Tag Archives: Michael Smith

Justice Fergus Flood, the first chairman of the Planning Tribunal in 1998

 

In fairness.

Michael Smith?

Colm MacEochaidh?

Planning Tribunal?

From top: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin; Michael Smith

For Greens to vote for the Programme for Government is an ‘act of environmental surrender almost to the point of cynicism’, argues activist and Village magazine editor Michael Smith.

Michael writes:

So I fell to thinking about whether I should put my limited weight behind the leadership of the Green Party.

It is currently struggling to obtain a two-thirds majority from its party members to approve the Programme for Government that its Parliamentary Party has ratified with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

What is the Greens’ record in Government?

Poor.

In the run-up to the 2007 general election I was centrally involved through an organisation we called HEAT with a campaign to lobby for the political parties to treat climate seriously.

We wrote a number of articles saying what would be required and we helped wreck the Ryanair AGM and a Bord Pleanála hearing on the new runway for Dublin Airport, forced pro-climate helium balloons onto the 9 0’Clock news and trailed the renegade Minister for the Environment, Mr Roche around, with a cockroach.

We privately wanted the Greens to get in, so they would implement a climate agenda. The Greens duly justified their decision to go in to government with dodgy Bertie Ahern on the basis of the climate imperative, and their members ratified it by the necessary majority.

At the time, I went to the effort of going in to print to say they were right to make the risky leap I suggested only they focused, in ways, I specified, on implementation.

In fact they were in power for three and a half years, and despite an imploding economy failed to reach their unambitious target of 3% annual emissions reductions.

They failed to get a Climate Act, publishing a largely toothless bill that was never enacted.

They also achieved little for biodiversity which continued its precipitous decline or on planning where development continued largely as one-off housing and sprawl, especially from Dublin into Leinster.

As to what they call ‘Social Justice’ income equality, measured by the Gini Coefficient, decreased and was disimproved further when the Greens pulled out. The FF-Green government was a blip in the progress made on income equality over most of the last 20 years.

The Greens introduced lots of environmental legislation but in my experience legislation is not for the most part what is required; it is implementation.

There is an existing edifice of planning and biodiversity laws for example – but they are not implemented. Introducing new laws largely results in simply more rules that are not enforced. For the Green Party it has to be about results, not rules.

I had tried the optimism thing, I had tried hoping the Greens would be able to outmanoeuvre an inadequately Green Programme for Government. But that was in 2007. And it didn’t work. Once bitten…

I believe any fair commentator would be struck by the fact the Greens have never acknowledged their implementation failures in that government, or – especially – why they arose.

Indeed I have noticed a pattern on social media when attention is drawn  to the sectoral failures of the Party in 2007-2011, and an eminence in the party replies indignantly – but never by a precise outline of the achievements.

Until they acknowledge their tendency to soft-mindedness and acknowledge they need to put in place mechanisms such as the use of indicators and a focus on enforcement, especially through a more intelligent use of the law, I will remain sceptical as to whether Ireland’s Green Party is a force qualified to lead the fight on behalf of its environment.

Optimists and analysts know that the past is not a pointer to the future – unless its lessons remain unlearnt. The Greens seem unreconstructed. At least its leaders and negotiators do.

Once bitten certainly… but more importantly and precisely the dog hasn’t learnt its lesson and we have to decide what we should do about it as it runs around the yard looking for people to pet it.

Is the Programme for Government any good?

No.

There are ways you implement an environmental agenda. You can, for example, establish indicators of policy for everything from income equality to voting rates to water quality and emissions rates to employment and GDP. Those indicators should have targets that can be monitored and assessed so regularly that, if any of what has been agreed is flouted, the Greens should consider pulling the plug on government.

For the Green Party quality of life indicators should have been central. They do make some commitment to them but it is not clear what they intend to do with them. And, extraordinarily, there is no commitment to environmental indicators.

Beyond indicators there must be budgets and timetables for environmental measures.

Agenda-driven enforcement agencies must be instigated, and legislation enacted that is justiciable (so the public or NGOs can litigate breaches), that is tight (rules should read “shall implement” not “shall have regard to”) and mandatory not discretionary (rules should read “shall” not “may”).

An Attorney General must be chosen who isn’t obstructive, and civil servants must embrace, however reluctantly, mandated Green Party policies.

I know about the tedious matters of implementation and enforcement of environmental measures because I bagged myself a law degree years ago and because I’ve taken lots of miserable enforcement actions and legal cases.

I’ve signed over a thousand submissions on the fruits of bad environmental policy over the years and wrote a dozen policy documents for An Taisce around the turn of the millennium.

If you’re a Green and you don’t know how implementation works in Ireland, especially if you thought you could negotiate a second Programme for Government for your party without making an acute study of what went wrong with the first one (2007-2011), you might be better going back to environmentalism school before you promote the merits of the environmental sections of the Programme for Government 2020.

