A lament for our peatlands
What a let down. After being invited to an Oireachtas hearing to “discuss preserving biodiversity and ecosystems of peatlands” I had thought that here was an chance to talk openly with law-makers about the threats and opportunities facing our bedragled bogs. Even the press release from the ‘Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’ was upbeat: “Peatlands are a critical feature of the Irish landscape, a traditional source for industry and energy, and a fragile home for many rare plants and animals,” said Committee Chairman Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD. “The Committee looks forward to discussing with ecology and land management officials how best to preserve and protect these habitats for irreplaceable flora and fauna.” There are 10 members of the committee, including TDs and Senators, and its worthwhile giving them all a name check:
Michael Collins (Independent)
Danny Healy-Rae (Independent)
Martin Heydon (Fine Gael)
Niamh Smyth (Fianna Fáil)
Éamon Ó Cuív (Fianna Fáil)
Aengus Ó Snodaigh – Chair (Sinn Féin)
Maura Hopkins (Fine Gael)
Marie-Louise O’Donnell (Independent)
Fintan Warfield (Sinn Féin)
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour Party)
The job of the committee is to ‘shadow’ (the word on the website) the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht headed by Minister Josepha Madigan. Along with representatives from the NPWS, Bord na Mona and the Irish Peatlands Conservaton Council we all received a letter two weeks previously inviting us to attend and to make a 10 minute presentation.
The first disappointment was the turn out. Of the ten parliamentarians listed above only five turned up, the committee chair himself was a no-show. So much for him ‘looking forward’ to discussing our ‘critical peatlands’. Of the five who were there three made no speaking contribution throughout the two and half hours. Deputy Healy-Rae’s contribution was focussed on job opportunities for Bord na Mona staff (important yes, but off topic). He asked no questions or made no statement which had any relevance to peatland biodiversity. The next disappointment came when we were told we only really had five minutes to make our ten minute presentation and at least two of us were interrupted mid-stream to be told to get on with it. It was hard to escape the feeling that there was little real interest in what we had to say. Also present was Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice, well known climate denier and chairman of the Turf-cutters and Contractors Association – and no fan of peatland biodiversity. Deputy Eamon O’Cuiv, who has served in government and is well versed in conservation policy also spoke at length. And I mean at length.
Irish peatlands face major problems (see the link to our presentation at the end of this blog). I had expected the NPWS to be challenged on why so many of the promises in the National Peatlands Strategy were not being fulfilled. If our peatlands are so critical (as the chairman of the committee proclaimed) why didn’t he bother to turn up? Why is the Fine Gael government so quick to de-designate previously protected areas or furtively remove the need for planning permission for industrial peat extraction but stubbornly reluctant to implement conservation promises? As we struggle to address climate change and other environmental challenges where is the vision for restoring peatlands to all their glory? Who exactly is holding Minister Madigan to account? In the end there was no discussion on ‘how best to preserve and protect these habitats for irreplaceable flora and fauna’. The state agencies should have been grilled but sailed through unchallenged. Far from ‘shadowing’ the Minister and her department, this committee, it seemed to me, is in the dark. As our bogs take their last gasps, few in the Oireachtas, it would appear, is prepared to fight to save what’s left. What a disappointment.
A copy of our statement to the Committee is available for download here