Bruton faces cli­mate for big changes

De­nis Naugh­ten’s suc­ces­sor has prob­lems with cli­mate, broad­band and un­der­ground ca­bling, writes Wil­lie Kealy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Cabinet Reshuffle -

WAS that Don­ald Dono­hoe or Paschal Trump in the Dail last Tues­day? Whichever, it was the only hy­brid on view in a car­bon tax-free Bud­get that would have done credit to a cli­mate change de­nier.

At any time this would have been a cry­ing shame, but to come so soon on the heels of a most alarm­ing re­port from the world’s lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists, part of the UN In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change, made it in­ex­pli­ca­ble.

The Fi­nance Min­is­ter says he is not un­sym­pa­thetic to the need for a car­bon tax in­crease, he just doesn’t seem to think there is the back­ing for it in Le­in­ster House yet. And he could be right, given that when he told those in the In­de­pen­dent Al­liance and in his own party op­posed to in­creas­ing VAT on the hospi­tal­ity in­dus­try, that the al­ter­na­tive was to in­crease duty on diesel, they over­whelm­ingly with­drew their ob­jec­tions on be­half of pub­li­cans and hote­liers.

The car­bon tax of €20 a tonne is not the only an­swer to cli­mate change (al­ter­na­tive fuel sources is an­other); but it is one part of the an­swer and an im­por­tant part at that. As it hap­pens, the Cabi­net mem­ber with re­spon­si­bil­ity for all this is (or was) the re­cently de­parted De­nis Naugh­ten. Mr Naugh­ten is on record as favour­ing a car­bon tax in­crease, though how much he did not say, and he cer­tainly did not back the Govern­ment’s own Cli­mate Change Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil, which sug­gested an im­me­di­ate €10 in­crease, ris­ing to €80 by 2030. And he ob­vi­ously failed to achieve any progress on this front in the Bud­get.

There were lots of im­pres­sive sound­ing fig­ures in Mr Naugh­ten’s Bud­get con­tri­bu­tion on be­half of his own depart­ment, but ev­ery­thing seems to be planned for the long term. Not much is deemed to be ur­gent.

That may change with a new min­is­ter. His suc­ces­sor, Richard Bruton, will have a full agenda, with the broad­band de­ba­cle Mr Naugh­ten has left be­hind, and the post of­fices and the fu­ture of Bord na Mona, the fi­nanc­ing of RTE and the long run­ning dis­pute with the peo­ple of Meath, Ca­van and Mon­aghan, over whether miles of high-volt­age elec­tric ca­bles should be placed un­der­ground or car­ried over­ground on gi­ant py­lons.

In the con­text of Mr Naugh­ten’s an­gry and ill-tem­pered exit from the Cabi­net and from the Dail cham­ber last Thurs­day, this lat­ter dis­pute has taken on a new im­por- tance. For years now the state body, Eir­grid, has been spend­ing tax­pay­ers’ money with aban­don to try to break the will of those who ob­ject to over­ground ca­bling, even col­laps­ing a pub­lic hear­ing as it neared com­ple­tion, with the pos­si­bil­ity that the ob­jec­tors would not be able to main­tain fund­ing their chal­lenge.

But the im­por­tance of this sorry tale lies in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mr Naugh­ten and his of­fi­cials and Eir­grid. For it shows that his in­abil­ity to main­tain a proper dis­tance be­tween him­self and those seek­ing a favourable de­ci­sion from his depart­ment, did not start with the Na­tional Broad­band Plan. This was al­ready high­lighted in the Dail a month ago, but at the time it did not get much trac­tion. And yet, if any­thing, it is worse than the broad­band al­le­ga­tions, where, in Mr Naugh­ten’s own words, his main “crime” is one of the op­tics of the sev­eral meals he had with the chair­man of the lead (and only) broad­band bid­der, David Mc­Court.

But in the Dail on Septem­ber 21, Fianna Fail deputy Shane Cas­sells asked Mr Naugh­ten about the “best buddy re­la­tion­ship” shown to ex­ist be­tween his depart­ment on the one hand, and Eir­grid on the other, in a se­ries of emails be­tween these par­ties re­leased un­der FOI to the jour­nal­ist Michael Fisher and pub­lished as the “Eir­grid Files”.

At the time the con­tentious mat­ter was un­der re­view, Mr Cas­sells says “of­fi­cials in Eir­grid were email­ing your depart­ment with pro­posed agen­das for meet­ings with the un­der­ground re­view group.

“How can you se­ri­ously call it an in­de­pen­dent re­view group, when the very body be­ing looked at is ac­tu­ally putting the agenda to­gether for the meet­ing.”

He then quoted from an email sent from the depart­ment to the in­de­pen­dent Re­view Group which said: “Good morn­ing gents. Eir­grid are try­ing to struc­ture the meet­ing on Thurs­day and have sug­gested this draft agenda.”

Mr Cas­sells con­cluded: “Last time I looked, the de­fen­dant in a case does not pre­pare the prose­cu­tion case when they are ap­pear­ing in the dock.”

The min­is­ter off-hand­edly dis­missed this in­quiry, say­ing he had not read the “Eir­grid Files”, and so would not com­ment.

When the Min­is­ter for In­ap­pro­pri­ate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Con­tacts re­signed last Thurs­day af­ter­noon, there were tributes paid from all sides. He was a nice man and every­one was sure that all those lunches and din­ners were harm­less, but it looked bad and he had to go.

Why did no­body men­tion that De­nis Naugh­ten had “pre­vi­ous” for this kind of thing, and in fact he had form for be­hav­iour that could be viewed as more se­ri­ous than his broad­band din­ners?

Richard Bruton has taken over the port­fo­lio, hope­fully he will do a whole lot bet­ter on cli­mate change, on broad­band and on un­der­ground ca­bling, and leave a bet­ter legacy than that left by Mr Naugh­ten.

‘Naugh­ten was asked about the best buddy re­la­tion­ship with Eir­grid’

NEW BRIEF: Richard Bruton has taken over De­nis Naugh­ten’s port­fo­lio and hope­fully he will do bet­ter on cli­mate change, broad­band and un­der­ground ca­bling. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

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