you have achieved?

JG: Well you can go to our website it’s a long, long list – but I suppose the ones people are familiar with are the introduction of the carbon levy – I don’t think that would have happened – and its absolutely necessary – there’s the new Planning legislation which is currently going through the house – there’s the new building regulations – there’s the whole question in Eamon’s department in the investment in renewable energy, there’s a whole – I can give you the list – but sometimes people get bored when you list the stuff we have done – even small things that people don’t recognise – like we now have an environmental pillar of social partnership – now that is there and its there forever so that those environmental and sustainability decision are integrated into the way we do business in this country  from here on out – that would not have happened without our participation in Government – I suppose across other areas that are of importance to us as a party – the emphasis on education – the reversal of the educational cuts which took place as part of renewed programme for government.

Of course there’s the Climate Change Bill coming up, there’s the new animal welfare legislation which has been the subject of complaints – that’s happening – I suppose it could be seen as controversial but things that are supposed to happen for years – like the public grounds of decision [?] which I will introducing now which is going through the Senate just we’re bringing a fresh and new perspective to Government that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

TL: The other general question is that the quality of life where I was a indicator aren’t being given the importance in irish society and in decision making in the process of Government.

JG: Its not just quality of life indicators. We should have had the National Development Plan scrutinised – SEA, climate, and the whole lot –whatever – it wasn’t done. That was wrong. So we have to look at all of our decisions now as we go forward and they have to be in my view climate proofed we have to look at their impact on the environment. Quality of life indicators yes – this is now becoming more in focus becoming mainstream. I think there is now a recognition that this is necessary and I would be confident that we can certainly move in that direction and that more and more Government decisions will be taken in light of those other factors and you look at the externalities and you say how is this going to affect people quality of life. There is recognition for example now in the Residential Guidelines that I introduced which have to be abided by because of the new planning legislation that the sort of development that we saw where houses were built and there was no access to public transport no access to educational facilities, no access to crèches, people being isolated, people living in badly constructed houses with very poor  insulation – I think there’s a recognition that was a huge mistake and that can’t happen  because people’s quality of life was affected. So there’s no point saying oh you’ve got a job but you have to commute two hours up to Dublin. Your quality of life has been diminished completely as a consequence e of that and that is more and more recognised now as a subject for debate.

TL: I think that raises the issue of the enforcement of the National Spatial Strategy and the Regional Planning Guidelines [the much-flouted documents aspiring to make local planning comply with national policy].

JG: In relation to the Guidelines that I have issued they will have to be adhered to.

TL: ‘Adhered to’ isn’t the phrase that used in the legislation.

JG: ‘Consistent with’. The problem is that up to now that we have had a phrase ‘have regard to’. But we’ve discovered this phrase is problematical so we’ve had to change it to ‘consistent with’.

We have a problem in this country with enforcement full stop. Right? We have a problem with enforcement of speed limits. Enforcement of parking fines – across the board.

Should we have environmental courts? I do believe we should. We have Judges who are well versed in environmental law on 100% of the issues and can act accordingly – because very often, with no disrespect to members of the judiciary, some of the judges don’t understand the issues that are being debated.

I think there is a clear split between the judiciary and the government and obviously when people go into court the judge will side with the person that has very often transgressed.

TL: You have referred to your high-profile interventions in County Development Plans – Monaghan, Waterford, Mayo etc – but it’s not enough to intervene noisily here and there when what is required is intervention EVERYWHERE – for example Meath alone recently approved 15 Local Area Plans which provided for excessive rezoning in breach of their own County Development Plan. Otherwise are you not staying silent in face of old-style anti-planning?

JG: You are correct, there has been widespread irresponsible planning. And can I say this – it’s not just the Councillors that have been involved in this – the officials have also behaved in a way which is not in keeping very often with good planning practice and you’d be aware of that.

Under the current laws I cannot intervene in local area plans. The new legislation I believe will address this. Under the legislation each local authority will have to review their Development Plans and consequently local area plans within 18 months of the publication of new Regional Planning Guidelines. They will be required to amend zoning plans to comply with the latest guidelines. So what you are seeking in your question will happen.

TL: What about enforcing the law on Quarries? The registration process in the 2000 Planning act has proved unenforceable and there are quarries operating without regulation or payment of levies.

JG: There are political difficulties because the Local Authority and the quarry-owners will tell you that, say, 25 men are being employed here. They will give lots of excuses.

 We are bringing forward committee-stage amendments to the current planning bill to deal with that, so that we can ensure the conditions are enforceable. That’s going to happen.

If they didn’t have their EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] they would have to be shut down – and I’ll give you a list of them if you want. I’ll show you my address to the Concrete Federation – I was very blunt with them.

TL: What about enforcing the law on Quarries? The registration process in the 2000 Planning act has proved unenforceable and there are quarries operating without regulation or payment of levies.

JG: Well that’s a difficulty. You are saying what are they in contravention then?

TL: They supplied inaccurate information to the Council in the registration process and there’s nothing you can do about it.

JG: If they are in compliance – I mean are you saying they don’t have planning permission or they don’t have an EIS what is the difficulty.

