In the clip above, Luke “Ming” Flanagan TD holds aloft a jar of water, which he describes as “glorified piss”, before walking across the chamber of Dail Eireann and placing in front of Minister Fergus O’Dowd.
Over recent months, Flanagan has made water quality in Co. Roscommon one of his key campaign platforms, regularly posting pictures of dirty water sent to him by his constituents on his Facebook page.
It’s a good issue to be associated with. Water quality in Co. Roscommon is particularly poor, and has been for several decades. Boil notices are persistently in effect, to a far greater degree than any other county in the region.
Prior to being elected to Dail Eireann in 2011, Flanagan was an elected member of Roscommon County County, the body responsible for water quality in County Roscommon. He was first elected to the Council in 2004, and was re-elected in 2009.
In 2005, controversy erupted over the proposed development of a tourism resort at Lough Key, an area of pristine environmental quality in the north of County Roscommon. A consortium of Irish and Canadian investors applied for planning permission to build a 100-bedroom hotel, over 300 holiday homes and a golf course, all within the confines of Lough Key.
The planning application for the project was broken into 3 parts. In August 2005, Roscommon County Council granted permission for the first 2 parts, but postponed its decision on the third part, which dealt with 199 of the holiday homes and the golf course.
The grant of planning for the third part of the project was postponed in order to allow the applicant respond to observations that had been lodged in respect of the application.
Specifically, one of the prescribed bodies who reviews such applications, The Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, made reference to the potential impact of the golf course on the Rockingham Springs, a ground water source that supplies drinking water to hundreds of homes in the North Roscommon area.
“The Board is concerned about the chemicals and processes used in the operation of a golf course, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Having regard to the high levels of oxidised nitrogen already found in the Rockingham Spring, the Board has serious concerns about the possible effects of fertilisers on nutrient levels within the water bodies.”
That there was concern about the potential impact of the golf course on the Rockingham Springs is also evidenced by the fact that in postponing the grant of planning permission, the Council asked the application to address the concerns raised about this impact. Specifically, they asked the applicant to:
“Indicate the various types of fungicides, herbicides and pesticides proposed to be used and a strategy to prevent them contaminating ground water“
When approval was granted for the first 2 parts of the project, the grant was appealed to An Bord Pleanala by 3 parties: the Department of the Environment, An Taisce, and the Cavan Leitrim Environmental Awareness Network (CLEAN).
The content of the appeals was broadly similar: the development was contrary to the aims of the Lough Key Study 2002, which was part of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.
Shortly after these appeals were lodged with An Bord Pleanala, Roscommon County Council announced its intention to propose a Material Contravention (in other words, a variation) of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.
In this, they proposed to grant planning for the third part of the project by a vote of the Council, in the hope that An Bord Pleanala would be less inclined to uphold any appeal lodged in respect of the planning application on the basis that it contravened the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009.
In the weeks prior to this vote, CLEAN wrote to the Chairperson of the Council highlighting their concerns about the impact of the development on the Rockingham Springs. They asked that this information be circulated to all Councillors before any vote the Material Contravention took place.
CLEAN also noted their concern about the impact on the Rockingham Springs in an observation submitted in respect of the planning application.
“The proposal represents a risk to Rockingham Springs and as such, is contrary to the EU Framework Directive which seeks the protection and enhancement of water quality. Rockingham Springs supplies the town of Boyle with its drinking water. The GSI have designated this area as highly or extremely vulnerable to contamination. The fast groundwater flow rates exacerbates the threat of contamination. Concern is expressed in relation to the possible effects of pesticides and fertiliser on the local water bodies. The underlying limestones are classified as regionally important aquifers. Bacteria regularly contaminate much of the water currently derived from this source.”
On Oct 24th 2005, the Material Contravention of the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009 was put to the elected members of Roscommon County Council. 22 of the 26 members voted in favour, while 1 voted against. Flanagan was in attendance at the start of the meeting, but was recorded as absent for the key vote.
By law, Material Contraventions to a Development Plan require a three quarters majority to be carried, which in this case would have required 20 members to vote in favour. Given such strict criteria, all votes would have been vital.
Shortly afterwards, Roscommon County Council granted permission for third planning application, and the same bodies who had appealed the previous two grants appealed the third grant.
In January 2006, An Bord Pleanala upheld the appeals in respect of the first two grants, and in May 2006 upheld the appeals in respect of the third grant, at which stage the project was cancelled.
In its Directive in relation to the grant of planning for the third part of the project, which included 199 holiday homes and a golf course, An Bord Pleanala made specific reference to the threat to the Rockingham Springs water source:
“It is considered that, pending the completion of a hydrogeological study ascertaining the potential threat to the underlying groundwater which feeds the Rockingham Springs, a very important source of potable water for the surrounding area, the development of the proposed golf course would be premature and would give rise to a risk of environmental pollution. The proposed development would, therefore, be prejudicial to public health.“
What is clear from all of this is that at the time when the elected members of Roscommon County Council were considering whether or not to approve a Material Contravention to the Roscommon County Development Plan 2002-2009, there was considerable disquiet about the potential impact of this development on the water supply in the area.
That the development was controversial, and widely publicised, is beyond doubt.
When the grants of planning permission for the first two part of the projects were overturned, a local radio station, Shannonside FM, held a special live debate in the town of Boyle in which several local politicians participated.
Such was the ferocity of the debate that the the Broadcasting Complaints Commission later upheld a complaint in relation to the host of the debate, Seamus Duke, who became involved in an verbal altercation with a member of the audience who declared his support for the decision of An Bord Pleanala.
At the same time, a local newspaper, the Leitrim Observer, ran a a headline on its front page “€150m tourism project lost”, in which its author, Donal O’Grady, claimed:
“A massive €150m flagship tourism development in Lough Key Forest Park has been lost to the region after An Bord Pleanala yesterday controversially refused two applications to create what would have been Ireland’s finest eco-tourism resort.”
Flanagan was elected from the Castlerea area of Co. Roscommon, while Lough Key is in a different area, Boyle, and did not offer any public commentary of note on the issue at the time.
However, given the controversy over the development, its scale (the developers repeatedly claimed it would create 500 permanent jobs, and opened a public information office in the town of Boyle to promote it), its potential impact, and that it concerned another of his campaign platforms, tourism, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of of the consequences of the vote for or against a Material Contravention of a development plan that put an important ground water source at risk.
If he was aware, the questions remains as to why he would not make a point of voting on the proposal. Councillors have limited powers, (Material Contraventions of this magnitude are rare), so when it comes to exercising the few that they have, it seems reasonable that they would exercise their vote.
Moreover, if water quality in Roscommon was of genuine concern to him, the question remains as to why he would not make a point of voting against this specific proposal.
Given Flanagan’s behaviour in this regard, where he absented himself from vote to facilitate a development where there was a known risk to a important source of drinking water, his antics in the Dail seem contrived at best.
An Bord Pleanala case file in relation to appeal of grant of planning for 3rd part of the project, which provides detail in relation to the grant of planning, the observations made and the appeals made. http://www.pleanala.ie/casenum/215423.htm
Minutes of the meeting of Roscommon County Council Oct 24th 2005 http://www.garrethmcdaid.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/council-minutes-oct-2005.pdf
Leitrim Observer article covering the upholding of the appeal against the grant of planning for the third part of the project http://www.leitrimobserver.ie/news/local-news/end-of-the-road-for-lough-key-plans-1-2027384
In 2011, I was a candidate for the Green Party in Roscommon-South Leitrim, the constituency from which Luke Flanagan was elected to Dail Eireann.