Wexford mast wars
People enraged at lack of consultation
Nothing seems to be going right for Wexford County Council these days.
If it isn't the tourists up in arms about overflowing sewage in Courttown, or the perceived threat by local people that they will wake up one morning and find Minister Noel Dempsey down to lay the first fire brick for an incineration at Great Island, then it's the problem of masts.
Since last March, the enraged people who live at Berkeley, just off the New Ross-Enniscorthy road, have been on 24-hour picket to stop Eircell erecting an 18-metre mast for mobile phone antennae.
``We just don't want a mast here. We don't know that they are safe. Nobody does. There is a really high incidence of cancer around here. And they are an eyesore. They can't put a mast up right here on an historic site,'' says Countess Anne Bernstorf.
The hill selected by Telecom Éireann for the mast was the site of the 1798 United Irish encampment before the Battle of New Ross. Hundreds were killed there.
Container camp site
It's the farmers who man the container at night time, and then a two-hourly rota of volunteers takes over early in the morning. But at midnight there were nine in the container, venting their fury at the capriciousness of what passes for political representation.
``Planning permission was given for the mast by the Wexford County Council in December 1997. But no one ever thought to come and ask us, who live right beside the site, what we thought about it,'' says one staunch campaigner. ``We'll not give up. We're not having a mast up here.''
They were reviewing the situation and the reports of a recent Wexford County Council meeting where one councillor had alleged that the roadside by their container was a mess. ``That,'' said the Countess, ``was because we had said that we would have to widen our protest and take our case to the Fleadh Cheoil'', which will be held in Enniscorthy at the end of the month.
Wexford County Councillors, with the exception of Councillor Jim Walsh, refused to support a Section 30 motion to revoke or modify the County Manager's decision to give planning permission for the Berkeley mast for fear it would open the floodgates to objectors who might demand similar planning U-turns in the future.
``And so indeed it might,'' says Anne Bernstorf, ``but that is what government is all about, consulting with people to take account of their objections. Not walking over the views of local people. I find it extraordinary that planning permission was given for this mast without it even coming before the full council.''
The views of the Berkeley protesters are supported by the chairperson of Wexford County Council, Sean Doyle, an independent councillor from Enniscorthy, who says: ``I don't like them [masts], and if I had a vote I would vote against them, on aesthetic grounds alone. Nobody really knows of their effects on health as yet.''
A meeting is promised between Wexford Oireachtas representatives and Eircell in the coming days to try to resolve the dispute.
Mast put up behind our backs
On the evening the Berkeley campaigners discussed their mast problem with An Phoblacht, there was another meeting 15 miles further down the county. Sixty men and women attended a hastily-called meeting in the little hall in the tiny village of Clongeen. They had just discovered that a structure had been erected, unknown to any of them, which was undoubtedly a mast, just waiting for its antennae.
The people in the meeting were enraged. Planning permission for the mast had been given by the County Manager in June 1998. Only two days after the recent local elections, work started on the mast. ``None of the local councillors who came canvassing for votes mentioned it,'' several speakers at the meeting said.
The people felt betrayed by their councillors, who they had voted for. ``Why didn't they ask us?'' ``Why did it go up behind our backs?'' angry people asked.
Talks and more talks
Ten days later, Telecom Éireann agreed to attend a meeting with the Clongeen people. They had said that they would meet with three people. In the end, 19 people went, including John Dwyer, local Sinn Féin New Ross UDC councillor, the only local councillor who had attended the first meeting.
``It was like talking to robots'' says Pat Reville, a local anti-mast campaigner. ``Eircell representatives only wanted people from the village in the meeting, although they had themselves come from outside of the county. They wanted to exclude John Dwyer. Almost all the people there had some relative who had cancer, and no one was getting excluded. I, myself, live in a neighbouring parish at Bannowballymitty, but many of my relatives live in Clongeen. We just recently had a death in the family from cancer. There is so much cancer in our area. It is that which worries people more than anything, more than the look of the masts, or the fact that property prices will fall.''
Eircell opened by claiming that someone in the meeting had attacked the mast with a tractor. Eircell then retracted this accusation. The people asked who, aside from the owner of the site, had received any money. Eircell replied that their solicitor would have to deal with that question. The meeting ended without any agreement.
Olivia Dobbs, Manager of Eircell's Community Relations department, was at the meeting. ``We've had such trouble in Wexford. More trouble than in any other county. Of course we are happy to explain details to people, but when they go on objecting, well what can we do? The last thing we'd want to be doing is trampling over peoples' feelings, but we don't know what to do, at Berkeley or Clongeen.''
Olivia went on to explain: ``Some councillors tell us that there would always be something. If it isn't masts, then it would be Travellers, or incinerators, or something.''
Olivia says that Eircell has 20 masts already in the county, and aims to have another 10. ``Most of the masts,'' she says, ``are in urban areas, on high buildings.''
No consultation is no good government
``The problem really,'' says John Dwyer, ``is democracy. It is consulting with the people - not going behind their backs. It is about considering what people themselves want. That, after all, is what government is about - not acting covertly in the hope that people won't know until it is too late to do anything about it. That is an abuse of political power.''
``These people seem to have forgotten Carnsore Point,'' says Pat. ``I remember when Dessie O'Malley, Minister of Justice at the time, said of the protest against a Nuclear Power station that `if the Gardai can't move 20,000 hippies, then the army will'. They didn't, and Ireland did not build its nuclear power station.
Telecom Éireann and the friends of Eircell masts seem to have forgotten about that and the history of Wexford people. But we haven't.''