JG: For example they registered the quarry when there wasn’t even a quarry of that scale – they may not even have owned the land basically gave false information to the CC which was never checked at the time and unless you came in at that time there is nothing you can retrospectively. The councils have told us that it not up to them to check this information when it came in unless there was a complaint received from the public.

JG: And then I suppose the question then is why have the public not complained?

TL: Have you lived in rural Ireland and tried to complain about a planning issue?

JG: Yeah, yeah.

TL: People have complained but nothing happens. It’s an ethics issue with the councils. Are they obliged to check these things, are they allowed to purchase from quarries that are not paying their contributions. That issue has been left hanging out there.

JG: It says that authorities can also restate modify or add conditions for quarries that have received 5 years before the commencement of Section 261 – but your point is that they are not doing that they are not doing that – they are not modifying them that they are not taking the necessary …

TL: They are not modifying them and they are not enforcing them.

LR: These is one but this in the background because I’d have to check but they are looking at essentially trying to get an independent agency possibly the office of environmental enforcement to come in – because of essentially the weakness that you have identified. So its to try and get a system that is robust enough so that you will have people who are actually going to enforce it and enforce it properly but I think its asking another agency to take that on – and its somewhat outside the remit they have in the act at the moment which is to – so your going onto a planning area they have never been involved. But that issue is being examined proactively at the moment.

JG: We are bringing forward committee stage amendments to the planning bill to deal with that – Section 261 – so that we can ensure the conditions are enforceable and the failure to abide by the conditions attached will render the development unauthorised. That’s going to happen.

TL: But there’s still nothing to stop a local authority from purchasing from an unauthorised development.

JG: No, hold on. This is a –  ‘that LA should refrain from doing business with companies or individuals when they have outstanding planning or legal difficulties and my department is bringing this to their attention’ – so we’re continuing to do this – for example on non-national roads local authorities have been reminded on a number of occasions that their should be full compliance with the planning laws in relation to any proposed use of land as temporary quarries during the duration of any works. Now I suppose what you are looking for is…

TL: A compliance cert – A local authority should not be allowed to purchase from businesses that do not have a planning compliance cert. As an NGO I can’t do anything without a tax compliance certificate. Why haven’t thes guys got to show a planning compliance cert before LAs purchase from them?

JG: Ok, Ok, we can do that under – I’ll attach that as a condition. I haven’t introduced the amendments yet and that is my intention.  I don’t want to see a situation where people who have flouted the law continue to flout the law in the way that they have. I have made that clear to my own officials in the Department.

LM: I’ll come back to you on that – I’ll just check with David…

TL: Ahh. Well. I suppose we have pretty well covered the national spatial strategy. There’s a lot of worry about Dublin City’s high rise policy…

JG: Just to say on the NSS that that I’m now looking at that we’re new refreshing our looking at that we’ll bring to the Cabinet shortly – we want to ensure that – simply that’s its not ignored.

TL: That’s great – its ties into the next question – the One OFF Guidelines – as you know the Architects Association has come out saying that the one off guidelines published in 2005 had no impact whatsoever. We actually asked a question of how many one offs had been built – this was about 2 years ago – and your department replied that they had not.

JG: Well I have certain figures. I know for example that the number of – that the only building that is taking place is one off houses – very little else taking place so we no that is the case. As you know – look – I recently was involved as heading up emergency planning and I had to get in a helicopter for the first time ever and flow over Ireland and I flew over at night time at 1,000 feet and it just hit me – like we have here its our towns and cities are sprawling – but the sprawl continues into the countryside – its just a little less sprawl that’s all – so what we have done is urbanised our countryside. I think the numbers of matters we have to address now are very serious. For example a one off house in the countryside requires a septic tank. We have about 440,000 septic tanks in this country compared to about 80,000 in Scotland. And I think there’s a number of ways we can tackle it. I take your point that the problem hasn’t been properly addressed and but I think the new EPA Guidelines in relation to septic tanks will ensure that we can’t just build these things anyplace – its just not possible to do – we have to look at soil conditions – we have to look at all these things which make much more stringent guidelines– and I’ll be introducing others standards later on because we have a judgement against us as you know we have to look at that. There’s also the planning issue itself. In Mayo for example I intervened they were trying to make provisions for as many one off houses as they could get and that was not to me acceptable and I interfered there and I just think when we get the new planning legislation- and I had to – by the way – its extraordinary to come back to the point that I was making earlier on about one the one hand not doing enough and on the other handing doing too much – there are people in county councils all over this country who are saying – there’s one quoted recently from Carlow who said he wanted to have a bonfire with me on top of it – so because of the new planning legislation – and it is seen as an intrusion and as a direct affront to people who believe that people should be allowed to build anywhere anything and I don’t believe that’s correct. I believe that the legislation that I am introducing and all the legislation will ensure that we will at– do I know that lady? – Will ensure that we will at long last tackle the problem of sprawl. Now I’m not saying that  – let me say this – I’m not saying – how you doping – thanks – I’m not saying a total blanket ban – but I am saying a more responsibity and a better concept going forward and I think that the new planning legislation and the EPA Guidelines and all the stuff I’m doing the septic tank will ensure that that happens.

