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The Irish Times, Tara and the M3 and a society where certain issues are ignored…. July 10, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Fianna Fáil, Greens.
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Today’s edition of the Irish Times brings us an editorial on Tara. It certainly doesn’t pull its punches.

It is a tragedy for Ireland that the current route of the planned M3 motorway, which is due to snake its way through the valley east of the Hill of Tara, now appears to be accepted as a fait accompli, even by the new Green Party Minister for the Environment, John Gormley.

There is an proposal that:

Over the past several months, the National Roads Authority clearly set out to create so many facts on the ground in its determination to pursue the approved route of the M3 that the hands of a new minister would be tied. It was assisted in this dubious enterprise by the 2004 amendment to the National Monuments Acts championed by Martin Cullen, when he held office in the Custom House; it was specifically designed to facilitate road construction, even at the expense of our archaeological heritage.

My own feelings on this issue have developed over time. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with those lobbying against the road. They appear, to me at least, to have taken a fairly alarmist line, and one which overstated the significance of the site by recourse to a ‘mythic’ discourse rooted in a series of contentious historical assertions presented as fact.

However, having said that I have also been fairly troubled by the almost glib way in which this development has been allowed to proceed. I am entirely certain that every step has been within the processes allowed by law. I don’t share the Irish Times view as regards the NRA. My reading of the situation is that the NRA fulfilled a statutory obligation to release information on sites of interest along the route and to deal with them appropriately through sound archaeological investigation and the rather unfair characterisation of ‘facts on the ground’ is not borne out by the events as they unfolded.

But…there is a genuine dilemma here, because one means of dealing with the archaeology is through “preservation by record” or “(destruction)” as the IT puts it. That’s not entirely accurate. The very process of archaeological excavation is destructive in the sense that it alters that which is there, often utterly. That doesn’t necessitate the destruction of artifacts that are found, but features may well be destroyed. It’s an old problem. To investigate one must engage in a process which will alter.

Frankly, I’m not hugely concerned about the archaeology either. The surveys have been done. There are undoubtedly sites of interest in this landscape, but one could argue that there are sites of interest in all landscapes. Material will be salvaged, some will be destroyed.

I do have concerns about the landscape itself. Knowing people who live beside a motorway I have seen the way it has impacted both positively and negatively upon their lifestyle over the past ten or fifteen years. It is not a disaster, but there are clear downsides. To my mind the original decision to route beside Tara, notwithstanding the reality of a pre-existing road there, seems odd.

Yet my real problem with this is that a broader societal discussion was not engaged in on how we approach these issues, because being pragmatic there should be a much clearer methodology available, one which asks us more broadly to rank our societal goals and take ownership of them. There are trade-offs that have to be made in these instances. The issue of transport for those who live in the general area as against national heritage. The means of determining the actual – as against hypothetical – status of such sites and just what lengths should be taken to preserve, conserve or discard them. The resources afforded to infrastructure and to heritage. All are deeply complex, not to mention controversial. Yet, at no point does it seem clear that those obligated to weigh them deeply – and here I’m talking about government – did so in a clearly rigorous fashion.

Yet, there is no huge outcry amongst the public (although the IT editorial might assist some sort of dynamic there). This is not Wood Quay, where hundreds of thousands were mobilised, unsuccessfully as it transpired. I marched in defence of Wood Quay (I had little choice, I was brung..as they say). I see little equivalent passion today.

Indeed the track record of the Irish Times itself on this matter is intriguing. Checking editorials over the last two years there is a brief mention in one from 2005 about:

While the M3 motorway seems likely to go ahead, against the weight of expert opinion, there is the danger that it could then attract residential or other developments that will further intrude on what the director of the National Museum, Dr Pat Wallace, has described as “a unique cultural landscape”.

In March 2006 there is a stronger one which notes:

The mystical setting of the Hill of Tara, once the seat of Ireland’s high kings, is considerably more important than the fate of the outer defences of a Pale fortress in south Co Dublin. Dick Roche could, and should, have declined to issue his directions on the treatment of 38 archaeological sites on the route of the M3 between Dunshaughlin and Navan. But there was a political impetus to forge ahead with the motorway, whatever its consequences for the Tara landscape.

Nobody could deny that the existing N3 is plagued by congestion, mainly caused by commuters using it every day to travel to and from work in Dublin. But an alternative route should have been found – one that would protect, rather than damage, the Tara landscape – and a much higher priority attached to re-opening the old Navan railway line. This project would provide a real alternative to car commuting for many but is not scheduled for completion until 2015. That is much too long to wait while rushing ahead with a misconceived motorway plan.

