One of the toughest decisions a politician is faced with is when you have to weigh up competing interests, in particular the rights of the individual vis-a-vis other interests, be they social, environmental or economic.
Now and then have to deal with such a challenge, and the most recent one was on the subject of wind energy and the construction of wind farms.
Like a lot of people, I had a rather benign image of wind power. It is clean, green and renewable. We have lots of it in Ireland, so why not make the most of our resources, why not exploit it for the benefit of the nation?
My illusions were shattered when I came face to face with a proposal for industrial wind farming in the midlands. The midlands, in this case, stretches from Roscommon to Louth and everywhere in between.
My preconceptions of a few scattered wind turbines similar to those on Arigna Mountain were quickly demolished when I saw the massive industrialised proposals on the table. Wind turbines ranging between 150 and 184 metres in height (as high as the spire on top of Liberty Hall), and not just a few scattered here and there, up to 2,500 in total for all of the different proposals.
There are many arguments for and against, but I won’t go into those here. I just want to concentrate on the impact such developments can have on individuals.
One couple in County Roscommon are leaving their home of 8 years because of the tortuous reality of their lives due to a nearby wind farm. They are just walking away and closing the door, they cannot sell. Their doctors advised them to do so because of the impact on their mental and physical health.
I have received emails and letters from Cork, Clare, Leitrim, Donegal and elsewhere. Some of these emails graphically describe the awful impact of the constant turning of the turbines, the audible noise (whoosh) that endures day and night. They also speak of the insidious effects of infrasound, a sound you cannot hear but whose vibrations have a catastrophic impact on certain people, including sleep deprivation, constant waking, stress etc.
One person said the only ‘safe’ place in their house was the bathroom, close the door and sit on the toilet.
But as always, there is another side to the story, and I’m staying with the personal. Many landowners and farms have signed lucrative contracts – up to 20, 000 euro per annum for up to 20 years - in return for permission to site wind turbines on their land. Would you turn that down? Would I?
So we have the inevitable clash and the saddest emails and hand-written letters I have received come from families speaking about broken relationships, father against son, brother against brother.
One farmer from Co Tyrone spoke publicly and said: “for the first time in 24 years, my brother in law was not in my home last Christmas night” – that tells its own story.
Yet, decisions have to be taken about the siting of wind turbine or whatever the issue is. All I’m saying is: it’s not always easy, and almost never black and white.