TL: There have to be inspections. That’s the bottom line We tried to force the Department to bring in Inspections and they said there were no resources – so it went to the European Court and the first was lost and the second was won and now there have to be.

JG: I know that and I’m bringing a memorandum to Government on that.

Shouldn’t there be inspections on buildings actually being built – so that the pipes are actually deep enough so they don’t freeze up and burst  up – we have no inspections – we must be the only country in Europe that doesn’t inspect new buildings.

JG: Well its not try – we do have inspections – but we don’t have enough of them, right? That’s it. And that is a difficulty, no question about it and its something we are trying to address. I mean a lot of these things are down to resources as well and we are trying to pout those resources. But right now I have tried to put more resources into the EPA and I have succeeded – I put more s resources into NPWS, I’ve put more resources into investment in water infrastructure and

TL: These would mostly be responses to the possibility of daily fines from the European Court.

JG: Oh I’m very mindful of that, I’m very mindful of that. I mean why wouldn’t I be?

TL: When you came into office you said EU environment infringement complaints was one of the things you were going to tackle. We’ve now got even more infringement complaints against Ireland and more serious ones seeking daily fines.

JG: No, that’s not true – we had 33 and now we have 28 or 29 – so it’s reduced. [In fact, at the end 2007 the Commission’s official statistics give 34 total cases. At the end of 2009 the total remained 34 but the number of those cases seeking daily fines had risen from 10 to 14.]

TL: Gets you off the hook?

JG: Well, that’s…

TL: Fair enough?

JG: Yeah, yeah.

TL: Kenny Report. Probably you were a great fan of the Kenny Report and a certain amount is coming in under the new legislation.

Yes. But first of a Kenny itself. Unfortunately there are huge disagreement about Kenny and the constitutionality of Kenny. For example our Attorney Generals says we can’t do it – he did say to us – because we discussed this because as you know we are advocates of it – but we did get an agreement at cabinet which was controversial again about the windfall tax at 80% which is a major – went down like the proverbial lead balloon but it means that that is money can be used exactly for the purposes that Kenny was looking at- so it’s a different way of approaching Kenny but again you know its doesn’t receive – it did for a little while get a certain amount of traction but it was forgotten about – but we did get the criticism from the people etc. – the property pages saying this was nuts etc., but its not  it’s a way of ensuring that the sort of soaring profits that we saw which caused us so many difficulties in the past and which led to the bad planning we saw is discouraged in the future so were ensuring that there is a large element of Kenny in that – so that sort of huge profit making – profiteering that can occur is actually stamped out.

TL: There is the issue of extending the planning permission for another five years because many of these planning decisions should be reviewed in the light of our new knowledge of the damages done by these decisions.

JG: Sure but they are going to be reviewed because there is a provision there so that people can not be extended unless they actually comply with the new planning legislation, the new Development plans and all of the new guidelines – that’s there in black and white.

TL: So will we be able to challenge them if the council gives the permission go back and say it’s not in line with the Guidelines?

JG: Yeah of course you can – its not in line with all the things Minister Gormley has instructed that – therefore you can’t extend in that case – in fact I might just make sure that is even further strengthen.

TL:  In a circular letter?

JG: Certainly do that.

TL: To strengthen it in some way because that is a worry – that we will perpetuate these mistakes.

JG: No I mean that would be totally and utterly counter productive.

TL: What about Tara?

JG: Let me say this. There are things that people say that just sort of come off the top of the tongue. I have to be honest with you when people trot out stuff like that.

We were the only party that was involved in the Oral Hearing in 2003. We came into Government in 2007 and the building had commenced. The contract was signed. There was nothing we could do.

It’s unreasonable to expect that somehow the Green Party could wave a magic wand and the whole thing was going to stop completely. But what we have done is to use our position to ensure that the excesses – the terrible planning that you find along motorways – that simply won’t happen along that route – and I can guarantee that.

I did manage to ensure that the road was moved aside from Rath Lugh so that Rath Lugh could be preserved – now we’ve got the Landscape Conservation Area, the first one in Ireland, and the new legislation on National Monuments coming up.

TL: The visionary bill that Michael D Higgins brought in 1997 has been taken asunder.

JG: Hmm. Well, the new National Monuments Bill will be visionary.

TL: Will ‘archaeological landscapes’ be recognised in the legislation?

JG: The definition being used is the one recommended by the European Landscape Convention – ‘historic landscape’. That will be in the actually planning legislation and then the National Monuments Bill will go even further and afford even further protection. [Without designation as some sort of archaeological landscape under the National Monuments Acts archaeological set pieces like Tara will remain vulnerable]

LM: The definition being used is the one recommended by the European Landscape Convention which is the strongest definition that there is out there ay the moment so we’ll have a wider definition of the planning bill in terms of landscape recognition and then a more specific one in terms of historic landscape in the Heritage Bill to make sure so that the point you have on archaeology is heard by all.

JG: I would be anything that could be done to impact in terms of development along that particular route I would find that totally unacceptable – but its one of the things I have to be honest with you when people trot out stuff like that – its unreasonable to expect that when permission was given in 2003, and we found the road had commenced somehow the Green Party could wave a magic wand and the whole thing is going to stop completely. But what we have done is to use our position to ensure that the excesses the terrible planning that you find along motorway – that that simply won’t happen – and I can guarantee that – it won’t happen along that route.

