An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Sunday, September 25, 2005  

Protesting Column

Real leaders don’t indulge popular fears

Civil servants at a pension office in Sligo voted to go on strike last week. Not for any of the usual reasons — better pay or shorter working hours. Instead they’re threatening a walk-out because Vodafone is putting three mobile phone antennae on their roof. The workers believe that the health risks are so great it is their duty to prevent the installation at all costs.
They are completely wrong, and yet convinced they are right. How can this be? There are 3.8m mobile phones in Ireland, according to ComReg, the regulator. They don’t keep a count of groups protesting against antennae, but I’d say one for every parish in the country is about right. The protesters are convinced that the non- ionising radiation emitted from the antennae is responsible for a range of conditions, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to migraine.

What these diseases have in common is that nobody is quite sure what causes them. In medieval times, people blamed sin or comets for mystery illnesses. Now we blame modern technology. A harsh comparison, but given the absence of rational thought in each case, we have to ask why there is such a huge gap between actual risk and perceived risk among the general population.

In response to people’s concerns, ComReg monitors the emissions from 400 mobile phone stations throughout the country. The full report for each station is available on its website. Completely at random I read the report on the Slieve Mish mast in Co Kerry. For each radio frequency, a maximum exposure level for the public is recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). On Slieve Mish, the highest emission at the GSM mobile phone transmission frequency was 0.01% of the maximum level recommended. In other words, the emissions are 10,000 times lower than recommended. A pretty comfortable margin of safety.

Protesters will shriek that when it comes to their health, any risk, no matter how small, is unacceptable to them. But this is a lie. Getting out of bed every day is a risk. Whether on foot, by car or by public transport, we run an actual risk of being killed simply by going somewhere. We all, including those civil servants in Sligo, own millions of radiation-emitting mobile phones. The truth is we are quite willing to take big and quantifiable risks every day.

In the case of mobile masts, it is not the level of risk involved, but the manner in which we assess that risk. People assume that the illusion of control, like a talisman, is what protects them. Since they are at the wheel of the car, they think they can overtake the truck before they meet the oncoming bus. The truck or the bus may accelerate, thus undermining the driver’s control of the situation, but this seldom occurs to the driver.

When someone thinks they are in control they will take enormous risks without flinching. When they think someone else, a big company or a government, is imposing a risk upon them, they lose the head.

The Rossport Five are beginning their fourth month in jail because they believe that Shell’s gas pipeline could kill them. Shell wants to build its gas terminal onshore because gas workers are often killed on dangerous offshore terminals, or when the helicopters taking them to and fro crash.

Shell’s pipeline has been designed to take twice the pressure that will be needed. So the chances of an accident in Co Mayo involving Shell are minuscule, and the reaction in Rossport is out of all proportion to the actual risk. But there was no planning process for the pipe, and Shell is a multinational with a nasty reputation and it is wielding compulsory purchase orders. The result is mass hysteria.

In Kinnegad, Lagan Cement has been given permission by Meath county council to burn meat and bone meal (MBM) instead of coal in its furnaces. By burning less coal, the cement company will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45%, an indisputably good thing. There is a tiny risk that the MBM may contain CJD, the human equivalent of mad cow disease, so burning it at 2,000C is a reasonably effective way of completely destroying any traces.

Does that satisfy locals? Of course not. There was a huge protest around Kinnegad because people believed they were going to catch CJD. Do they also believe if they sail far enough west they will fall off the edge of the earth? The problem is that, on all of these issues, there is a complete absence of political leadership. Nobody is willing to stand up to protesters and tell them they are simply mistaken. Instead they are indulged. Wherever there are protesters there are politicians who will say things like “Their fears are real” (not “Their claims are real”). They will say that it is their job to “represent the people’s views”. Who decided that was a politician’ s job? Not Michael Collins or Eamon de Valera. Don’t politicians have the slightest obligation to tell their constituents that just because they read a mad report on the internet, that doesn’t make it true? In one sense, it’s hard to blame them because voters have a nasty habit of electing single-issue protest candidates. No TD or councillor in a proposed incinerator constituency wants to be the first to admit that we have to have them and you won’t grow another head if you live near one.