Yet, that, as far as I could determine, was that until today, well over a year and a quarter later. Not much to show for something that should, if the IT was being consistent, be a continuing issue. Having said that the IT can largely only reflect. The societal narrative appears to be one of resignation about such things. The forces arrayed against a host of issues are seen as too great, Shannon is stymied by ‘reality’, Tara by the dynamic of development, co-location by the need to do something, anything. That’s a narrative that we on the left, whatever our views regarding individual issues, should abhor. It’s curious to have to make recourse to Nick Cohen on such a regular basis, but his point about corporations and the power of government is absolutely correct and needs only to be slightly adjusted to suit this issue…”…however novel the ability of companies to shift money and jobs around the world, and however restrictive the limits on the autonomy of national governments have become, corporations remain weak. When all is said and done, they are hierarchical associations for the production of profit. They can’t raise armies or levy taxes or enact legislation. Governments can do all three and turn nasty if they have the inclination…’. There is a terrible danger that the left is becoming entranced by the power of its opponents…

John Gormley appears to have tried to shift the debate by appointing a review of the situation and state policy on archaeology. As the IT notes he has said: that if the review was to recommend amending or even repealing the 2004 legislation, he would act on this by taking it to Cabinet. But whether he would be able to persuade his Fianna Fáil colleagues to accept such a recommendation remains to be seen. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine that those who sponsored the damaging changes made to the National Monument Acts three years ago would be prepared to set them aside, in the interest of heritage protection.

A fair point. No government wants to be seen to have taken a wrong decision and that will weigh heavily if the issue ever gets to cabinet. But am I being unreasonable in seeing the IT’s renewed interest as being a convenient stick with which to beat Gormley and implicitly the Greens for their temerity in going into government? And consider this, here is the Green dilemma encapsulated. Remain outside of government and probably there would be no review at all of procedures and a likelihood of further issues like this arising, go in and Tara is most likely lost, but the situation doesn’t happen again. Problem is that those who would oversee the first scenario are those who sit cheek by jowl implementing the second with you. And what would the IT have Gormley do? Leave Cabinet? The very cabinet that would revert to scenario one with clearly no hesitation? A difficult place to be, and on a slight tangent a place where the events of this and the next number of months may reverberate in the public imagination longer than the Green Party (or perhaps Fianna Fáil) might like.

I don’t have the answers. I can see both sides of this argument, but… the original decision, the management of the problem, the way in which the NRA has been hung out to dry and the continuing lack of ownership – or seeming wish to take ownership – of the issue by the broader public is revealing in itself.

Comments»

1. Pidge - July 10, 2007

“Remain outside of government and probably there would be no review at all of procedures and a likelihood of further issues like this arising, go in and Tara is most likely lost, but the situation doesn’t happen again.”

That’s very well put. I remember the protestors at the Green conference on the issue of going into government. One guy had a sign which read “Save Tara, vote no”. Some of the Young Greens were speaking to him afterwards, and he didn’t seem to see the problem with his sign.

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2. WorldbyStorm - July 10, 2007

It’s a perfect example of Catch-22 really and perhaps a perfect example of the way in which systems fold dissent inwards. But perhaps the most important aspect of this is to consider the following. How many decisions over the past five or ten years, or let’s say since 1994 when Labour walked away from Fianna Fáil, might have been mitigated or even entirely avoided had parties been willing to operate in a rational way when it came to actually dealing with Fianna Fáil rather than the superheated and entirely dishonest rhetoric we’ve heard over that time period. I’m not making FF out to be anything more than they are … centre centre/right etc etc… but… the sort of futile approach best exemplified by Labour’s bizarre and counter intuitive adherence to the Mullingar Accord post-Election is typical of an entirely useless political approach.

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3. chekov - July 11, 2007

“I don’t share the Irish Times view as regards the NRA. My reading of the situation is that the NRA fulfilled a statutory obligation to release information on sites of interest along the route and to deal with them appropriately through sound archaeological investigation and the rather unfair characterisation of ‘facts on the ground’ is not borne out by the events as they unfolded.”

Fulfilling statutory obligations is not disjoint with creating facts on the ground. In fact, it’s simply impossible to read events as they unfolded as not being all about creating as many facts on the ground as possible. They launched intensive work on the sensitive section first, the very day after getting permission – the fact that they may not have actually broken the law in their creation of the facts on the ground doesn’t say anything, one way or the other, about whether they were conducting a strategy of maximising facts on the ground. If you have been following the work program (which, to my great dismay, I have found myself doing), it’s obvious that they have been attempting to create as many facts on the ground as possible – or else the project manager has had multiple brain haemorrhages and has re-written the road building manual according to mysterious principles.