TL: So the new port that being proposed – the problems coming up with that – do you think that these will be controlled?

TL: Another language issue – would you ensure that ‘exceptional circumstances’ in which a protected structure may be demolished do not include economics?

JG: Well, are you referring now to the – well – maybe the Clarence Hotel, that sort of thing?

TL: Umm.

JG: Yeah, I think it doesn’t make sense because you can always make an argument for anything – so yeah, I do agree that is something that can not be contemplated – otherwise you’re not going to afford protection to our own – however – coming back to my own Department – you take one that of the Clarence Hotel, the Department made a very strong submission in that and it was Bord Plenala – in the end of the day Bord Plenala is an independent body and I can’t interfere with their decisions – in fact I can’t interfere with any planning decision.

TL: But you can terms like that into the legislation and then An Bord Plenala’s hands are tied.

JG: And I’d be happy to do that. Very happy to do that.

TL: And we’d like to have the words proper planning and sustainable development include the words excellence of design.

JG: The point that was put in because that’s the terminology that is understandable – excellence of design – what do you think of that, Liam?

LR: Design is so subjective sometimes.

TL: You can see where it’s coming from.

LR: You can see where growing up in rural Ireland in bungalow blitz territory and seeing so much of it happen – Blackfinch {…} I know the this is very much off the record – the rows that there are between architects in what constitutes excellence of design – including stuff that awarded or shortlisted for award. The best example I can think of is the library in Abbeyleixe – an old courtyard that’s been transformed in what |I think looks like a bus shelter – in terms of a modern – I know there’s a lot of internal strife about that design between different architects ion the Department itself

Because there was very serious divided opinion on what constitutes – you know some people said this was excellent – others said no this is terrible.

TL: But better to have an argument about excellence than to have no argument at all.

JG: Appropriate. That might be a useful word.

TL: In enforcement m it’s a little unclear why the Department might be considering moving the enforcement of quarries to the office of enforcement but other planning not – is this because of what you were saying about trying to respect the Councils and not leave them out of the circle as you put it.

JG: Look, we’re going to have reform of local government and we want to see moiré regional focus. We don’t have regional government in this country and at the same time we certainly don’t want to emasculate the Councils – that’s there is democracy and at the end of the day your opinions and my opinions probably represent to be honest with you about 5% of the population.  That’s a sad reality. And in fact if you wanted to be candid about it, by being in Government you can exercise a disproportionate amount of authority – that the whole – our system is essentially majorantarianism – which is if you have 51% of the seats you have 100% of the power. And that’s what people need to understand. Environmentalists – people in the green movement – think you will not succeed unless you recognise that particular reality. You have to understand how politics works how power works and like our views may be becoming more mainstream but our views may be becoming more mainstream but they’re still not mainstream in the sense that they are still not entertained by a vast majority of people who are elected from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.  That’s a reality – unfortunately – and I don’t think there is a huge difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

TL: What about those who don’t vote at all?

JG: Ok that’s fine. If you don’t vote at all these people have the power Ok and if they have the power you have no power – that’s it. Simple as that.

TL: Nice safe subject like waste. Are you happy that things have improved vastly?

JG: Yeah, but they haven’t improved at the pace that I want to improve. I know what has to be done and it is not rocket science. Mechanical biological treatment is not a fancy thing – it’s a very simple concept and we what we want to see – we want to see waste as a resource – we have the Government has recognised in the Renewed Programme for Government which is Government policy that we have to move in this direction so we now more and more food waste is going to be composed as it should be – the real problem as far as the landfill problem is concerned is biodegradable waste – so I’ve introduced a new food regulations – it’s a no brainer that food should not be going to landfill. Food should be composted and that’s going to happen now. And I think the international review which was conducted by the very best people pushed the way forward – it was quite interesting that the International Review got four paragraphs in the Irish Times when it was published. The criticism by the ERSI which was commissioned by Dublin City Council got huge coverage. It it’s now clear that the ERSI Review was full of mistakes.

TL You seem to have got in this position now where DCC is saying this is national policy and you are saying no this is national policy. Or is that too simplistic?

JG: I think that’s what they’ve said. I determine national waste policy – the Government determines national waste policy – not Dublin City Council. And they need to understand this.

TL: And you have taken this to your cabinet colleagues and come back with heir support and yet still the situation remains with the incinerator.

JG: I think it would be monumental folly – I can’t believe that people would be that stupid to proceed on their basis when they know that (a) the Government has in their Renewed Programme for Government which is national policy changed policy – again – the difficulty there is that they applied to an independent body – an Bord Pleanala – for planning permission – there is nothing a Minister can do about that – but – but – what I have said is that the policy – is changing – has changed – and I have written to DCC and also to [the incinerator company] there  only yesterday outlining this and it is impossible for them to build an incinerator of that size given what is going to happen. I have to go to – you know that any changes that I bring have to be SEA’d – that’s happening at the moment – but those changes subject to SEA and subject to legislation are going to happen.

TL: But in an ideal world

JG: It’s important to say that it’s subject to consultation I don’t want to be someone to say oh you haven’t consulted – I have consulted – I am consulting – I do have an open mind – I want to say that.