But Irish politicians are doing themselves no favours in the long run. In almost all protest campaigns the politician is ineffective. This is not an accident: it’s because they decided long ago to outsource hard decisions to politically unaccountable bodies such as An Bord Pleanala and the Environmental Protection Agency. Thus they have protected themselves from being forced to decide on tough issues and taking the rap when the hard choice has to be made.

Inevitably when paid professionals take the unpopular decisions, the ineffectiveness of the politician becomes apparent. People begin to wonder what politicians are for, and either don’t bother to vote in the next election or support an independent.

The various party conferences have been given wide coverage over the past month. Amid all these think-ins, did anyone suggest adopting a policy of standing up to protesters? No, that would be called electoral suicide. But as long as they refrain from offering true leadership on these issues, they are destroying themselves anyway. Just more slowly.

*Blog special update* On the Shell issue, I would like to make clear that I think the non-tax deal they have is outrageous, but that's a reason to kick FF out of office - not get hysterical about safety issues.

posted by Sarah | 21:53 12 comments

When you read your column in a feedreader like I do ( the first paragraph reads as,

"Protesting Column Real leaders don’t indulge popular fears Civil servants at a pension office in Sligo voted to go on strike last week. Not for any of the usual reasons"
i.e. The heading and sentence structure in the first two lines get lost.
The Lagan Cement figures sound very suspect to me. Replacing fossil fuels with animal carcases must be a new discovery, sounds more likely that they are partaking in a little incineration on the side...which is fine by me (where is the waste from meat processing to go? it can't be fed to cows anymore) so long as the make sure the waste is burnt at 500 celcius or above, any lower and you get dioxins....
Hi Sarah

"it’s because they decided long ago to outsource hard decisions to politically unaccountable bodies such as An Bord Pleanala and the Environmental Protection Agency"

Do you mean to imply that politicians should have more hands on involvement in day-to-day decision making? Maybe you mean that ABP & EPA members should be elected. If so, you are 100% wrong MWUH hahahaHA!

Politcians act at the strategic level. They legislate and design organisational frameworks for the execution of that legislation. Hence the judiciary, ABP, EPA...

These agencies act at the operational level, following the legislation laid down for them in each particular case. Ideally, they do so without the guiding grubby hand of Jimmy Hooer the representative for Kiltimagh North.

Politicians cannot make the 'hard decisions' to grant planning permission, sentence criminals or determine environmental risks because they are not qualified to do so. Further, they are hopelessly compromised in their ability to make the right decision in individual cases where there is always a conflict of interest between reality and the views of a local electorate, as in Rossport.

Is Michael McDowell dodging the hard choices by not sitting in the judge's chair and sentencing the accused according to the will of the Sunday World? Maybe Dick Roche should personally sign off on all large planning permission cases after consultation of his medium at the Galway Races.

Bog politicians have to support the narrow-minded, wrong-headed causes adopted by their martyr-loving constituents because otherwise they won't get elected. That's democracy and that's why they have to be kept as far as possible away from decision making on individual cases.

Now tell me you really want politicians to spend less time legislating, so they can make the hard decisions.
Joe; I will try and check out that problem. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Conor; Lagan say they burn at 2000c because that's the temp you need to make cement. As someone else pointed out to me tho' carcasses are also made of carbon and you'd need a lot of carcasses so surely they produce CO2 as well. Must check this out. But substantive point is: you are not going to catch CJD from the smoke.

Ush: I agree entirely with you. My point is this. If politicians took themselves out of the equation by handing over decision making to "politically" unaccountable bodies, why must they insist on pretending that they can influence those same decisions? All they do is prove they can't do anything so loads of them lose their seats anyway. Very rarely one of them will stand up and say: The incinerator will not give you diseases. I think it should go ahead. To his credit I think Michael Martin has done this regarding Ringaskiddy.
Hi Sarah,

You can get an idea of the Lagan Cement desires here:

There is some spin being put onto what Lagan are going to do. This clearly about desposing animal meal/waste which cannot used or dumped because of CJD fears. This is an additional use for a cement kiln. I do not have any problem with this. However it is incineration, and for the sake of transparency and public trust it must be called that. As you will see from the link provided this type of incineration requires certain protocols, I hope the these will be followed by Lagan Cement, perhaps you can ask them?

