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Irish Examiner - 29/08/05
When consultation becomes a ‘problem,’ democracy loses out

AT a public meeting in Cork recently we heard of the plight of the Rossport Five and the battle that this community have on their hands to ensure the protection of their homes.

What struck me at the meeting was that the people in Mayo had encountered problems similar to ours in Cork when dealing with the proposed toxic waste incinerator.

The language was almost identical in that we heard of the situation where “the Government bought the lie” and “depended on the information the company gave them” without asking any hard questions.

It was only when searching questions were asked by the community here in Cork, and some cogent facts and figures were presented, that the truth finally emerged about the safety and site selection of this facility.

Similarly the truth about the development of the Corrib gas field would never have come to light without the community there asking the right questions.

Without intervention by community groups, the planning and other issues on which the state makes decisions on behalf of all of us would have been set aside in a headlong rush to facilitate such developments. The protection of people’s health and environment are fundamental to the principles on which our constitution is based, and therefore the communities’ challenge to such developments are fully justified.

The Government’s proposal to ‘fast-track’ developments via a new infrastructure board will almost certainly mean that public consultation and a truly democratic decision-making process will be seriously undermined.

While we do not yet know the terms of reference or structure of such a board the idea of fast-tracking can only lead to corners being cut and any meaningful participation by communities who are to host such facilities will be seriously eroded.

Central to the planning system in this state is the concept that decisions should be based on democratic consensus between the stakeholder groups rather than the autocratic imposition of a single point of view “in the common good.”

The fast-tracking of major development proposals will seriously undermine the democratic and consensual principles of that planning system.

Community groups in general have a serious vested interest in fully evaluating applications for major facilities.

It is in their interest to evaluate the safety, health and environmental implications of such developments on their lives and the quality of the lives of their children and future generations.

Communities are uniquely positioned to identify problems, as they are the main stakeholders. The value of this unique perspective cannot be understated in the planning process.

It was the public consultation process and doggedness of communities that allowed the truth about the Cork and Mayo situations to be exposed. This process must not be lost.

A national infrastructure board will simply facilitate present Government policy at the cost of national policy and the safety of our communities. The pressure on our environment arising from rapid economic growth is such that we cannot afford the erosion of our democracy any further.

We have seen far too often in recent times too many decisions being made in favour of industrialists, multinationals and developers at the expense of sound planning principles.

While the present system has problems in relation to the level of objections to such proposals, it would be far more helpful for the Government to look at why this is so. Further isolating communities from the decision-making process is not the answer.

A quote from a Government-commissioned report sums up the issue well: “This proposed infrastructure board comes at too high a price for the development of a healthy and balanced society and is a price that many people may not be willing to pay.”

It will simply facilitate a ‘cosy cartel’ to run the country in their own interests, and not those of the citizens of Ireland.

In an interview in January 2005 the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, revealed his Government’s thinking on this issue:

“I would like to have the power of the mayor (of Shanghai)... I would just like that we can get through the consultation problem as quick as possible.”

Isn’t it interesting that he thought of consultation as a ‘problem’ rather than a ‘process’ which we the citizens are all entitled to engage in.

Mary O’Leary
Chairperson
CHASE
Spy Hill
Cobh
Co Cork

     

Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment
Bishop's Road, Cobh, Co. Cork
Tel - 021 481 5564      Email - info@chaseireland.org
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