Pádraic Fogarty June 3rd 2023
Biodiversity week came to a close last week with dozens of events around the country celebrating our natural heritage. It’s hard to know if the irony was lost on some politicians that instead of spending time reflecting on our connection with nature they joined the most concerted attack on efforts to address the biodiversity crisis we have seen in a generation.
Fine Gael MEP Colm Markey and his Sinn Féin colleague Chris MacManus formed a strange alliance on the EU agriculture (AGRI) committee in choosing to vote down the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL) in its entirety rather than proposing any amendments that might have alleviated farmers’ concerns.
Fianna Fáíl’s (FF) Billy Kelleher, also an MEP but without a vote on the AGRI committee, was also all over the media describing the proposals to reduce emissions from drained peatlands as “extreme”. At home his FF colleague Barry Cowen condemned the NRL as “cultural imperialism”.
All of these political parties voted for the Climate Act in 2021 that mandated the reduction in emissions of 51% by the end of this decade. Yet, taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that elements of the proposed law “went too far”.
Each of these politicians squirmed in their insistence that they want to see nature restoration while also pressing the nuclear destruct button.
The NRL is under serious threat, but it has not been killed off. Despite the negative vote in the AGRI committee, followed a day later by a similar motion in the fishing (PECH) committee, these votes are not binding. The file belongs to the environmental committee (ENVI) and the outright rejection by the other committees in fact makes their job easier. Since there were no amendments, there is little to negotiate.
The ENVI committee itself votes on June 15th and a rejection here would indeed kill off the proposal. Ireland’s two full members of this committee, the Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan and independent Mick Wallace, are both strong supporters of the law. The aforementioned Billy Kelleher and Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune are substitutes… can either be persuaded to vote in favour if they are called on to vote?
While a negative vote in ENVI will bring a hard stop to the process a positive one means the proposal will then go to a full session of the European Parliament, scheduled to be held in July. Here again a negative vote would be fatal, an approval would be much more positive, meaning the Parliament would then enter ‘triologue’ with the Commission and the Council (representing member state governments).
In such an event, a final regulation could be approved by the end of this year.
In the Dáil over the past two weeks Green Party TDs launched a stout defence of the NRL while the minister in charge of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Malcolm Noonan, said that even if it was rejected Ireland should press on with its own restoration plan.
Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan is believed to be looking for Ireland’s impressive budget surplus to be used for a dedicated nature restoration fund, outside of the Common Agriculture Policy, that would put money on the table for farmers.
This week highlighted the inconsistencies within the three large political parties on climate and nature action. Tánaiste Micheál Martin is outwardly receptive to action, recently visiting Cavan to announce a big land purchase by the State for reaching biodiversity goals. But where is the leadership when so many in his own party are vocally scaremongering and spreading misinformation about the Nature Restoration Law?
Agriculture minister, Charlie McConalogue, made soothing noises this week, stating that “I now expect our MEPs to work hard to bring the European Parliament position much closer to that of the Council”. Let’s hope he’s right, as government support will mean little if the whole thing is thrown out by the parliament.
Sinn Fein’s climate spokesperson, Darren O’Rourke, told the Dáil that the NRL “has the potential to be an important tool” in addressing the biodiversity emergency, and insisting that his party was in favour of “urgent action”. But these words are unconvincing while Mary Lou McDonald has so little to say herself on the subject and when the party’s only MEP is siding with the right wing in rejecting the law.
Varadkar and Fine Gael are at least consistent in opposing any meaningful efforts to address climate and biodiversity collapse. Should we be surprised that the Taoiseach has joined a campaign of misinformation that seeks to steal votes from the far right in next year’s local and European elections?
This lack of leadership leaves a vacuum that is filled with the hysteria, the scaremongering and even blatant lies about what the NRL is, and clearly isn’t about. “The rhetoric on rewetting from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the rural Independents does not seem to be matched by the facts” said Harry McGee in the Irish Times while Daniel Murrey, writing in the Business Post, noted how “facts are increasingly taking a back seat to feverish rhetoric”.
Were the NRL to be defeated, the consequences would travel far beyond the EU’s borders. It would threaten the entire ‘Green New Deal’ that has been a signature of Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission. The EU likes to see itself as a leader on climate and biodiversity. Its rules can have global reach, e.g. in the fight against deforestation, a carbon border tax, pesticides, single use plastics and more. The threat to the Nature Restoration Law is international news and its fall would undermine efforts to curb tropical deforestation, climate action and ocean protection.
People like Colm Markey, Chris MacManus and Billy Kelleher, with an eye on re-election in 2024, may not care much for these things but their political masters at home should. A weaker EU plays into the hands of its enemies from China and Russia to the American Far Right.
The leaders of the three big parties would prefer not to be talking about nature and climate. But room on the fence is getting tighter and the only way they’ll get off it entirely is through public pressure. This is why the coming weeks are critical not only for nature but our broader approach to the climate and biodiversity crisis. Time is running out.
We need as many people as possible to visit our website before June 15th to demand that MEPs vote for a strong and ambitious programme for nature restoration. Please visit https://iwt.ie/what-we-do/campaigns/nature-restoration-law/