Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that he wishes that legal challenges against flood-defence proposals by the Office of Public Works (OPW) would be withdrawn, so that businesses in Cork City can be safeguarded.
However, he also told The Echo he wouldn’t rule out Save Cork City’s proposal of a tidal barrier, but further down the line.
The group have challenged the approval for the Morrison’s Island public-realm and flood-defence project in Cork City, in the High Court through judicial review, and have labelled the Lower Lee Flood Relief Scheme (LLFRS) a “walls scheme”.
“We’re going to have to see out those legal challenges,” Mr Martin said.
“I would wish that those legal challenges would be withdrawn.
“I genuinely believe that, from the outset of this project, there has been a lot of consultation, and a lot of division, as well, and different perspectives.
“I don’t understand why it’s gone so far to a judicial review, because the quay walls do need to be dealt with, because they’ve been neglected for 30 or 40 years.”
Mr Martin said: “We saw, recently, that flooding can destroy businesses. There’s only so much you can take if you’re a business on (the streets affected).
“I think what has emerged, in terms of the OPW proposals, are a very reasonable compromise on where we had been.
“I think people should just reflect on their positions and enable those works to go ahead, because there’s further works, as well, in terms of the overall (LLFRS) scheme.
“We’re looking at about 2,100 properties that stand to be protected — 900 homes, 1,200 businesses — against tidal and river flooding,” he said.
Asked whether he placed any merit in Save Cork City’s proposals for a tidal barrier, Mr Martin said he’s “never ruled that out”, but described it as “a longer-term project” that could be done down the line, in addition to the OPW’s proposed project.
“Sea levels are rising,” Mr Martin said. “Climate change is happening at a rapid rate. We can see that with the storms we have witnessed in the last number of years.
“When I was growing up, as a child, parts of the city centre and South Parish flooded.
“I remember walking over Parliament Bridge many times. I used to work in a chemist, when I was a 12- or 13-year-old, and I often got caught in tidal floods walking over Parliament Bridge back to Turner’s Cross.
“That’s been part of our living experience, but we can do something about it now.
“And, it’s become worse because of storms. I do think we have to intervene now,” Mr Martin said.
“The Morrison’s Island quay walls have to be done. There’s no point saying they don’t: They do.
“I think it’s become too polarised, the debate, and I think we need a bit of give-and-take here. There have been adjustments made to the project and I’ve engaged with the OPW on it,” Mr Martin said.
“I don’t think it’s either/or, in terms of the tidal barrier versus everything else. I don’t think that’s sustainable, either,” he added.
Meanwhile, speaking about one of the other projects in Cork City that has been ongoing for a number of years (since the sod-turning in 2016), Mr Martin said government commitment is still there for the events centre to be built.
In recent months, there were concerns that Live Nation may have been considering pulling out of the project, because of the impact of Covid-19.
“Clearly, Covid has had a fairly significant impact on the entertainment industry,” Mr Martin said. “Live Nation must be going through a challenging time, but will come through this. There will be arts life and entertainment after Covid, and we’re very committed to getting this facility built.”
There were further fears in recent weeks when the events centre was left out of the projects mentioned in the Government’s Project 2040 tracker, which contains information on the current status of projects, including construction commencement and completion dates.
Mr Martin said he “doesn’t understand” how it wasn’t included.
“It’s been added to the (Project 2040) tracker. There’s nothing to be read into (it being left off the initial publication list).
“There’s no lack of commitment from our side here, but, obviously, we have to wait and see how the entertainment industry itself evolves,” Mr Martin said.
“It’s like anything, like hospitality, a lot of those sectors have had a bruising year and it’s going to take them time to pick it up after Covid,” he said.
Asked if construction would have started on the project had Covid-19 not hit, Mr Martin said: “I think it probably would. An agreement had been reached even before we came into government and money had been allocated.
“One of the first questions I asked, coming in here, of the secretary general, was: ‘Where stands the project?’ and he said, ‘It’s fine, it’s all good to go from our perspective’. That remains the advice I’m getting.”
Mr Martin also discussed the recent announcement of new beds across a number of facilities and specialities in Cork hospitals. It raised some concern locally that the proposed new elective hospital for Cork had been put on the backburner.
That was compounded by information received by Pádraig O’Sullivan, Fianna Fáil TD, from the HSE, that the feasibility study on St Stephen’s Hospital, in Glanmire, had been put on hold because of Covid-19.
Mr Martin said a site has not yet been identified for the proposed elective hospital.
“The HSE are going to come back to us, in terms of their proposals,” Mr Martin said.
“The commitment made was towards an elective day-case hospital, which would take the pressure off the acute hospitals, in terms of getting operations done and surgical procedures done,” he said.
“The original idea was to have it closer to CUH, so that the clinicians would be in a position to be in close proximity to the trauma centre, which is at CUH, and the major areas, like the cardiac renal centre and cancer oncology services,” Mr Martin said.
“The HSE also own land in Glanmire. That’s attractive, too. In my view, we want to get the model right first. This was never going to be immediate,” he added.
In the months prior to this year’s general election, there was some talk that there would be an announcement on a new elective hospital for Cork. However, nothing ever materialised.
“I don’t believe in announcing things unless they’re going to happen,” Mr Martin said. “I want to see the nuts and bolts of this, in terms of the funding proposals.
“In the meantime, you can’t ignore the needs of the existing hospital, so that’s why we’ve gone ahead with the theatres in the South Infirmary Victoria for ophthalmology, because there are long waiting lists for cataracts.
“That is our elective hospital at the moment. There’s a fantastic unit there.
“In terms of ENT, generally, it’s a huge centre for Munster and the second biggest in the country.
“Some of the theatres there needed modernisations. They needed a new block there. You couldn’t be waiting for years for a new hospital to be built and them working in substandard situations,” Mr Martin said.
“That’s why we moved quickly to approve the existing capacity,” he added.