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Inside the mind of John Gormley

Tony Lowes interviews the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government

John Gormley
John Gormley

John Gormley was born in Dublin in 1959. He was educated at University College Dublin and the University of Freiburg. Before entering full time politics he ran an academy of European languages. In 1990 he wrote The Green Guide For Ireland, containing advice on how to live and campaign environmentally. In 1991 he was elected to Dublin City Council and was Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1994–95. At the 1997 general election, he became the third Green candidate elected to Dáil Éireann – after a week long re-count with Michael McDowell, which he won by 27 votes. Following the election in 2007 he became leader of the Greens and led negotiations with Fianna Fáil on forming a government. On 14th June 2007 he was named as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the new coalition. He was interviewed by Tony Lowes with Caroline Lewis on February 19th, the day after Willie O’Dea resigned. The Minister was accompanied by Liam Reid, his Press Officer, Eddie Kiernan, his Private Secretary, and Green Party Seanad Leader, Dan Boyle. The inter­view took place in a vegetarian restaurant in Cork while many in Gormley ‘s group fielded questions on breaking political crises on their mobile phones. John Gormley later answered further questions relating to the Green Party via email and over the phone. As Village went to press, Gormley’s continu­ance as Minister was uncertain, as details were leaked of an alleged agreement to rotate min­isterial positions among the Parliamentary party.

On politics

Tony Lowes: What drives John Gormley?

John Gormley: 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. 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 sort of fish – salmon, pike, bream, perch, the whole lot. And that river subsequently was destroyed by pollu­tion. That to me is shameful, is shameful, and the focal indictment of us as a species that we would allow things like that to occur.

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. You have to use that energy and that discontent to bring about change. I see myself – believe it or not – as a campaigner who happens now to be a politician.

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

JG: We have achieved more in the last two-and-a-half years that we did in all our time in opposition – the carbon levy, the new Planning Bill, the new building regulations, investment in renewable energy – the reversal of educa­tion cuts. We now have an environmental pillar of social partnership. That would not have happened without our participation in Government. There’s the climate change bill. 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. One thing which again doesn’t receive a huge amount of publicity but I think is important. I worked when I left school in a homeless organ­isation. It’s something that is very close to my heart and I’ve ensured – because housing is in my Department – that the homelessness budget is not cut despite huge cuts elsewhere. And if you look at what happened recently all over Europe during the cold weather – home­less people died in all countries. There’s only one country where they didn’t die – and that was Ireland.

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. [Gormley turns to his Press Officer] Eddie don’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: And you probably also feel you have paid a fairly heavy price?

JG: Look, electorally we’ve paid a huge price, there’s no doubt about that. 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. 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 Fáil. That’s being very blunt with you.

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: Your critics say that if you had stayed out of power with such an unpopular Government you could have come back at the next election far stronger – instead you have sacrificed the party.

JG: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. 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. I just don’t accept those arguments.

TL: Trevor Sargent’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.

TL: Do you have any hope of bringing any of the colleagues you have lost back?

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…

On the environment

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 can not 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.

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: Hmmn. 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]

TL: Meanwhile across the countryside there have been virtually no prosecutions by the Parks and Wildlife Service, while Rangers are demoralised and frustrated.

JG: 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: 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: Is your Ministry still ignoring advice from officials about wildlife and heritage protection?

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”!

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 its reduced. [In fact, at the end 2007 the Commission’s official statistics give 34 total case. 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: 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, twenty-five 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.

CL: What about quarries that are under the five-hectare EIA threshold -quarries registered which gave false information to the Councils? The Council’s position is that it not up to them to check this information unless there was a complaint received from the public.

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

CL: Have you lived in rural Ireland and tried to complain about a planning issue? [General laughter]

TL: Any chance of having a central agency for planning enforcement where Local Authorities may be compromised?

JG: Well there is a central agency if you want to use that word – it’s called the Department of the Environment, right? Setting up another agency in the current economic climate is not something we could contemplate – but nor do I want to under­mine local democracy. I want people to have a say in who they elect and those people would be accountable. I really don’t want to have a situation where they would be completely out of the loop.

TL: Your party colleague Brian Meaney has raised a key issue to no avail – Local Authorities should not be allowed to purchase from businesses that do not have a planning-compliance cert.

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.

TL: What are you doing about monitoring national quality of life – through indicators?

JG: It’s not just quality of life indicators. We should have scrutinised the National Development Plan by Strategic Environmental Assessment, for cli­mate impact, whatever … it wasn’t done. [The Minister went on at length to discuss quality of life, especially relating to commuter sprawl. He did not however commit to monitor it.]

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 was 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: Are you going to intervene to stop the his­toric city of Dublin becoming an incoherent half-high-rise mess as agreed in the draft Development Plan?

JG: It’s a reserved function of councillors and I’m always reluctant to intervene in Development Plans. However, I am looking at the Draft Plan at present, and its impacts. I will be making obser­vations as part of the consultative process over the coming weeks. I hope that the plan that emerges is sustainable and responsible and will not require an intervention on my part.

TL: What is your precise reaction to the Irish Times editorial on the Dublin mayor that stated: “the draft legislation does not envis­age the kind of radical reform and accounta­bility that is required. Creating an extra level of administration at a time of financial scar­city makes little or no sense”?

JG: I disagree with the Irish Times editorial and I think it was simplistic and not particularly well-informed about local government reform. The paper appeared to believe that if the Mayor does not have control over a large budget, then the office will be powerless. I think that misses the point entirely. Indeed if that model was followed, I believe it would result in the bureaucratic mon­ster the paper fears. The four Dublin local authori­ties between them have a budget of over €3 billion. The Mayor’s strategic powers will be implemented primarily through those authorities. We don’t want to elect a Mayor who is expected to fix pot­holes – or grit the roads. We need a mayor who can set out and implement a vision for the city and region and that’s what we’re going to get.

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

JG: …Now you know how we feel.

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’ on climate change in 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.

TL: You are falling well short of your targets of 3% averaged carbon emission reductions. By how much will carbon emissions be down at the end of this government’s five-year term in office?

JG: It’s too early to say. We will have new climate-change legislation which will make climate change targets and climate change considerations legally binding in policy terms for this and future govern­ments, which will be a hugely important legacy.

TL: James Hanson of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (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.