Interview: Phil Hogan wants to be Minister for the Environment but has a cautious agenda
Fine Gael’s environment spokesperson would leave well enough alone at local authority level
Phil Hogan entered politics as a Kilkenny County Councillor on the death of his father, when he was 22 years old, rising to be Chairman of the Council and a member of the South Eastern Health Board. After unsuccessfully standing in the 1987 general election, he was appointed to the Seanad from the Industrial and Commercial Panel. He was returned to the Dáil from the Carlow/Kilkenny constituency in 1989, holding a number of front-bench positions, including that of Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, a position he resigned after leaking details of the budget to journalists. He has been Chairman of the Fine Gael Party, was ruthlessly supportive of Enda Kenny in resisting Richard Bruton’s Summer 2010 coup and is currently Director of Elections and frontbench spokesman on the Environment. His website claims: ‘Hogan needs no slogan’. Tony Lowes interviewed Hogan, a genial giant of a man, the day after the elections were called in the atrium of the new extension to Leinster House, a modern and airy glass and chrome building, underground.
Tony Lowes: If you hadn’t gone into politics what do you think you would have done?
Phil Hogan: I had a small business in the earlier part of my life in insurance and auctioneering so I probably would have done that…
Tony Lowes: And gone bust with everyone else?
Phil Hogan: Probably, but sure I might as well have gone down in style with the remnants of the Celtic Tiger
Tony Lowes: Are you happy now?
Phil Hogan: Ah, this is an exciting time.
Tony Lowes: And you have every confidence in your leader.
Phil Hogan: I have every confidence in my leader. He’s a very honest person and there is no doubt that he is interested in the people of the country rather than any vested interest.
Tony Lowes: And of all the portfolios which one would you like to hold?
Phil Hogan: I’d like to be Minister for Environment, Heritage, and Local Government to deal with the reform of local and national politics that’s so essential for the country to get Ireland working again – and now I’ve worked-in the Fine Gael slogan for the election!
Tony Lowes: The climate change Bill is a big one for environmentalists. Is this a priority for you – or is it toxified now?
Phil Hogan: No – Fine Gael included it in its manifesto – we’re committed to a Climate Change Bill based on the all-party Bill from the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security at the earliest possible opportunity. We believe that the climate change targets that have been set out with our partners in Europe are appropriate and we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in the position by which we’re going to cap the opportunities for food production where we have a distinctive competitive advantage.
Tony Lowes: What do you think of the IFA’s response to the climate change bill?
Phil Hogan: I can understand the IFA’s response because the targets that were being presented and the assumptions which were being made were too vague. Certainly we have to take at face value what Teagasc – an independent part of the Government apparatus – are saying to us: it goes far beyond the competitors – far beyond our needs. We’re not going to step out into an uncompetitive environment.
Tony Lowes: Is John Gormley’s emphasis on the regional and national imperatives for local authority Development Plans something you would support?
Phil Hogan: Totally opposed to [a policy of] all decision-making in the Custom’s House which is what the new Planning and Development Bill does. We have enough centralised control of the Department of the Environment in the past. It would worry me if the wrong Minister of the Environment was in office with huge powers that could influence the outcome of individual planning applications. We’ve had enough corruption in the planning system. With the centralised powers the Minister has given the Department of the Environment he can do anything he wishes in relation to planning. But I don’t believe that’s healthy for democracy and I don’t believe it’s healthy from a planning point of view.
Tony Lowes: Do you support the investigations that Mr Gormley [recently-resigned Green Minister for the Environment] set up for certain Councils including Dublin City – and Carlow.
Phil Hogan: Spuriously mostly.
Tony Lowes: If you became Minister would you allow this process to go forward?
Phil Hogan: Absolutely – I think it’s very important that we have confidence in the system of public administration at official level and political level – we learned enough in the Mahon Tribunal to know that this is important – but we’re not going to get into the political business of trying to find scapegoats for political purposes which is what ex-Minister Gormley is intending to do. I’m aware of issues that have come before Carlow County Council but on the material that has come out of the investigations to date I don’t see anything.
Tony Lowes: Do you support the proposals for a new mayor for the whole of Dublin?
Phil Hogan: We’re for that – but not until we have proper devolution from the central to the local. We would look at the existing structures in Dublin. There is no way we would agree to putting in a Dublin mayor and a Regional Authority on top of the four existing local authorities.
Tony Lowes: Would you fund this through a property tax and water charges?
Phil Hogan: Well in the EU/IMF deal there is going to be a property tax – that’s going to come into effect on January 1 2012 – so that’s a resource that’s available to Local Government. We also have been in favour of water charges and meters after a generous free allowance for people in the household area. You can’t expect much interest for people standing for local government election if they don’t have powers to implement policies at local level.
Tony Lowes: The incinerator at Poolbeg. I think you actually put a complaint into the Standards in Public Office [Hogan complained that because his local and electoral interest conflicted with the national interest Gormley had a ‘conflict of interest and” was not acting “in good faith vis a vis the local authorities”].
Phil Hogan: I did. And I want to say this: I didn’t get any legal advice from Covanta or I didn’t use the legal services of Covanta in this respect or anyone associated directly or indirectly. I think that’s a very serious slur on my political integrity. And I’d ask Minister Gormley to withdraw those allegations which certainly impugn my integrity – which I wouldn’t do to him.
