To get to Lilliput you travel along a narrow, flat road with a surface so uneven that it feels like the undulations of a sea, then turn right at a pine tree to end up on the shores of the Lough Ennell, in the dead centre of Ireland.
Indeed, the spot where the holidaying Jonathan Swift used to take to the lake – and, once, looking back from his boat, was struck by how small the people on the shore appeared to be – does seem moribund these days, with a disused boathouse, a sad sandpit, a single picnic table and litter bin, part of a nearby “adventure centre”. But it lies at the heart of a growing conflict that promises to be every bit as epic as the contest between the ”Big-endians’’ and ”Little-endians’’ in Gulliver’s Travels.
For, virtually unknown in Britain – and little publicised in Ireland – plans are far advanced to erect a forest of giant wind turbines over three times the height of Nelson’s column in the flat countryside of the Irish Midlands, to generate electricity for the UK. Over the next few years, some 1,100 turbines – more than have been erected in the whole of England – are due to be crammed into the counties of Meath, Westmeath, Offaly, Laois and Kildare and parts of Tipperary and Kilkenny.
Earlier this year the British and Irish governments signed a memorandum of understanding for electricity to be exported along highly efficient undersea cables, and a formal agreement is due to be finalised in 2014.
The agreement – much the most advanced element in a scheme to link the electricity grids of 10 Northern European countries – is strongly backed by both prime ministers. Britain is falling behind in its efforts to provide 30 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, amid ever-increasing hostility to onshore wind. Ireland, by contrast, is expected easily to meet an even more stringent goal, and have capacity to spare; indeed its total wind resources are 19 times greater than it needs.
Britain hopes to save a total of £7 billion by importing the power rather than building the same capacity offshore, while exporting it is predicted to earn the hard-strapped Irish economy over £2 billion a year – about the same as exports from the dairy industry.
Indeed, proponents like Eamon Ryan – the Green Irish energy minister who paved the way for the scheme – see exploiting the country’s wind as producing a similar economic revolution as did capitalising on its grass half a century ago.
But there is also an unspoken element to the deal. By effectively moving most of its turbine construction to Ireland – and thus increasing Britain’s wind energy capacity by 80 per cent – ministers have hoped to bypass objections, since opposition to windpower has so far been almost negligible there. For a while they got away with it, as companies have quietly signed up hundreds of farmers to open up their land, typically promising to pay some £15,000 a year per turbine.
That changed when Andrew Duncan, a Westmeath auctioneer, was approached, by accident, a year ago, and decided to find out what was going on. At the time, he says, he “saw no problem in wind” but he was horrified to find that his home was to be enveloped by turbines “front, side, and back”. Discovering the overwhelming scale of the proposals, he decided not just to fight for his own area but to alert the whole Midlands.
He and others formed the first protest group last October. Now there are 30, with another two starting up last week. Three thousand people marched against the plans in the town of Mullingar, almost every house in villages near Lilliput sports a poster denouncing the development, and a poll in one affected area recorded opposition running at over 90 per cent. Other parts of Ireland are now beginning to follow their lead.
“We are normal people who have never objected to anything in our lives,” he says. “But we have been compelled to resist something that is being imposed on us as Britain tries to export its environmental problems to us.” So strong has the opposition become in less than a year that proponents and opponents of the scheme increasingly believe it will not go ahead as planned.
Both sides now increasingly suggest that the turbines – which protesters fear may increase to over 2,000 – should be sited far from housing on the area’s tens of thousands of acres of worked-out peat bogs. But, unless such a compromise is reached, the people of the Midlands look like restraining the wind giants as effectively as the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver.
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