Telecommunications' sly strategies for denouncing mast protestors

The article below ("Real Leaders don't indulge popular fears", The Sunday Times, Comment, September 25, 2005) exemplifies the lack of transparency and blatant dishonesty we have to contend with in our EHS campaign. Dr. Don Mac Auley (director of MAIM--Mast Action in Meath) in his response letter to this article ("Tell Whole Story") exposes Sarah Carey's ties with the Irish telecommunications industry. These immediately disqualify her from being capable of presenting her readers with an evenhanded judgement of the merit of anti-mast protests. Yet, she does not pay her readers the courtesy of informing them anywhere in her article that she was employed by Irish Telecommunications. It should be obligatory--as it is in so many other sectors here-- that writers in well-esteemed papers must declare any conflicts of interest they have when publishing articles of this nature.

Best, Imelda, Cork.

For earlier reference to Sligo civil servants to strike over phone antennae see:





I was bemused by Sarah Carey's derision at today's political leaders (Real leaders don't indulge popular fears, Comment, 25 September). Her critical stance towards protest groups and their perceived fears will, in fact, reinforce the public's unease that they are never told the whole story. What Carey did not tell us is that she has been up to her ears in mobile phone controversy for several years now.

When Carey scolds masts protesters she doesn't inform us that she worked for Esat Telecom (now 02) when Denis O'Brien was competing for the second mobile phone licence. Last year she appeared in front of the Moriarty tribunal, which is investigating the awarding of this licence, where she admitted Esat made several financial contributions to Fine Gael [Irish political party].

Carey was also involved in the planning process for rolling out the Esat Digifone (now 02) mobile phone network, which may explain her revulsion towards the civil servants complaining about transmitters in Sligo. In my experience of working with the community, people feel that big business comes before concerns about health and wellbeing. Therefore, on some level I agree with Carey. We do need stronger politicians and political parties who can't be bought but defend the electorate's rights against profiteering.

Dr Don Mac Auley Navan, Co. Meath


Comment: Sarah Carey


Civil servants at a pension office in Sligo voted to go on strike last week. Not for any of the usual reasons — better pay or shorter working hours. Instead they’re threatening a walk-out because Vodafone is putting three mobile phone antennae on their roof. The workers believe that the health risks are so great it is their duty to prevent the installation at all costs. They are completely wrong, and yet convinced they are right. How can this be? There are 3.8m mobile phones in Ireland, according to ComReg, the regulator. They don’t keep a count of groups protesting against antennae, but I’d say one for every parish in the country is about right. The protesters are convinced that the non- ionising radiation emitted from the antennae is responsible for a range of conditions, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to migraine.

What these diseases have in common is that nobody is quite sure what causes them. In medieval times, people blamed sin or comets for mystery illnesses. Now we blame modern technology. A harsh comparison, but given the absence of rational thought in each case, we have to ask why there is such a huge gap between actual risk and perceived risk among the general population.

In response to people’s concerns, ComReg monitors the emissions from 400 mobile phone stations throughout the country. The full report for each station is available on its website. Completely at random I read the report on the Slieve Mish mast in Co Kerry. For each radio frequency, a maximum exposure level for the public is recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). On Slieve Mish, the highest emission at the GSM mobile phone transmission frequency was 0.01% of the maximum level recommended. In other words, the emissions are
10,000 times lower than recommended. A pretty comfortable margin of safety.

Protesters will shriek that when it comes to their health, any risk, no matter how small, is unacceptable to them. But this is a lie. Getting out of bed every day is a risk. Whether on foot, by car or by public transport, we run an actual risk of being killed simply by going somewhere. We all, including those civil servants in Sligo, own millions of radiation-emitting mobile phones. The truth is we are quite willing to take big and quantifiable risks every day.

In the case of mobile masts, it is not the level of risk involved, but the manner in which we assess that risk. People assume that the illusion of control, like a talisman, is what protects them. Since they are at the wheel of the car, they think they can overtake the truck before they meet the oncoming bus. The truck or the bus may accelerate, thus undermining the driver’s control of the situation, but this seldom occurs to the driver.

When someone thinks they are in control they will take enormous risks without flinching. When they think someone else, a big company or a government, is imposing a risk upon them, they lose the head.

The Rossport Five are beginning their fourth month in jail because they believe that Shell’s gas pipeline could kill them. Shell wants to build its gas terminal onshore because gas workers are often killed on dangerous offshore terminals, or when the helicopters taking them to and fro crash.

Shell’s pipeline has been designed to take twice the pressure that will be needed. So the chances of an accident in Co Mayo involving Shell are minuscule, and the reaction in Rossport is out of all proportion to the actual risk. But there was no planning process for the pipe, and Shell is a multinational with a nasty reputation and it is wielding compulsory purchase orders. The result is mass hysteria.

In Kinnegad, Lagan Cement has been given permission by Meath county council to burn meat and bone meal (MBM) instead of coal in its furnaces. By burning less coal, the cement company will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45%, an indisputably good thing. There is a tiny risk that the MBM may contain CJD, the human equivalent of mad cow disease, so burning it at 2,000C is a reasonably effective way of completely destroying any traces.

Does that satisfy locals? Of course not. There was a huge protest around Kinnegad because people believed they were going to catch CJD. Do they also believe if they sail far enough west they will fall off the edge of the earth? The problem is that, on all of these issues, there is a complete absence of political leadership. Nobody is willing to stand up to protesters and tell them they are simply mistaken. Instead they are indulged. Wherever there are protesters there are politicians who will say things like “Their fears are real” (not “Their claims are real”). They will say that it is their job to “represent the people’s views”. Who decided that was a politician’ s job? Not Michael Collins or Eamon de Valera. Don’t politicians have the slightest obligation to tell their constituents that just because they read a mad report on the internet, that doesn’t make it true? In one sense, it’s hard to blame them because voters have a nasty habit of electing single-issue protest candidates. No TD or councillor in a proposed incinerator constituency wants to be the first to admit that we have to have them and you won’t grow another head if you live near one.

But Irish politicians are doing themselves no favours in the long run. In almost all protest campaigns the politician is ineffective. This is not an accident: it’s because they decided long ago to outsource hard decisions to politically unaccountable bodies such as An Bord Pleanala and the Environmental Protection Agency. Thus they have protected themselves from being forced to decide on tough issues and taking the rap when the hard choice has to be made.

Inevitably when paid professionals take the unpopular decisions, the ineffectiveness of the politician becomes apparent. People begin to wonder what politicians are for, and either don’t bother to vote in the next election or support an independent.

The various party conferences have been given wide coverage over the past month. Amid all these think-ins, did anyone suggest adopting a policy of standing up to protesters? No, that would be called electoral suicide. But as long as they refrain from offering true leadership on these issues, they are destroying themselves anyway. Just more slowly."


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Oktober 2005

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