I just don’t know how you could argue against that (or, for that matter, why the IT thinks it’s an outrage). If you think about the metrics by which the performances of the NRA senior executives are effectively measured (namely keeping the government happy by delivering roads to voters, contracts to the CIF and bundles of cash to land-owners), it’s obvious that that is exactly what they’re bound to do in such a situation:

“I know, minister,that you told me two years ago that the final route was decided, and that it was a number one priority to get it built now that the decision has been made. However, due to our decision to ignore your assurances and factor in the possibility that we may have to change the route in the future and due to the phased nature of road construction, we have not started substantial work to the sensitive section and, if a new minister were to order a change in route, this could in fact be accomodated without having caused any significant damage to archaeology. It will, of course, add 2 years and 500 million to the project budget though…”

“…I’m fired?”

Although I run the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think that here, once again, you ignore the concrete in favour of the metaphysical.

Debates about the cost of progress and the relative value of heritage versus convenience are very interesting and philosophically difficult. But, in this case, as in almost all other politics, they are only a minor, indirect factor in the questions which the decision makers ask themselves – how can I maximise my political advantage from this decision?

In this case, the question was “what is the best thing we can do for landowners and the construction industry without causing a significant amount of vote-costing unrest?” FF know well that all the other parties are actively seeking the support of the CIF and property owners in general and were therefore bound not to do or say anything which might actually endanger the project – limiting themselves to vague concerns and so on.

I actually disagree with you about the level of the popular feeling – lots of people seem very angry about it – it’s just that there’s absolutely no political force which is in a position to organise this feeling. The fact is that there simply isn’t any political force in the country which is capable of organising on a large scale in opposition to the interests of the CIF or property owners at large. If you follow the ins and outs of the various tara campaigns (again something which I am dismayed to have done), it’s just staggeringly incompetently done and disorganised – riven by factions which are obviously dominated by acutely delusional people.

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4. WorldbyStorm - July 11, 2007

I hate to say, but this is very much having your cake and eating it. On the one hand you suggest that they may not actually have broken the law. On the other hand you suggest that they have re-written the road building manual according to mysterious principles.

There is no evidence of ‘intensive work’ being launched on ‘the sensitive section’ first. Topsoil strip work had been done along the entirety of the route throughout the period and due to protests the Tara area was delayed. Even in that context what does ‘first’ mean? The project had been through various aspects of the planning process and had been greenlighted. We may not like the outcome of that, but it meant that the NRA was well within its rights, indeed its duty to work on the area.

As regards your “I’m fired?” point I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of the NRA and its position. It implies that NRA executives will pressurise archaeologists to produce certain results. I know that’s a very attractive viewpoint, but the reality is I suspect much more mundane. NRA archaeologists are on permanent contracts IIRC. What other threat can be used? The Department will come round their place and smash it up? Now, I’ve heard it said that all archaeologists in this country are prey to other inducements. Frankly I think that’s nonsense. This country is a bonanza for archaeological investigation… the legislation and the economy has created a thriving industry, an industry where developments in certain areas must comply with AIS’s (and of course EIS’s). Compare and contrast with examples from the continent where the attitude is very different…

Regarding the maximisation of political advantage, that would occur by being supportive of the M3 due to pressures in the local area for improved transportation, as almost all candidates were at the recent election. And I think that you’re missing a point here too. It is after all you who argues the current system is wretched and should be replaced. When I argue the same I’m told I’m being metaphysical. I disagree, I’m being aspirational. Quite a different thing.

As for landowners. Tell me the mechanism that would transmit to design and engineering teams the necessary data about the political preferences of landowners along that or any other road building project? I’m sure you’re aware of the nature of EIS and AIS and how these would vastly outweigh say landownership or whatever other factor you might care to mention. Actually, since statistically 40% of the country vote FF, somewhat more it would appear in rural areas, I’d suggest it is difficult to find any particular area in the country where you won’t come up against FF (or let’s be frank FG because they too support this initiative) voters and supporters. The landowner issue is great because it is essentially unknowable. One final point. The NRA itself has been an objector in development processes, if only for the very good reason that such developments disrupt traffic flows at interchanges. Now we can position that within their own ends, but it does suggest a complexity to this situation. In any event Gormley does have the power to quash development within the area of Tara so if FF were so wedded to developers and landowners why on earth would they have brought the Greens in when they could have been able to accomodate the ‘landowners’ with just the PDs and assorted Indo’s equally well?

