Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Argument is one thing, government is another

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 401, p58), in June 2008.

The Victorians had a taste for elegant epigrams. One of the more memorable is from the historian Macaulay. He wrote: ‘We must remember that argument is constructed in one way and government in entirely another.’ I have no idea what led him to condense so much bitter experience into such a verbal jewel, but I do know how I learnt to appreciate its enduring truth.

In 1977 I led Friends of the Earth as it opposed the building of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant – better known as THORP – at Windscale, later renamed Sellafield as a result of our campaign. The campaign’s centrepiece was the Windscale Public Inquiry, then the longest public inquiry ever conducted in the UK.

At the Inquiry, FoE argued there was no shortage of uranium, that reprocessing nuclear fuel was uneconomic, would make managing nuclear waste more difficult and expensive and increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. We also argued that a decision could be delayed for ten years without damage to the economy.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) argued that the huge expansion of nuclear power that it and the government believed was imminent required more uranium than was available. THORP was needed to close the nuclear fuel cycle to ensure Britain’s energy security and stop the lights going out. Any delay would deprive the UK of its share of the lucrative market for nuclear fuel reprocessing.

The Inquiry, unusually, was seen as so important that it was put into the hands of a serving judge, Mr Justice Parker. His report fully endorsed the BNFL case without bothering to address, as the media pointed out at the time, any of the arguments that we had put. This was enough, despite intense campaigning that did at least force a Parliamentary debate, for the government to give the go-ahead to BNFL.

Ten years later, almost to the day, BNFL began constructing the economic and environmental nightmare that THORP has become. It has never worked properly. It has however added hugely to the volume of radioactive waste awaiting disposal and thus to the bill facing present and future taxpayers. The uranium did not run out; Britain’s energy security was uncompromised. No market for nuclear fuel reprocessing appeared.

History has demonstrated conclusively that FoE was right and the government wrong. Who won the argument is not in doubt. But it is equally clear who lost the politics.

I found the Macaulay epigram quite by chance during the long and futile lobbying campaign after the Inquiry. It is a powerful reminder that policy and politics are different and that success with one does not guarantee it with the other. I have recently had a brutal reintroduction to its veracity.

My fellow ENDS columnist, Richard MacRory is partly to blame. In 2003, he was commissioned by a coalition of NGOs to write a report on the case for an independent Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in Northern Ireland. His report was the centrepiece of a very well-constructed campaign (see pp 38-42).

He proposed I chair the conference that marked the launch of his report. There followed a sustained lobbying effort by the NGOS that resulted in the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, establishing a Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland. I was invited to chair the Review.

I was given two colleagues, academic Sharon Turner, businessman Gordon Bell, a tiny staff and 12 months to “address the structure, management and resourcing of the publicly funded elements of the environmental governance system and [to] bring forward proposals…” in a way that was “participative in its approach”

We wrote to some 300 groups in Northern Ireland, invited 82 to meet the Review team in open session, met with 51, received written submissions from 56 and met 26 bodies from other jurisdictions. We heard compelling evidence that the current environmental governance arrangements were not fit for purpose and had lost the confidence of a very wide range of institutions in Northern Ireland.

You need not take my word for that. All of the Review’s evidence was taken in public and the discussions transcribed and posted immediately to its website. We made a total of 37 recommendations, including the widely expected setting up of an EPA in keeping with practise in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Our report was published last June. It was welcomed within Northern Ireland by business, consumers, the voluntary sector and all political parties bar the Democratic Unionists. We presented our report to the Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, had an amiable conversation and heard nothing more until June this year.

By nothing more, I mean nothing – not even the usual letter of thanks for our service. It should have been a clue. It is also normal when a review of policy is conducted for the government to issue a formal response. Instead, the minister simply issued a statement rejecting the proposal for an Environmental Protection Agency.

Of our other 36 recommendations, one has already been acted on (a State of the Environment report was published in April); the publication of a White Paper setting the government’s environment policy is promised as is an Environmental Crime Unit but the creation of a single Advisory Council for the Environment Department was rejected. Of the rest, nothing.

The first I heard of the fate of the Review was when I was called by a journalist in Northern Ireland to comment on the Minister’s statement. It did not take me long to recognise that ‘government’ had again triumphed over ‘argument’.

It is clear that the Ulster Farmer’s Union (UFU), who opposed the idea of an independent EPA from the outset, were much closer to ‘government’ than we – or most of the rest of the population of Northern Ireland. The ironically named Democratic Unionists who never found the time, despite our repeated efforts, to talk to the Review, had however found time to listen to the UFU.

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