Tony Lowes: Harry McGee, political correspondent of the Irish Times, recently reported that you wrote the ‘manual for chicanery’. Would you agree?
Phil Hogan: I’d like him to define that before I would comment on it. It could be a compliment. I don’t know.
Tony Lowes: Ha.
Phil Hogan: You obviously have a mind set where it wouldn’t be a compliment.
Tony Lowes: I don’t know to be honest – the dictionary is…
Phil Hogan: Silent is it? I’ve been used to the cut and thrust of politics but when somebody starts to make outrageous allegations like Minister Gormley did about my complaint which was done legitimately and legally – we’re talking about skulduggery going on in local authorities – but this is going on at the highest level. The Minister for the Environment adjudicates on a Foreshore Licence at a time when he has stated policy that a project for which that foreshore licence being applied for is not going ahead.
Tony Lowes: So you wouldn’t support the Bill he brought in to put extra charges on incineration?
Phil Hogan: We’re going to review all legislation that would come before the next Dail. If I had the privilege of being Minister for the Environment of course I’d take legal advice in the same way that John Gormley took legal advice.
Tony Lowes: The Aarhus Convention – allowing more participation in all of the decision making processes in licences and so on – would it be a priority for you?
Phil Hogan: I think public participation and the opportunities for consultation in respect of major projects in particular is important. I have no difficulty with that. Ultimately then the statutory processes that are in place have to be respected.
Tony Lowes: What about the fees that go with this – the 20 euro fee for Freedom of Information. the 20 euro fee for commenting on planning applications.
Phil Hogan: As part of our Open Government Bill which we published 15 months ago we’re in the business of rowing back on the restrictions put on the FoI Act and to go back to the 1997 system – the spirit and implementation of the processes which were put in place at that stage: that’s what I aspire to.
Tony Lowes: Would you include the EPA under the Ombudsman Act, allowing greater scrutiny?
Phil Hogan: I haven’t come to any conclusion on that. I’m not into the detail. I’m into the policy.
Tony Lowes: As regards one-off housing what about complaints from the EU say for controlling developments in the countryside – and the septic tanks judgment?
Phil Hogan: We have published a very detailed policy on water quality and we have made proposals about how we can actually fast-track investment in the provision of good quality resources. So we will be proposing a local stimulus package that would meet our climate change objectives as well as our water quality objectives – a home improvement scheme that will use our existing resources in Sustainable Energy Ireland and with the Local Authorities to have a more co-ordinated package in relating to insulation, heating, and septic-tank remediation.
Tony Lowes: How would you fund this?
Phil Hogan: Under Fine Gael’s ‘New Era’ proposals a certain percentage of those funds would come from the National Pension Reserve Fund and the sale of strategic State assets in order to have a job stimulus package.
Tony Lowes: Is it your policy to combine Coillte and Bord na Mona and privatise them?
Phil Hogan: Yes: we are prepared to examine those proposals and to find resources from the sale of strategic assets. After all it’s not an ideological issue about selling State companies. It’s about selling on companies that the State doesn’t have to be involved in at the moment to provide another State entity that is essential at the moment. We don’t see why a good strong State entity like Bord na Móna can’t be very effective in managing another state agency called Coillte. But the top level staff pay is far too high – we want no one to be paid more than €200,000.
Tony Lowes: When mentioning Bord na Móna there’s the thorny issue of the Roscommon Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. I understand that Éamon Gilmore has said that he would defy European law and that he believes that these turf cutters should not be bothered.
Phil Hogan: Éamon Gilmore and the Labour party know that he has to make sure the EU Habitats Directive is implemented or otherwise we will be fined by the European Commission. So Fine Gael are not proposing to do anything illegal. We’re going to comply with the EU Habitats Directive but we’re going to look at the manner of its implementation. That allows for Management Plans to be set up in respect of each bog where stakeholders and people who have been involved in turf cutting for hundreds of years will come to the table with an independent chairman and a scientist to meet the Habitats Directive and at the same time to allow turf cutting for domestic purposes to continue.
At the moment the National Parks and Wildlife Service in my view have an extreme interpretation of the Habitats Directive which limits consultation. There’s a degree of mistrust in relation to some of the scientific advice that has come over the years from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and that needs to be overcome. We need a little more consultation and flexibility by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I believe that their scientific advice can often be very extreme.
Tony Lowes: Could any policy be delivered by the Parks and Wildlife Service the way it has been eviscerated over recent years?
Phil Hogan: A 60% reduction for their funding for 2011 is not going to leave them the necessary resources to implement anything. I’d value the opportunity to review all that and to make sure that the people who are the custodians of the various directives are properly resourced.
Tony Lowes: What about the power of the IFA to influence the Department of Agriculture – particularly in contentious areas like aquaculture.
Phil Hogan: I think the River Basin Plans are a good opportunity to have a meaningful input. I think more and more that the IFA and other organisations in rural areas are coming round to the view that they have to be much more proactive in environmental areas as well as the exploitation of resources. I think the farmers see themselves as custodians of the environment.
Tony Lowes: One of the things Village asks politicians is whether they think equality is important and what equality means to them.
Phil Hogan: Well, I suppose politics is about people – the human dimension – about dignity and respect for people in their lives. In the compassionate area we’re interested in how we can get the country going back to work. That feeds into the dignity of the individual. The biggest antidote to poverty is work – and people who are unable to work, we have to make sure they aren’t falling through the cracks of oblivion in Irish society.