As a relatively sober well-disposed Green-watcher I might be expected to give the Party the benefit of the doubt. However, their agenda is a planetary one and I of course don’t want history to repeat itself as farce so I had to hope this Programme for Government would be better than the last one.

But unfortunately the Programme for Government is every bit as loose as the 2007 one. It’s the same old Greens. More aspirations. A Programme for Government chock full of them.

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Michael Smith (above), and Colm MacEochaidh, offered a reward in 1995 – on the back of suspicions generated  by his experience with Cherrywood [Loughlinstown, Co Dublin, above] which led to the instigation of the Planning Tribunal. He edits and publishes Village magazine.

I am not sure if it was ever reasonable to rely on the sort of minds that took 15 years and up to €300m to deal with an ‘urgent’ examination of corruption in one county to then produce a radical and dynamic report.

The Mahon Report nails easy targets among the rezoners: four dead dinosaurs (three FF, one FG), five red-toothed, long-sidelined rezoning machines (three FF and two FG) and well, for example, Olivia Mitchell (Olivia was done for inappropriate behaviour in one case only).

But in the rezoning that I was opposing 20 years ago, Cherrywood, as with most of the rezonings, the findings fall short of implicating anyone who still could be described as the political establishment.

In 1993 the residents’ group I was involved with published  a leaflet wondering why local councillors who voted for Cherrywood in 1993, consigning the beauty-spot to concrete, had voted against it in 1992, with no change of circumstances.  Six of them.

We said changing their minds was suspicious in 1993.

That was before we knew that 60 politicians and community groups took money from the developer, Monarch Properties, which disbursed £167,000 in cheques and £161,000 in untraced cash.

This was before several councillors were charged with corruption concerning the adjoining ‘Jackson Way’ site.

Before Frank Dunlop (jailed over Jackson Way) who had taken over lobbying for the Cherrywood rezoning in late 1992 confessed himself a crook.

Before we knew that Albert Reynolds had received a £5,000 donation that referred to the positive role of FF councillors in facilitating the rezoning.

And before it was known John Bruton received £2,500 from Monarch for Fine Gael in between the crucial votes.

Nine out of the 12 FG Councillors who would talk to their party’s  internal Inquiry in 2000 had received money from Monarch or Frank Dunlop (or both) in the 1991-1993 period when I was concerned with the Cherrywood vote.

The tribunal didn’t even attempt to ask the councillors why they changed their minds after receiving donations from Dunlop or Monarch, though that didn’t stop it hauling them in and asking them endless other questions.

The report almost entirely omits conclusions on this endless stream of dodgy evidence. Someone needs to do a survey of on what percentage of the evidence heard by the tribunal reached no conclusions at all.

I have been speaking to many of the journalists covering Mahon in the last few days and most of them have not even read most chapters of the report. Most of them struggled with the one-chapter summary.

This, of course, replicates their failure over Moriarty – where for example the ineptitude of civil servants was never properly accounted for in the media. Even the Irish Times managed only a few sad paragraphs on most of the 13 Mahon modules. Lots of stuff about Quarryvale, but then again everyone can picture, and everyone hates, Bertie –  so that sells newspapers.

If you’re looking to the Irish  Times for objective ‘newspaper of record’-style coverage you might note its torpidly inadequate commentary on Mahon-reviewed rezonings apart from Quarryvale, and correlate them with the irish Times’ failure to note Phil Hogan’s collapsing of John Gormley’s investigation of seven local authorities countrywide in June 2011 (apart from a short comment from an An Taisce spokesperson the following month).

And indeed the misreporting, and failure to note the significance, of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) ethics  finding against Labour stalwart Oisin Quinn last month – only the third negative finding in the 11-year history of SIPO.

The Irish Times published three articles which misrepresented the essence of the Quinn case and included eight errors of fact, half from Oisin Quinn, half from Stephen Collins whose article we describe as “unprofessional” in the current edition of Village. The misreporting included on the number of instances of illegality found against the councillor. Four instances not one.

Take this representative media failure in combination with the governmental failure to implement the recommendations of Moriarty (it was promised every relevant government department would come up with a list of measures within four weeks), the continuing planning and environmental chaos countrywide (Dublin continues to sprawl, one-off housing accounts for more than fifty-per-cent of national housing, septic tanks go unmonitored and turf-cutters breach minimum EU standards, for example) and the failure of FG to curtail Denis O’Brien’s  grandstanding with its grandees; and, unfortunately, the optimal response to Mahon seems, once again, to be cynicism.

Michael Smith, March 28, 2012.

Read about Mahon, Cherrywood, Oisin Quinn and Hogan’s investigation In Village (online here) and about Cherrywood here