Actually one final final point. 🙂 I agree with you about the appalling nature of the campaigns. Had they swung into action two years earlier . Had they been able to mobilise archaeological opinion in Ireland in a better way, and had they avoided the image of the single transferable campaign that is – unfortunately – incredibly off putting to many many people we might have seen a result more to our liking. Having said that I think you’re completely incorrect as regards popular feeling. This is generally a non-issue. It was in the election. It is now. Indeed I’m staggered, and dismayed by how indifferent many people are about it or even hostile to the idea of protests.

I don’t say that with any satisfaction at all. My only point of disagreement with you is that to reify the position of the NRA in this process is to miss the point. And logic suggests that they were in no position to do other than as they have done. But I imagine from your position the NRA is the only organisation – through protest etc – that is amenable to pressure. I think that analysis is incorrect, and that such protests will be counterproductive and will fail.

This was a problem created not due to corruption, but due to an inability to appreciate the value of a cultural heritage. That’s why I point the finger not merely at government but at the society. And those are the two entities which should have taken ownership of this, but didn’t.

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5. chekov - July 12, 2007

My point was in defence of the IT – they did not imply that the NRA had broken any law, put any pressure on archaeologists, or anything else – nor did I. Here’s the quote (which I think is accurate).

“Over the past several months, the National Roads Authority clearly set out to create so many facts on the ground in its determination to pursue the approved route of the M3 that the hands of a new minister would be tied. It was assisted in this dubious enterprise by the 2004 amendment to the National Monuments Acts championed by Martin Cullen, when he held office in the Custom House; it was specifically designed to facilitate road construction, even at the expense of our archaeological heritage.”

They explicitly pointed out that the law was changed precisely so they wouldn’t have to break any laws in expediting construction (ie creating facts on the ground). In many cases, as soon as judicial injunctions have been lifted, or archaeological surveys completed or planning permission has been granted for sensitive areas, they have moved in machinery the very next day. That simply couldn’t happen if they were managing the project on a pure-productivity basis.

“It implies that NRA executives will pressurise archaeologists to produce certain results.”

No it doesn’t. They don’t have to pressure archaeologists – they already pressured the government and got the result they wanted, the law refered to above. They can, however, entirely dictate things like scheduling of works, location of equipment, which sections to work on – and there are decision about these things which will maximise productivity and other decisions which will maximise facts on the ground when faced with opposition.

“Regarding the maximisation of political advantage, that would occur by being supportive of the M3 due to pressures in the local area for improved transportation, as almost all candidates were at the recent election”

If making people happy by giving them transport was their priority, they would have (re)built the railway line – which make people much happier than roads and are a much more sensible solution nowadays.

The fact is that the government’s transport policy was written many years back by IBEC and the CIF. In electoral terms, their real perogative in all such situations is to illustrate to those bodies that they will get the job done. There is zero competition among political parties to appeal to the “protestor in a field” market, there is intense competition for the “most responsible managers of the economy” market. And the simple fact is that if you lose the confidence of IBEC and CIF, you lose that competition in a very short space of time.

“As for landowners. Tell me the mechanism that would transmit to design and engineering teams the necessary data about the political preferences of landowners along that or any other road building project?”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. There was a flurry of land speculation in the period before and after the selection of routes (which may have involved insider information, but that’s not important). Once the final choice was made (not a decision taken by engineers), many landowners saw the value of their lands rocket. There is nothing that would cause generalised uproar amonsgt the country’s landowners more than the government backing down to a bunch of hippies in the field – costing them their inalienable rights to make a fortune off re-zoning. Considering the fact that FF’s main opposition were once the natural party of the landowning classes, and would absolutely love such an opportunity to outflank the FFers on the managerialism front.

FF are such past masters of the arithmetic of power that such thinking just forms part of their assumptions – fixed limits that you just accept.

The NRA itself has been an objector in development processes,”

IBM and Boeing have sued microsoft for abuse of monopoly – different companies, institutions and parts of government use whatever tools are available when fighting each other. They only line up together when they have a common enemy – for example a bunch of hippies who want to remove their right to do whatever stuff they want to do.

In any event Gormley does have the power to quash development within the area of Tara so if FF were so wedded to developers and landowners why on earth would they have brought the Greens in when they could have been able to accomodate the ‘landowners’ with just the PDs and assorted Indo’s equally well?

He agreed not to in the negotiations. I thought that was transparantly obvious. I’d be amazed if he hadn’t. But, in any case, whether he did or not, cabinet collective responsibility would kick in, or he’d be resuhuffled out, or he’d just be viciously attacked for a sustained period in the media and in any case the Greens would get blamed by IBEC and CIF. His freedom to do meaningful stuff is quite illusory.

