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The Poolbeg Incinerator: an essay in cynical lobbying

by Michael Smith

Poolbeg has been a costly and unpleasant PR battle. Gormley has faced an insidious onslaught from multiple quarters.

Dublin City Council has claimed (in evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment in February 2010) that the ultimate cost for consultants’ fees in respect of the Poolbeg incinerator could be €50m, with approximately €25m
having been spent to date.

RPS, infrastructure consultants, were appointed as client representatives (i.e. frontmen) to the City Council in 2001, winning a competitive tender with a value of €6m.  This contract has strangely never been re-tendered, but it seems that the total payments made to RPS exceed €20m.

Dublin City Council engaged the ESRI, at a cost of  €103,000, to prepare an alternative waste policy to that being developed by Government.  After an aggressive critique of the conclusions of this report by Dr Dominick Hogg, author of the Government’s review of Waste, the ESRI accepted some of its data were wrong. The most blatantly inaccurate presumption was that emissions from the Poolbeg incinerator would be included under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. This resulted in a significant underestimate of the costs of the facility. The Department of the Environment believes its own report, which included research from an array of acknowledged international academic leaders, was significantly better value at €200,000.

Stephen O’Byrnes is one of the most aggressive agents in the unregistered world of Irish lobbying.  He spent 15 years as a journalist with the Irish Independent, and at the Irish Press Group where he was Political Correspondent. Most significantly, in 1986 he was recruited as National Press Officer and Policy Director of the Progressive Democrats.  He was close to Michael McDowell who was unseated by John Gormley in Dublin South East at the last election following a fractions campaign and the infamous ‘Rumble at the Triangle’.

In 1995, he left politics for  PR and ‘Public Affairs’ through a company called MKC.  At MKC he leads the company’s Public Affairs team on behalf of a range of clients including Bank of Ireland, ESB National Grid, the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, Google and Thornton’s Recycling. MKC clients also include the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland and Covanta, though since there is absolutely no system for registration in this country Covanta do not appear in the client list on the MKC website.

O’Byrnes is also a member of the RTE Authority and contributes occasional pieces to the media, not untypical of which is an anti-Union diatribe published late last year in the Irish Times under the headline “Sense of victimhood won’t rescue us from this mess”.

Among the other partners in MKC is Gerry Howlin, former special advisor to Bertie Ahern, MKC boast that it has “unrivalled experience in public affairs and lobbying….Public Affairs consultant Gerard Howlin and MKC partner Stephen O’Byrnes have worked at the highest political levels in the country”.

Certainly MKC is well-got politically, having handled for example  the media launches of the new National Development Plan 2007–2013 and the Dublin Transportation Office’s plans for over €19 billion in investment.

On behalf of his clients, Covanta, O’Byrnes deploys a devious device to take in journalists: instead of admitting to the amount of waste that the councils actually control, he issues press releases showing the total amount of waste across all four councils. Little wonder then that there has been hardly any press coverage pointing out how black bin waste is tailing off and that the councils are staring at a massive shortfall.

O’Byrnes takes an understandably hostile stance on behalf of his clients to the implementation of discriminatory levies on incinerators like the Poolbeg facility.

Stephen O’Byrnes is taking an effective behind-the-scenes role on the Poolbeg incinerator.  He is said to have briefed Stephen Collins before an unusual diatribe from the normally conservative Irish Times political editor in which he berated the Minister in intemperate and tendentious language for delaying issuing the foreshore licence that is needed for Poolbeg’s cooling process.  Collins wrote: “It is extraordinary that one Minister can simply block the project indefinitely, regardless of national policy, EU policy and legal considerations. Given his clear conflict of interest on the issue Gormley should never have been put in a position where through the exercise of his official functions he could simply hold up the project for as long as he remained in office. Either the Minister should have taken himself out of the equation in the exercise of his official functions on Poolbeg or the Taoiseach should have insisted that he do so. [The Greens’] legacy is in danger of being tarnished by the handling of one major project in the Minister’s backyard”. Collins has elsewhere been scathing about Gormley, on several occasions taking pot shots at him.  An editorial in the Irish Times also dismissed the row over the Poolbeg contract as a “Mexican stand-off” and stated that “whatever the outcome, it should not be driven by political ideology or administrative defensiveness but by hard-headed pragmatism and the need to meet EU environmental standards and to protect the public purse”.

Gormley has also been assailed by vituperative coverage of the matter elsewhere.  Michael Clifford in the Sunday Tribune accused him of being a “NIMBY”.  More insidiously, MKC represents the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland which has taken a strong line in favour of Fairfield-New-Jersey based Covanta.  The American Ambassador has lobbied the Taoiseach on the matter.

Perhaps MKC’s most abrasive manoeuvre was facilitating a complaint made by Phil Hogan, the blustery Fine Gael spokesperson on the Environment, in July, to the Standards in Public Office Commission about the Minister. The complaint says that Gormley has breached seven aspects of the code of conduct for office-holders and his actions about the incinerator “represent a clear conflict of interest”. Hogan says Gormley is not “promoting the common food fairly and impartially as required by the principles of ethical conduct”, that he’s being influenced by personal considerations and as a result is exposing the taxpayer to “considerable risk”. Hogan’s complaint over what seems like workaday environmental posturing by the minister goes beyond what has characterised the cut and thrust of Irish politics. There can be no serious case that the Minister is influenced by “personal” interests.  The complaint had the fingerprints of O’Byrnes all over it. SIPO is said to be treating it seriously and to be in the process of appointing an authorised officer to look in to it.

Overall it seems John Gormley is taking the standard environmental approach one would expect of a Green Minister – and using some guile to out-manoeuvre the usual array of vested interests, including by sitting on the foreshore licence.  The covert machinations of MKC and the arch-Macchiavelli O’Byrnes have not conduced to a healthy and democratic discussion of this fairly mainstream environmental and political issue.