Last Sunday, on a beautiful sunny day, John Paul Phelan did what any good constituency-oriented TD would do – and donned a fluorescent bib to help park cars at the Irish Vintage Society’s national rally in Rosbercon on the banks of the river Barrow to help Kilkenny.
People were appalled that the government was talking about a peat ban in the middle of an energy crisis,” the Fine Gael TD later said. “They were quite offended by the prospect of it.”
His Carlow-Kilkenny constituency is not a turf cut and sold area, although some natives would buy it from Laois. Nonetheless, Phelan claimed that tentative plans to ban the commercial sale of peat along with other smoky fuels drew significant backlash from those he met at an event attended by several thousand people.
Brian Leddin, a Green Party TD from Limerick City, spent his childhood down on the moors in Co Kerry, first observing how the farmers cut the turf by hand and transported it by pony and cart, before later observing that it was a far more mechanized operation was in the late 1990s.
Phelan despises the fact that Fine Gael governs with the Greens while Leddin is on the radical wing of his own party. Despite both being on opposite sides of the turf war, neither was particularly vocal last week when backbenchers Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil took to the airwaves to blast Eamon Ryan’s plans.
But her own personal experiences show the unique position that turf occupies in the Irish way of life and how totemic the problem of campaigning against its sale has now become. It could be a portent of what lies ahead as this administration pursues the most radical decarbonization agenda in the state’s history.
The Greens claim that Ryan, the Environment and Transport Secretary, is moving ahead with plans to ban the sale of commercial smoke fuels, including smoked charcoal, peat and wet wood.
Small rural communities with fewer than 500 residents are exempt from any ban on selling and giving away peat to neighbors and friends under rules that are still in draft but are due to come into force from September 1.
That would go against what Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil on Wednesday: “There is no ban on the use of turf in rural Ireland and there will be no ban for the rest of the year.” Fianna Fáil’s backbenchers interpreted this Statements in such a way that the dispute was defused and the topic was brought to the point for the time being.
“On your bike Eamon,” wrote one TD.
But Laois-Offaly and Fianna Fáil MP great beast Barry Cowen insists the population cap must be lifted if any regulations are finalized. He points to census data showing that 1,325 municipal households in Offaly in towns and villages with over 500 inhabitants burn solid fuels, most of them peat. Numerous Fine Gael TDs have said publicly and privately that the 500 limit is impractical.
“Eamon Ryan knows the depth of emotion and concern and the depth of disagreement and opposition that there has been for his proposals and he knows he cannot bring them to the Dáil without reconciling the two parties,” said Cowen.
He argues that cutting and burning peat is a “declining practice,” and as if to emphasize this, Cowen said the 200 local authority houses in his area built since 2018 have no solid fuel systems. Another 150 will be retrofitted as part of the just transition, he added.
Cowen’s approach, which most in government see as constructive on the issue, stands in sharp contrast to that of some in Fine Gael, whose leader Leo Varadkar last month sparked much of the current fear in the triggered coalition.
Ryan subsequently insisted there was no break and then revealed his plan to resolve the dispute – including the disputed 500-person population limit Irish Independent last Monday.
With the Tánaiste in government business this week in California, Fine Gael backbenchers – unhappy at Ryan’s new proposals and at having to read them in the paper – gutted the Green Party leader at a sulky meeting on Tuesday.
Former Rural Affairs Secretary and Mayo TD Michael Ring led the charge, accusing Ryan of being “great for bluffs” and describing the population limit as a “stupid idea” which he accused of civil service. Officials, he added, would “level this country to the ground.”
Ring asked Ryan why he had the right to take away the livelihoods of people cutting the lawn and repeatedly asked the Green Party leader if he read the replies to the Parliamentary Questions (PQs) sent out – a reference to the current controversy, which is triggered by a PQ response from Ryan’s department to Brendan Griffin, the Kerry-based Fine Gael TD earlier this month.
For his part, Griffin, the deputy prime minister, told the meeting that what Ryan was proposing was “completely impractical – it’s all banana stuff.” He reportedly warned Ryan that his insistence on pushing it “threatens the stability of the government”.
Speaking of Sunday independent This weekend, Mr Griffin said: “I will not be happy until we see that the final proposals are sufficient to allay the concerns of the people of rural Ireland.”
During the meeting, Ring – whose volume is legendary in Fine Gael – loudly interrupted Ryan as he responded. Joe Carey has also heckled, asking Ryan if he ever “saved” Revier. Carey told this newspaper that Ryan’s suggestions went “a step too far.”
Even the official announcement of the meeting on both the Fine Gael and Green sides described it as “robust”.
The Greens insist it is all about improving air quality and improving public health. Leddin, chair of Oireachtas’ climate committee, said “public health has to be the main motivator” adding “this is something we will look back on in time as the right decision”.
Greens also point to a 2018 study by the Irish Thoracic Society on the nation’s respiratory health. It shows that mortality rates from chronic lower respiratory disease across all age groups from 2012 to 2016 were highest in the Midlands – the historic home of the peat industry and where many households continue to cut and burn peat.
Conversely, Sinn Féin, which unsuccessfully pushed through a Dáil motion last week urging the government to scrap its plans, argues that fuel poverty is responsible for 2,800 deaths in Ireland every year.
That figure was loudly announced by finance spokesman Pearse Doherty in the Dáil on Thursday.
“There are 2,800 people in this state dying of fuel poverty every year, every year, every year!” he yelled across the room at Ryan, who in response asked, “How many deaths should we tolerate?”
But the source of that figure appears to be a 2007 report by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. The 15-year-old report cites data on excess winter mortality as a percentage increase over non-winter deaths from the period 1988 to 1997 — in other words, data from 25 years ago.
Additionally, the report states that the 2,800 figure applies to the entire island — and not just to that state, as Doherty claimed.
Sinn Féin did not respond to questions about the source of the number or the discrepancy in Doherty’s comments.
The party’s fierce opposition to the government plan is all the more interesting given that its health spokesman, David Cullinane, was still vociferously calling for a nationwide ban on smoke coal in December 2019. At the time he said there was “no reason and the Minister has given the House and the public no valid reason not to proceed with a nationwide ban”.
Ryan has pointed out that banning smoked charcoal alone is not possible, as it would lead to legal action from charcoal traders who would argue that the state should also ban other solid fuels, including wood and peat products, which have a similar emissions profile .
For this reason, as Ryan’s allies argue, the main intention of the draft solid fuel regulation is to focus on the large-scale and commercial sale of smoky fuels – particularly smoked charcoal, but peat and wood must be included. They argue that the last three environment ministers have backed down in the face of these legal threats.
Now, instead of a legal threat, Ryan faces opposition from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as he grapples with the issue. Some believe it has even harmed the stability of the government. The more robust approach some Greens chose privately this weekend is unlikely to help.
“It came as a bit of a shock to see Garret FitzGerald’s party taking such a populist line where they seemed to be trying to outdo Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Raes,” a Green Party source said.
“The party are great talkers when it comes to the environment, but it was a bit revealing to see their reaction when it came to tackling air pollution.”
Another Green Party source within Government said: “There are four to five in Fine Gael and three or four in Fianna Fáil who are determined to outdo Healy-Rae the Healy-Raes – and if they are consistently let through with it, especially in terms of the climate and public transport and all that, you’re going to have problems.”
However, calmer heads are likely to prevail in this turf war. Eventually a solution will be found and the government won’t fall flat, but there are many other climate battles ahead.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/the-fight-over-turf-is-just-the-first-battle-in-what-could-be-a-long-war-41604441.html The battle for the turf is just the first battle in what could be a long war