TL: Really though you are opposed top incineration and opposed to it -0 this is half a cake fight that’s going on?

JG: No, I’m saying that I understand the need for an element of incineration because even after MBT there is still residual and I have seen how that works – for example co incineration is something that works in these sense that you have recycled to the nth degree but if someone is telling me that you need incinerators around this country and that we need huge incinerators of the size of this – no that doesn’t stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny.

TL: There’s a proposal out now to have an independent EU body to oversee waste –it comes out of the IMPEL report the EU did last year – how do you feel about that kind of EU body – the EEB is debating weather it should support this independent waste body because we want so much more – we believe their should be an independent EU body ensuring that there’s an equal enforcement of EU environmental Directives across the board and we’re afraid we’ll go down this road with the waste and everything else will be left behind. I don’t know where you stand on this independent body for a start and where you stand on something even more comprehensive.

JG: The body I’d almost be I mean if they are looking at trans shipment of waste yes of course no difficulty – we have as you know when I came I assigned that duty in Ireland to Dublin City Council – they have a number of – they have been quite active and proactive on this – so I have no difficulty with that because it needs to be coordinated as it is becoming a bigger issue all the time. But you know what is clear to me – and this goes to the core of the issue – when I recently opened a MBT plant up in Meath 250,000 tons – what they are saying to me is that the way they see waste going is that it will become a resource – in fact you will get a situation where people will pay for waste – that’s what going to happen. And that’s yet another reason why incineration doesn’t make sense – because where in the name of God are you going to get this waste – this waste is going to be diminishing – its going to be diminishing and I know we’ve had difficulties and I tried to rectify those with the cross border issues that we’ve had – I’ve had to deal with our counterparts in Northern Ireland – I think a European agency would be a very good thing and I would welcome it. But the main thing is that we actually get we deal with it here. And I have the statistics in relation to DCC and what they have done and I think we’re roughly mid table in relation to our European wise.

JG: We were very high in that IMPEL Report.

LR Yes they did over 4,000 inspections so they did the highest number of inspections absolute – so in terms of percentage the percentage of non-compliance has them in around mid-table if you look at Sweden they did four inspections so inspection regime the City council does is higher than most places so that’s why you have the figures high numbers but when you do it as a percentage…

TL: And I think they have arguments over the definition of what constitutes a violation – a bit like the fishermen –

LR: I can remember 5 years ago do thing this stuff as far as TFS – a lot of looking to the letter and not the spirit.

TL. Haulbowline. I’m glad Dan’s here. Hi Dan.

DB: I’m letting John do all the talking.

TL: Obviously everyone is frustrated about Haulbowline. You can’t get – you have a situation where at the moment there is an ongoing danger to the environment – maybe even worse perhaps – perhaps not – by the contractor that were on there – there’s no license for that place – there’s nothing – its not even listed in Cork County Councils list of contaminated sites. It’s a nowhere land. Why doesn’t someone just go and apply for a bloody license?

JG: Well, first of all, again – this is a source of a certain amount of disappointment to me that that since I came into Government there is more money invested in leaning up this site than ever before. I mean this thing – came out of my budget by the way.

TL: The Environment fund?

JG: Out of the environment fund – not exchequer – mine – money that as IO view – I forgot to mention that too I’ve tripled the money for environmental NGOs – that money was used to clean up that site.

TL: That’s because the first estimate of waste there was nonsense – done by your department – went in on that basis and discovered that 15,000 toxins was just a token. So you can hardly complain when the never runs are back on your waste department.

JG: Your right in a sense that people were not fully aware of what was on that site.

TL: They were aware of it – it’s not fair – the reports going back to 1996 were aware of it.

JG: But in terms of the tonnages? The tonnages were not have – they would not have made financial; sense if they were fully aware of the amounts. Now what happened – there is still an ongoing case so – but the other thing is that where there has been a certain amount of delay is that the future now is in the hands of the OPW which has not reported back yet we have to decide and this is what we need to decide is what we are going to do with that particular site. It all depends on the end use and this is where you have to decide on that stage the sort license that you want – is it going to be a park, is it going to be commercial, is it going to be residential – because each of them has different level of decontamination and remediation and – so clearly if its going to be residential you’ve got a big job ahead of you – if its commercial slightly less so – and if its a park you can just cap it. I think that’s probably where we’re going to make it safe but the YWG Report was saying very clearly that was peer reviewed they didn’t see an ongoing danger to the to public around there.

TL: The public – not the environment. You’re Minister for the Environment – we have a different Minister for Health.

JG: I know what you mean but I’m just telling you that what I was getting form the opposition was – it was terrible everyone’s dying of cancer everyone – I was saying hold on there please take it easy I just want to check this out – but even in relation to the environment in terms of emission top the sea or whatever I know there as one spot they found – but I don’t think it was widespread…

TL: Well, we have the shipping records of the contaminated material sent out.

LM: OPW are heading up a the terms of reference – the key issue for the Doe is to ensure that there is proper consultation with  the local community – finalising terms of reference  – we made personal commitments on that…

TL: It seems to be stuck.

