June 11th 2022
The government is nearing its second birthday. At the end of this year, at the halfway point if the government goes to full term, Micheál Martin will be replaced as Taoiseach by Leo Varadkar. While Martin has backed a response to the biodiversity emergency, even addressing the National Biodiversity Conference this week, Varadkar’s indifference is well flagged. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, whose party is consistently topping opinion polls. It’s practically a certainty that they will be in the next government in some form or other. What will a Sinn Féin government mean for biodiversity?
The Sinn Féin website’s policy page gives 53 policy documents dating from October 2019, from housing, health and a united Ireland, to sports facilities, gambling and school buses but nothing explicitly titled ‘biodiversity’, or ‘environment’. Nor is there an explicit land use policy which might hint at their views on agriculture, peatlands or water. There is a policy from November 2019 titled ‘Climate Justice and a Just Transition’ which acknowledges the need to “confront global warming” and states that “ecological sustainability must be framed by principles of social justice and equality”. The actions in this plan are solid enough but the word ‘biodiversity’ does not appear and none of the actions relate to land or sea use.
There is another document, from July 2021, titled ‘Sinn Féin Commitments on Fisheries and the Marine’. This calls for a “clean slate” in fisheries policy which, as you might expect, is centred on allocating more fishing quotas for the Irish fishing fleet. It calls for a total ban on supertrawlers although doesn’t define the word. The term ‘industrial fishing’ is defined by the IUCN as any boat more than 12 metres in length, but my sense is that this is not what Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, marine spokesman and someone from Donegal, has in mind as it would wipe out the Killybegs open water fleet.
There is a call for “the introduction of a competent EU wide inspection process for all fishermen in domestic and EU governed waters that ensures regulated, reported and sustainable catches”, which is very welcome given the accusations of illegality that dog the Irish fishing industry.
However, the remainder of the document is very weak on environmental issues, there is no section on environmental protection, no reference to overfishing, no commitment to the environmental objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy (which is current government policy) and the only mention of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is where they stress a need “to minimise the impact on traditional fishing grounds as part of the development of Marine Protected Areas around the coast.”
The introduction to the document says that it “arises from extensive consultation with the Irish fishing industry, fisheries NGOs, academics and coastal communities by Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Fisheries and the Marine, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn” but I don’t know which NGOs were consulted. Certainly, it didn’t include the IWT and a request to discuss MPAs with Mac Lochlainn by us went unanswered in 2021. In May, Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus outdid even Fine Gael by voting against a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs, against a proposal to map seabed carbon and even against a ban on mining in MPAs!
More clues as to where Sinn Féin stands on biodiversity might be gleaned from their ‘Alternative Budget’ document which was published in October 2021. This has a clear ‘Climate’ section which states that “the latest IPCC and IPBES reports leaves us in no doubt about the twin climate and biodiversity crises we already face that will have even more devastating consequences if urgent action is not taken now”. It committed to “enhancing the National Parks and Wildlife Service so that it has the resources to make a real impact”, which was great until you see that they would have given this task a measly €5 million, a tiny fraction of what’s actually needed. It said it would set aside €176 million for what it said would be a “record level of spending on animal welfare measures and biodiversity”. For scale, the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) commits €300 million per annum for potentially results-based schemes but environmentalists think this is still way too little to tackle the biodiversity crisis (a total of €1,960 million will be given to farmers every year from 2023-2027).
So, from the Sinn Féin website we can conclude that the party has no biodiversity policy and from the little that is published which does fringe on biodiversity issues, the policies are entirely inadequate.
Twitter fans will be aware that senator Lynn Boylan is a keen biodiversity advocate while TD Eoin Ó Broin is the party’s spokesperson on housing, meaning he shadows the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This means he follows issues relating to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Water Framework Directive and marine planning, including Marine Protected Areas. Despite his main focus being on the housing crisis he has made time to engage with these issues and has been pro-active in reaching out to NGOs, including the IWT.
And these are not the only voices within Sinn Féin willing to speak for nature. We have dealt directly with Sorca Clarke, who has supported our campaign for the Shannon Wilderness Park in Longford, Réada Cronin from Kildare, who is on the Oireachtas climate committee and Martin Browne from Tipperary, who has spoken in the Dáil and on committees on this issue. So, unlike Fine Gael, there is a cohort of Sinn Féin parliamentarians clearly knowledgeable and engaged with biodiversity. However, it’s also clear that this is not permeating into their printed policies.
In fact, a search of the twitter accounts of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty for the word ‘biodiversity’ yielded no results while the feeds of Matt Carthy and Darren O’Rourke, agriculture and climate spokesmen respectively, yielded a single mention each, one in relation to an article on the CAP (Carthy) and one on a recent proposal to protect the Irish honeybee (O’Rourke).
I have not heard Mary Lou McDonald use the word ‘biodiversity’ in any speeches but a search of Oireachtas debates does yield some results, including positive contributions on the National Biodiversity Data Centre and a welcome for the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss. Matt Carthy meanwhile stood out for me as he was part of a disgraceful parliamentary pile on that rounded on An Taisce when they appeared before the agriculture committee last year.
Sinn Féin’s support of the Climate Bill (now an Act) and their positive contributions in committees, the Dáil and the Seanad show that they are not as backward on environmental issues as is sometimes portrayed. Their response to the ‘turf wars’ controversy, including a weak performance by Darren O’Rourke on RTÉ’s Prime Time was perfectly in line with the other big parties – that is – in favour of climate action, just not now and not like this.
Their sometimes populist stances, whether it is saying they want to ban supertrawlers or designate sitka spruce an invasive species, is not unique to Sinn Féin, when both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael also want it every way. It is more likely that they simply have not taken the time to direct their researchers in this area because it has not been a priority for them.
But this neglect is no longer good enough. We need to hear a speech from Mary Lou McDonald on the climate and biodiversity crisis and the party need to get some ideas on paper so we know where they actually stand.
Sinn Féin are far from a lost cause when it comes to biodiversity and their default position of supporting smaller farmers or small-scale fishers should align well with strong climate and nature-friendly policies.
If the current government sees its term through (and this is not a given), it will be early 2025 before there is an election. Sinn Féin have time to get their act together, but not much. They need to engage with NGOs, including the IWT. We are standing by.