Conor, I will phone them today. And I would like to thank you for your ability to question my views and alleged facts without abusing me. Updates later. S

There is a pile of information and EIS reports here.
Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the link. They are clearly going through the full Integrated Pollution Control License process, which is great. The EIS was clear and they seem to be up front in the process they will be using (it is very similer to what is contined in that link I sent you yesterday). I can't see what people are worried about?



ps: I love your blog, keep up the good work!
Re: the Rossport 5 you say "...there was no planning process for the pipe... ...The result is mass hysteria."

It is hard to blame the locals in this case given the lack of information and assurances that they were given by the government and Shell. We are still awaiting an independent health and safety report and we are still awaiting the public hearings on the health and safety issues.

So in the case of the Rossport 5 their fears are real but the jury is still out on whether their claims are real or not.

BTW I agree with the broader argument that you are making in this post.
Sorry, forgot to put my name in the previous comment.
Mark, thank you for adding your name. The anonymous commenters freak me out. On the Rossport thing, the lack of the planning process absolutely added to the problem. I know from my own political contacts down there that certainly the Fine Gaelers anyway are breaking themselves trying to get Shell talking to the protesters to reassure them. Michael Ring was in this well before Jerry Cowley/Crowley (always get confused). And while Enda Kenny was getting slated nationally, I think he has been in and out of the jail but without the cameras. The thing is, I think they have been provided with the right information at this stage but they have to negotiate a solution whereby they can climb down without seeming to climb down.
I used to do this stuff all the time for Esat Digifone in my past life. I ususally found a donation to the local tidy town's fund solved a lot of problems. Finally I do want to stress again that I think Shell should in no way have gotten the financial deal that they did and it stinks, but this is separate from the safety issue. Finally finally I should add a little note about how sneaky/far seeing/clever Shell are or think they are. Several years ago they began having an annual think-in for senior management to which they invited outside people they identified as being thought influencers. I ended up on this illustrious list. It was patently obvious they wanted people like us to think they were earnest and wonderful and tell everybody else. Now the Irish individuals were earnest (and to be precise are not from Shell E&P the Rossport/oil crowd) but there were these creepy PR types from London there too. You could practically see them rubbing their hands with glee when the "influencers" were praising the staff's efforts to be good corporate citizens. I enjoyed the gig and I tried to be constructive by persuading the staff that since they were totally powerless to do anything about the Ogone people (which in a corporate structure is a depressing reality) they should try and be ideologically sound at home and put free recycling bins at their stations etc. Little did I realise that would have their own "Ogone" crisis here but a few years later. Anyway, I'm telling you all this because I felt a bit guilty defending Shell when I had been at their gig, even if I feel I have the ability to shake out the different issues involved here. Actually I am slightly conflicted on every issue mentioned in the column. As Lagan are nearby to me I was familiar with their entire planning process. My father abstained on the original vote in the council because he had acted as the auctioneer which sold them the land. I know John Gallagher the CEO (or at least he was CEO - not sure if he's still there). And of course, as already referred to I used to work for Esat and my job was persuading locals to let masts go up. I had a 100% success rate. However, I feel that all these contacts provided me with knowledge of the *facts* involved and therefore qualifies me to comment on them, not disqualify me. If I had to rely on newspapers for the facts of the case, I'd know nothing ;-) Christ I am so defensive. Anyway, now you all know. Don't kill me.
Thanks for the reply Sarah. I think we are on the same page.

I have not taken any sides in the Rossport debate but I think it's important that the proper procedures are followed. That did not happen in this case. I am happy to take the word of an independent health report. If this report had existed before the work had begun then it would have solved a lot of problems. The underhanded approach by the government and Shell has caused alot of unnecessary resentment among the local community.

Regarding conflicts of interest, they tell me that Jerry Cowley is a second or third cousin of mine (the closeness of the relationship varies according to which issue he's pushing at the time).
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