LR: Yeah its going to need a Minister to Minister to begin to get that committee to put the funding push to get them, up and running so that you have everyone involved in it and we can develop the issue that you have identified.

TL: Surely whatever you do surely the containment wall to stop the tidal intrusion should be built – that was recommended as long ago as the 1978 planning permission.

LR: And it was a condition of the sale in 1996 as well. No, absolute,

TL: Even if most of the lechate is gone you’ve still got contaminated sediments which as long as they sea is going in and out will come out. That may not have a direct impact on human health…

JG: If you want to talk about a change in direction of Government look at the Galway Bypass.

TL: A great piece of work. There was a system previously when the planning section of Dchas made a recommendation it had to be approved by the Minister himself – is that still the case?

JG: There were a number of times when the recommendations of my Department were overturned by a Minister – you may know that. But I’ve just said look you are the experts if you take a view on something I respect that and I do. So I’ve given them their head in that regard and I think its good. I have the utmost confidence in the people in my Department because I think they do an excellent job. And now they know they have a Minister who might say, “you aren’t going far enough”! So I’ve given them their head in that regard and I think its good I have the utmost confidence in the people in my Department because I think they do an excellent job and they have a very deep appreciation of our heritage and they are a dedicated civil service – very dedicated and the one thing that pains me about being in Government – its difficult being in Government no question at this time its not easy at all – but having to take decision about their pay scales is something that I didn’t do with any great degree of enthusiasm at all but it was just one of those things that was necessary. I suppose the point I would make to you is that we just happened to find ourselves in Government at a very bad time. We’re just – its not a propitious time to be in any Government in any country in the world but in this country particularly in these circumstances – but having said that would I do it differently the answer is no because the only place you can make decisions that have a profound effect is in Government and we’re prepared to take very tough decisions and to take it on the chin. But we hope that what we are doing would have a lasting effect but we’d like to be in a position that when it comes to the next election that we will have done enough and made enough changes and having had real form on the country the way things are done that people will realise that we are an essential element of any government, be it any future coalition should have a green element in it – that would be my view.

JG: Well you see – well – sometimes you get this when the media go out and try and find anyone out there who will say a bad thing about us because we’ll take you on we have no problem – if you’re going to be critical we’ll take you on but if you going to say nice things – the fact of the matter is that is our membership now is the same as it was in 2007 – I think is it the same – the very peak was when we came into office.

JG: It’s changed the kind of people who are coming into your party.

JG: Here’s the point: there are people who find Government uncomfortable. Since January I have had a crisis practically every week. There are and have been people in the party who want to be in some comfort zone where you can actually start criticising. You can be as critical as you like but unless you are prepared to get in there and roll up your sleeves and make decisions which are not popular. I think that a lot of party members understand – the vast majority – you must remember this – in the teeth of a huge economic recession – after local elections where we got hammered no other word for it – we got 84% of the party to vote for a new programme for government – now no other party consults its member s like we do we consult constantly and we are by far and away the most democratic party says we are the most democratic party people have a say and people can be as critical as they like that’s fine but the party recognises people recognise that we are in there to make changes. Animal welfare. People in animal welfare would be radical people but most of them realise that it would never ever happen without us being in Government. And there’s the general new perspective we’re bringing to government.

TL: Our problem is that the funding isn’t going into the core functions of these organisations and its only going to national organisations quite often, international organisation. Our problem is raising awareness out in the countryside and encouraging the groups that are out there – can you shift that balance so that more goes to core funding and it goes beyond just the national organisations and parallel to that target your own Department to these conflict areas in the countryside that we have so that when we have a new landscape area announced in West Cork – there no one out there defending it – there’s no one in the hall – from Cork County Council or anyone else – there’s nothing but rah rahs – that’s the drive we’d like to see you move on – that’s not to take away from what you have one.

JG: I was in the building last night for the new the Greenhouse – I was there last night – that’s a huge investment for a number of NGOs – 2 million over 6 years – that’s just for the building itself. And in relation to the point you are making yes I think there has to be – to use the terrible new word – outreach – there has to be outreach – in terms of engaging – I was interested in your comment that people in NPWS are demoralised – I’ve asked my people is there anything to explain this because I want to go talk to these people – if people are demoralised I want to hear from them – I want to hear what the problem is. I’ll tell you what they can do – and I’ll say this to now if you want to print this – if they want to come straight to the Minister they can at any time.

TL: We try and get them to step up but they say at the meeting that are held its impossible for them to say what they really want to say – their problem is that they are handing in reports saying here’s this violation here’s this boundary – I* mean there are some astonishing examples of what’s going on around the countryside – the reports go in and the reports are buried.

JG: I’ll tell you what they can do – and I’ll say this to now if you want to print this – they want to  come straight to the Minister they can anytime– there are about 80 rangers you know.

TL: About these damages t the countryside – are you think about Lough Derravaragh…

JG: The children of Lear

LR: These is one thing – there is a management review of the NPWS ongoing at the moment to try and make changes work better

TL: If they recognise there is a problem that would be good.

LR: The thing is I can’t speak for the permanent civil service but that is going on and there is an attempt to

TL: Lough Derravaragh is just an example because of the wide spread turf extraction. We’re not able to get any movement on it.

