Cork incinerator controversy: Who decides the strategic importance of our naval base?

“THE proposed development would impair the operation of the naval base.”
Cork incinerator controversy: Who decides the strategic importance of our naval base?

The Naval Base at Haulbowline. Would the base operation be affected by the development of an incinerator in the harbour? Picture: Larry Cummins

“THE proposed development would impair the operation of the naval base.”

I have put a question a number of times to the Government’s Press Office, to the Departments of the Taoiseach and of Defence as to what it considers most important to national security — a naval service operating without threat to it from a land-based development or the operations of the naval base to be threatened by a development ashore.

Issue raised previously 

I first raised this issue after asking the Chief Executive of Indaver, John Ahern, whether he considered his company’s proposal for an incinerator at Ringaskiddy more important than the naval base on Haulbowline Island.

We were talking at the Carrigaline Court Hotel during a public inquiry into his company’s planning application.

To me, John Ahern has always been forthright and available, direct in answering questions, promoting and, when necessary, defending his company’s proposal.

I respect his right to do this. A journalist also has the duty to raise questions.

We disagreed about the relative importance of the naval base, the CEO taking the view that Indaver was as important to the national interest as the naval base. He did not accept that the incinerator would interfere with naval operations.

Department submission 

The Department of Defence, in submissions to that inquiry, had said that “restrictions on the Irish Air Corps’ ability to operate with the naval service at Haulbowline was not just a local issue but carried strategic implications for the State.” 

I have never forgotten the interview. Nor the Department’s statement that this was not just a local Cork issue, but had “strategic implications for the State.”

Putting questions to the Government and quoting the Department of Defence expressed concern about “strategic implications” brought answers, even from the then Minister for Defence, which were equivocal, avoiding direct response, quoting the ongoing inquiry as a reason for not doing so and the necessity of awaiting the result of it before deciding what State action might be necessary.

On January 27, 2017, Derek Daly, Senior Planning Inspector at Bord Pleanala issued his conclusion in a 144-page document:

“In the context of the information presented the proposed development would, therefore, present an unacceptable risk to aircraft navigation, impair the operation of the naval base and be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.”

His conclusion, clearly stating that the Indaver incinerator would “impair the operation of the naval base” was rejected by his employers, An Bord Pleanála.

The Board sided therefore, it is reasonable to conclude, with the view of Indaver’s CEO.

So a State body, appointed by the government, does not accept that a land-based development which could impair the operation of the national maritime defence force.

Follow-up queries to government about those “strategic implications” and impairing the operation of the naval base were never responded to.

Decision of the court 

The High Court decision, which quashed the May 2018 planning granted to Indaver, by An Bord Pleanála, returns the Indaver application back to An Bord Pleanála, to be considered from where it was on October 3, 2017. That date is after the finding by the Board’s Inspector in relation to naval base operations.

The Chairperson of CHASE — the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment — Mary O’Leary says: “The reality is we will never allow this incinerator to be built in Cork Harbour.

“Since this 2016 application (by Indaver) the landscape of policy, of EU Legislation and of Cork Harbour itself have changed entirely, which must all be considered now in assessing this application.”

The issue of naval base operations is a reasonable question to raise in public.

Three years ago the Government enacted laws allowing the Minister for Defence to intervene in planning issues when they affect national security or defence.

Then Tánaiste Simon Coveney was quoted in the media, following these laws, that opponents to Indaver should focus on taking a judicial review of the decision to grant planning for the project. They did and they won their case.

A TD for the area, Simon Coveney is now also Minister for Defence, so the question about the operation of the naval base reverts to him.

One of the primary roles of government is to provide national security. The Defence Forces official website says: “The naval service is the State’s principal seagoing agency maintaining a constant presence 24 hours a day, 365 days a year throughout Ireland’s enormous and rich maritime jurisdiction, upholding Ireland’s sovereign rights. The naval service is tasked with a variety of roles including defending territorial seas, deterring intrusive or aggressive acts, conducting maritime surveillance, maintaining an armed naval presence, ensuring right of passage, protecting marine assets, countering port blockades; people or arms smuggling, illegal drugs interdiction.”

Who is right — the Department of Defence which told the inquiry that Indaver’s proposal carried “strategic implications”? An Bord Pleanála’s own Inspector who concluded that the Indaver incinerator would “impair the operation of the naval base”? The CEO of Indaver? Or the State planning agency which rejected its own Inspector’s view of Naval Base operations?

That rejection of the Inspector’s conclusion was the second time that the Board had rejected its own staff advice against giving Indaver planning permission. This time it also rejected the importance of naval operations.

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