At last, the people most culpable for maintaining Ireland’s giveaway licensing terms for oil and gas are being made to explain themselves in public. At 3pm today (Tuesday, September 27th), senior officials from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will be questioned by a committee of TDs and Senators.
It’s the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture and on the agenda today is ‘Offshore Exploration Licences’. There wasn’t much advance warning: an assistant to one of the TDs on the committee told me yesterday they didn’t know about this as recently as three working days before the meeting. So the committee members may not have had much of chance to prepare. The other problem is that Minister Pat Rabbitte has said he plans to issue a new round of licences any day now, regardless of the outcome of these committee hearings.
Nevertheless, this is a significant day. These civil servants are the very root of the problem. They work very closely with the oil companies and have persuaded successive ministers for energy/natural resources to publicly defend the licensing regime cooked up by Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern 20 years ago; a system so generous to oil companies, it is doubtful whether Ireland will see any real benefits from the extraction of its oil and gas.
Economist Colm Rapple has been observing this sector for many years. He described to me how he sees these officials as having an “IDA mentality.” He says: “Civil servants live in their own world. It’s hard to shake their assumptions that are built up at an early stage. They see their role as getting companies into Ireland, like the IDA does, without necessarily asking what the benefit of that will be.”
As I have demonstrated elsewhere, when you examine the supposed benefits, they turn out to be virtually non-existent (see the top two articles in the Articles section).
Further criticism of these civil servants has been made recently by Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív. Speaking during a Dail debate on this issue last April, he said: “In all my dealings with the Minister’s Department, and I had many, I found it very defensive. I do not know why it was so defensive. It was very dogmatic about this issue.”
Interestingly, it was Ó Cuív who called for this committee to examine the licensing issue (he did so during that debate in April). Interesting, because for the past decade Mr Ó Cuív sat at the Fianna Fáil cabinet table but evidently never thought to raise his concerns about these civil servants. Now, in opposition, he has suddenly found the courage to criticise them.
It will be interesting to see what questions Mr Ó Cuív puts to these civil servants today. Also on the committee is Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris, who is likely to give them a good grilling, but most of the other members are from the Government parties and, if they are like most politicians from the main parties, expect them to display a level of knowledge and interest in this issue that is close to zero.