JG: You know Jeremy Waites? I meet Jeremy a lot you know – you know I was hanging around with Jeremy a lot – you know you were around that time too – in the 80’s – so – we all ended up wearing suits and ties – so but that doesn’t take away from our commitment its still the  – my commitment is still the same as it ever was  – we still have the hunger for doing things and you know Jeremy’s work on Arrhus – so – you know – its Our experience in Government has been actually invaluable. It’s a huge learning process. You learn how the civil service work, you learn how Government works – how do you get things through – that’s invaluable for any political party. I’m in a situation now where I have more cabinet experience that Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore combined – and that’s something that you can’t buy [Gormley has served a month longer as Minister than Kenny did as Minister and Gilmore did as Junior Minister].

TL: Is there anything that really surprised you when you came into office?

JG: The number of impediments to actually realising something is quite amazing – I remember one of the first files I had gave various options. Option A was do nothing – because you don’t have the risk of fines or legal action. I have it up on the wall.

LR: I won’t be in Leinster House on Monday but I’ll give you the text… [We never got this.]

JG: It’s so easy, right, but you get nothing. Eddie doesn’t be defensive now – this is just an honest appraisal – it just stakes out the options. What surprised me is that you as a Minister are subject to legal action at any stage.  There’s been a problem for a long time down in Killarney with a group of people with their horses that nobody ever wanted to touch. I am now involved in a court case about the most trivial item – so you end up in legal battles all the time – I don’t think anyone realised that, the extent of it.

TL: You must have polls that show how environmental awareness is around the country. The UK polls particularly over climate show a substantial drop in the last four months in people who (a) believe in climate change and (b) believe its caused by man. Is that something we’re getting here in Ireland?

JG: I’d say we are reflecting it very much.

LR: There is some baseline research when the Change campaign began in March I think there was some stuff done in 2009. We have the Eurobarometer survey – sometimes in the environmental [?} – the only time you can really get it is when you focus down and its all around Kyoto but you could see it beginning to happening in 2008 – various advertising firms – a reprioritisation – the single biggest measure is the media which has been the economy in Ireland – you will find the media interest in global warming up until Copenhagen – the environmental correspondent for the BBC is Mattie McGraw – from Tipperary – and I remember asking him if he was finding it harder to get  coverage and the US showed it  definitely.

TL: On climate change – the media says there are two sides – there aren’t two sides…

JG: …Now you know how we feel.

LR: If you look at some of the – your absolutely right – the target …

TL: James Hanson of NASA is advocating civil disobedience to get the message across.

JG: That’s great but you’re not going too many people doing it. Lets be honest – there was a climate change protest in Dublin and I recognised most everyone that was on it – on climate change people aren’t going to go out on the streets. You know a person said recently about the fall of the Berlin wall that it was people power. Well the bottom line is that if Gorbachev wasn’t there I don’t care how many people were on the streets – they would have been shot.

TL: Tim Christophson one of the ones that James Hanson is helping – just before the end of the Bush administration he went into an public auction of oil; rtesr5eves in Utah where he was an undergraduate economics student – he didn’t know what he was going to do but he knew it was outrageous that Bush was auctioning off the oil rights on this public land so he went in and they handled him paddle for bidding so he thought why not and he bought the lot for 1.7 million of course he didn’t have a penny so the auction was void – Obama came in and said this is a nonsense idea so were not going to sell this oil anyway – all justified – but he faces a 700.000 dollar fine and ten years in jail but out of it has come an uprising  movement in which these guys say there are going to use civil disobedience because the politicians aren’t listening.

JG: But hold on – who made the difference there? OK he did something but if Obama hadn’t come in…

TL: It’s a combination.

JG: It has to be a combination but the bottom line is that – you know a person said recently about the Berlin Wall – the fall of the Berlin wall – and people saying it was people power. Well you know what if Giorbachov wasn’t there I don’t care how many people were on the streets they would have been just shot.

TL: He’s a people too.

TL: You put a lot of work into Copenhagen?

JG: I put a hell of a lot of work into it – I was up to three o’clock a lot of time – in fact I gave my speech there at half two in the morning. I remember giving a speech at the first ‘Conference of the Parties’ ion climate change n Berlin and saying humanity can’t wait.  Now 15 years later it is deeply frustrating. But you have to understand that the change is incremental – and it’s dreadfully slow.

LR: You have 3 minutes and most countries don’t stick to that – it was running 24 hours late at one stage, the speeches.

JG: I was at the first COP in Berlin – and every single time – I remember giving a speech at the COP in Berlin and saying it’s is it we have to do it – humanity can’t wait – the planet etc., etc. it was clear to me at that stage – now 15 years later still saying – its deeply frustrating – but you have to understand that the change incremental and its dreadfully slow – but it does come – and we’re in a better place in one sense in terms of understanding than we were but its just that the necessary actions haven’t flowed.

TL: Even in Ireland the last figures are very disappointing considering the slow down in the economy – is this in part because you can’t get your fellow Ministers to think green?

JG:  No it’s just slow – the carbon levy is going to take a while to kick in – there a problem – I mean part of the problem in the unexpected cold winters.