“Having said that I think you’re completely incorrect as regards popular feeling. This is generally a non-issue. It was in the election. It is now. Indeed I’m staggered, and dismayed by how indifferent many people are about it or even hostile to the idea of protests.”

All the opinion polls have shown clear majorities opposed – this despite the fact that most people think we need more motorways (something I agree with). It’s also after 3 years of the campaign doing it’s very best to make enemies and make itself unpopular at large. Of course the feeling might not be very strong – but at a subconscious level everybody knows that there’s no point in getting yourself worked up about somthing if you can’t see any way of doing anything about it.

“I agree with you about the appalling nature of the campaigns. Had they swung into action two years earlier . Had they been able to…”

I think the problem was much deeper than any tactical or even strategic short-comings. At one point we were nearly going to ban all mention of tara from indymedia (due to sustained and crazy internal disputes, lasting for years, spread across dozens of articles and seeping onto several of our mailing lists, conducted by people who appeared to be situated in the outer reaches of the bonkers universe. ) and I’ve heard several indymedia editors expressing a desire to see “the whole place concreted” (only partialy in jest) – that’s a pretty impressive example of how you can lose support if you try hard enough.

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6. WorldbyStorm - July 12, 2007

Only got a minute so can only address a few points. I’m entirely pro-rail, I don’t drive myself, indeed I think the lack of expansion of that system is a disgrace. However I really really doubt the contention that most people would prefer rail is correct in any meaningful way. They may say they do, but all the evidence points to people driving being almost impossible to get back onto public transport.

Secondly regarding polls showing clear majorities against. Perhaps so, yet it is easier to mobilise people against the Iraq war (at least at one point) than against Tara/M3. The feelings are clearly wide but shallow.

Re the final route, the NRA planners present options. Exactly the same is true of any infrastructural project. A broad range of criteria are involved, again determined through EIS/AIS and so on. A decision has to be made. I personally suspect cost, convenience and expediency trumped heritage, but even if we take your line that landowners were delighted or otherwise by this process that strikes me as an inevitable result of any extension of development and almost impossible to ameliorate in any meaningful way.

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7. chekov - July 12, 2007

However I really really doubt the contention that most people would prefer rail is correct in any meaningful way. They may say they do, but all the evidence points to people driving being almost impossible to get back onto public transport.

Think about how proximity to transport affects property value – basically people will pay tens of thousands extra to be near the train / dart / luas. Roads have a much more mixed and minor effect on prices. That’s a much better way of measuring relative values than what people say.

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8. WorldbyStorm - July 12, 2007

I don’t doubt that point you make regarding house values for a moment. I was only talking today to someone from my old stomping ground of Kilbarrack/Doghnamede about how the DART had raised prices in both locations and made them entirely acceptable for young upwardly mobile middle class people (although couldn’t it be argued that that dynamic would work equally well for all the FF leaning landowners along the route of a putative rail connection close to Kells and Tara?). But…my point is more about how people, once they drive, appear very very loath to return to the bus or even the train. I also, hesitantly, would suggest that is a factor of age and class. The M3 as against rail links? I suspect it is no contest in the minds of drivers who will continue to drive enclosed in their own little autonomous space. That’s not good but it is largely a different discussion to the one we’re having.

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9. pauline - August 17, 2007

I think Ireland is a very different place than when wood quay took place.

Most people are now entrapped by their “apparent” wealth but still want the basics… a nice house with a garden for the kids… but they have to move out to meath to be able to afford it and then the mortgage is still outrageous…. hense living on the edge of affordability they go for the devil they know.

lifestyle wise most follow my friend’s life and he’s in finglas…
he leaves his son off at 7.30am and collects him a 6.30 that night….
so after work and spending the little time he can with his kid, they don’t have the time or energy to go protesting ….
in a nation where a 1 hour commute is considered good – ridiculous still time after time when people are asked the figure comes aout at approximately 70 per cent in favour of moving the M3.

if you want an awake nation, take the pressure off the people though i would assume like in many nations in the world, a democracy trapped by a mortage is exactly what the government want.

fear of losing everything…..

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10. WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2007

I think you’re right Pauline. But then again perhaps less has changed since the Wood Quay march.

One thing that surprised me looking back at some material from that point was that the famous march only managed to get 20,000 people out, or thereabouts. Now that’s not awful, and considerably better than Tara, but then contextualise it within the tax marches of the same year and it looks paltry.

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