4 June 1998 Edition

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Phone masts signal Big Brother future

By Robert Allen

A collaboration between the telecommunications company ESAT and the Garda is bringing George Orwell's high-tech, totalitarian future closer to home.

ESAT are allowed to erect mobile phone masts in any garda station they want. In return, ESAT will upgrade Garda communications.

Garda sources say that the upgrade coincides with the introduction of new high-tech computers, surveillance and control gadgets for the Gardai. When the new high-tech system is in place (they're aiming for the year 2000), the Garda will have detailed instant information on everybody.

What began as a protest movement against the erection of masts, because communities are concerned about their health, is offering as well a sinister glimpse of the near future.

Mobile phone masts emit radiation which has proven damaging health effects. The mobile phone companies deny this. The Irish and British governments refuse to acknowledge the evidence. This lack of concern from the authorities has galvanised hundreds of communities into opposition to the masts.

The communities have not been idle. Extensive research has now allowed the groups to argue from a strong position that their health is being impaired. Although documentary evidence of the health effects of long exposure to microwave radiation is difficult to research, it is now becoming available to more and more groups around the country.

Their concern is the exposure limit allowed by the state. This is 450uW/cm2, which doesn't mean much until you realise that illness can occur at levels above 0.01uW/cm2. This is the limit, health experts agree, which should be set if cancer, risk of miscarriage, sleep disruption, childhood impairment and chronic fatigue symptoms are to be avoided.

With this knowledge, communities and some gardaí have become seriously concerned. In the last few months, flashpoints have become regular, significantly throughout the west, where mobile phone coverage is weakest. Communities have confronted gardai and repeatedly blocked attempts to build masts. Some communities are camping out 24 hours a day to watch potential sites. Many are on Garda stations - which are usually close to village centres, schools and residential areas. Dublin government regulations say that masts should not be sited close to schools or residential areas, but this is happening all over. The mobile phone companies offer money to schools and landowners to host the masts.

Yet residents and gardaí alike don't want the masts.

Garda sources say that the top officers in the Gardai have recently sent out orders that community opposition and planning obstacles have to stop. Gardaí have been sent in to talk to County Planning Officers and warn them not to hold up the construction of masts.

In the peaceful Sligo town of Cooloney, 60 gardaí were sent in at 6.00 in the morning to block the road and guard the site until the mast was finished that evening.

Locals are completely against the location of the mast. It is near a school - a breach of the guidelines. But they decided not to protest on the day: ``There was no point in running the risk of people being forcibly removed by the Gardaí,'' a spokeswoman said. ``It shows you what type of power will be used to have these masts erected.''

In Keel, Achill Island, Mayo, a Garda was transferred thirty miles because he was too sympathetic to anti-mast protestors. Islanders chained themselves to the station demanding that the Garda be reinstated and that ``alleged breaches of planning regulations'' be dealt with. The Garda station at Keel, Achill Island will remain closed until ``communications are restored''; that is until the mast is up. The protest is still ongoing outside the now closed Keel Garda station.

What these flashpoints and heavy presence of Guards reveals is a sinister state involvement in private enterprise. Campaigners are now questioning the role of Michael Lowry, the minister who granted the mobile phone licence to ESAT, in this saga.

Although one bidder for the licence was prepared to pay up to £80 million to the state for the licence, Lowry then insisted that the fee be capped at £15 million - low enough for ESAT to afford it. Previously, he had said that the bid should be set by the market. What campaigners want to know is whether ESAT gave Lowry something in exchange for getting the licence? And what exactly was the Dublin government's complicity?

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