LR: So you won’t see – you will see significant impact because of the further decline in urban transport – that’s speculation on my part – but its likely – but at the same time.

TL: But the cuts that are required a really significant.

LR: But the same people are living in the same houses that were built in the wrong places and driving the same cars that they bought to in 2006 and that’s the…

TL: I didn’t go down the mitigation and adoption road but what I am being told is that in fifty years all the plant we have now – all our the electric plants, all our major investments will be changed over – everything will be changed over – but can we get that 50 years that we need?

How do you mean.

Is global warming going to reach the tipping pointing in the next 50 years that will jot won’t giver s the time.

JG: Well it’s the more likely scenario – its not climate change itself  – it’s the impact in terms of destabilisation – that is the real difficulty – and – it’s the side of climate change that we have ignored – we talk about impacts climate – but we’re not looking at the elephant in the room – which is resources – and that going to be wicked.

TL: Such as phosphates –n we can’t eat without phosphates

JG: Look at phosphates – look at talk about the electric cars – the amount of lithium that requires, the amount of copper that requires – so this idea that it’s going to be a panacea is nonsense.


The Minister agreed to answer some supplementary questions – these were submitted in advance and written answers supplied for most of them. As in the method used in the main part of the interview, these written answers formed the basis for further questions. Parts of this interview were edited back into the published article.

JG: Hiya Tony, John here, John Gormley.

TL: Can you please tell me what you are doing about the Ringsend Incinerator?

JG: The bottom line is that a 600,000-tonne incinerator is impossible and obviously not desirable because of the effect it will have on waste policy. But I mean I have made it very clear that I will be introducing a cap on incineration capacity either by way of a Section 60 or by way of legislation. But the net effect will be the same – and the operators have been told this –you cannot proceed with a 600,000 tonne incinerator.  It is as simple as that. Now – what else can I say? That’s the bottom line.

TL: So we can be pretty much assured that these people will listen?

JG You’re going to have to address that question to them.  Are they going to challenge the Minister or what – that’s a matter for them. What I do know is this: if you have a facility of this sort you have to design your waste policy around it.  If you listen to what they said at the Oireachtas committee – they seem to be now saying, though they never admitted it before that they are taking waste now from all over the country and not just from the Dublin region, which was what it was intended for.

TL: Could they potentially import it in by ship as well?

JG: Again, that’s a question you would have to ask them. But what is clear is that there isn’t the capacity in Dublin. That’s very clear. The only way that you can create capacity is by reducing the amount of waste that you recycle or ensuring that you don’t increase your recycling levels and you don’t increase the diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill, which is what the Landfill Directive is all about.

Bit more about the delicate subject of Deirdre and Trevor because I know it’s been a really difficult time. In the case of Deidre she says a lot of what Patricia McK says – that if you guys stayed out of power, if you built yourself up with such an unpopular government in power, you could have come back with  a majority, instead the party has really been sacrificed by this.

I’m very reluctant actually to even comment on this because it gives a certain amount of credence to it. Look – we act collegiately in the Green Party and always did. Look, there is no question in my mind – none at all – that you have to get in there and you have to make the changes even if the circumstances are not ideal – and they are by no means ideal – the country being in recession and you know I suppose an unpopular FF Government coming back. Those are not idea situations having said that we wouldn’t have got the changes if we weren’t in Government and you say well we’re going to come back – what does that mean? Does that mean you’re going to be in Government – no it doesn’t mean that. You get an opportunity to be in Government very rarely and as a Green Party and a political party you have to grasp that with both hands. Now people there are many people who would feel uncomfortable in Government because it’s not popular, but it is the right thing to do. And that’s what we are about. We are in there to make those changes. I just don’t accept those arguments – I never have accepted those arguments over the years I’ve always said if you go over my interviews over the years that we are a party of Government and we have to be in Government. I have said that over and over again. So its not as if there’s a lack of consistency on my part – I’ve been extremely consistent. I believe if you look at what we have achieved over the last two and a half years its much more than we have achieved over the previous 25.

TL: Trevor Sergeant’s resignation – it’s just a big mess?

JG: It’s terrible, it’s terrible and he’s paid a very heavy price. Trevor was genuinely intervening on the side of a victim. I think this was the thing that everyone kept quiet about. Look at the representations that were made previously on behalf of individuals – very often those individuals were quite unsavoury. We had representations made on behalf of paedophiles and God knows whatever. Trevor went in and he made a rep on behalf of a chap who had been assaulted and had his nose broken. The guy responsible for this had ten previous convictions – so Trevor couldn’t figure out why the investigation was being carried out in the way it was.

And the clientelism issue – is every anything gone to be done about that – where politicians spend so much of their time

Politicians – this is the nature of it. I’m a Minister but on Saturday mornings I’m out and I’m spending a few hours out and I’m talking to constituents. Now you could say is that a good use of my time or not. I think it actually helps me – actually it goes out there and I’m meeting people and I very quickly see what is affecting people on the ground and interesting enough people the things people are not interested in – they are not interested people very seldom do they bring up resignations in the Dail. It’s not on their radar – what is on their radar? Jobs number one, jobs and the economy – that’s what people are interested in. Anything else is for them a bit of a side show.