There’s been a lot of gasp and gasp about Eamon Ryan’s turf ban, but none of it will blow up the house.
When the Government TDs vote on private members of Sinn Féin tonight, will anyone turn right up the stairs from the Dáil chambers and enter the opposition hall? The answer to that is No.
There has been tremendous dissatisfaction among rural DTs over Ryan’s proposals, but no one in any of the Coalition parties is under the illusion that he is a dealbreaker.
The Minister for Environment and Climate Action spoke to parliamentarians from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael yesterday and heard many impassioned (and angry) arguments in favor of grass cutting, mostly from politicians living in the Midlands or along the West Coast.
But any discussion of this fall of the government is completely disproportionate. There will be a compromise. Ryan has already accepted that the way the ban was announced (through a parliamentary response to Brendan Griffin) was suboptimal. He also acknowledged that it lacked context and detail. For example, it does not actually offer complete regulations, but rather draft regulations (to be debated and fine-tuned, in other words). It is also compromised by saying that not only are those with land rights exempt, but those living in communities of 500 people or less will also be exempt.
Barry Cowen, who has been an effective spokesperson for Fianna Fáil backbenchers, said it well yesterday when he told Ryan that he had come up a few rungs on the ladder, but he was to take down a few more.
Politically, this is what will happen. The regulations will be introduced, but most domestic lawn cutting in rural areas of Ireland will be allowed to continue. And it will also include a commercial cut of the grass as long as it is relatively small.
This is the difficulty. It is very difficult to measure these things. It is very easy to calculate the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the state and get an idea of the shape of the market. It is more difficult with grass. It’s not centralized in the same way. Nobody knows exactly how much turf is mined each year in Irish bogs and where it goes. What we do know is that many households depend on it in some counties: almost 40% of households in Offaly use peat: it’s 27% in Roscommon; 23% in Galway and 20% in Longford.
A turbary right is the right to cut the turf (but not to sell it). The law has been around for hundreds of years. It’s unclear how many people statewide enjoy these rights, but it’s clear there are thousands (there are 1,600 people with rights to the bogs controlled by Bord na Móna). It also enjoys some constitutional protection.
There are commercial operators there, but there seems to be little data on how much grass they cut and how much they sell. Certainly, departmental sources say that there is a “grey market” where certain commercial operators sell turf in the big cities. But the magnitude of this is difficult to quantify.
Turf evokes a visceral response from rural DTs. There is an emotional aspect to this due to a bond that goes back generations. But it should be noted that Ryan’s settlements did not prevent people from saving their own territory. He just banned sales.
There has to be some honesty there. If this happens at a relatively micro level, some form of wiggle room needs to be granted. The difficulty is when it is sold in larger quantities. It needs to be dealt with – there’s no getting away from it.
Cowen said he would support a ban on roadside or gas station sales. Some sort of formula will therefore have to be found to distinguish between community selling and commercial operations.
Many TDs and senators from the biggest coalition parties used the argument yesterday that it was a dying tradition and will be gone in a decade. They argued that what was needed was a carrot, not a stick, of incentives to get people to switch from solid fuels to less harmful heating methods. That may be true, but he’s not quite sure the turf cutter is on its last legs. There could be a miraculous revival of tradition if global energy prices continue on their current upward trajectory.
Even if the Greens play a central role in this file, the main argument here is – for once – not on climate change. It’s a matter of air quality. Data shows that between 1,100 and 1,300 people in Ireland suffer premature deaths from respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution. Most of this is attributed to smoky fuels. It’s not just a beneficial thing. Solid fuel smoke is actually killing people in cities across the state.
Turf is a smoky fuel and is as harmful as bituminous coal or wet wood. If a technology could be found to dry turfs before use, that would put them in the same category as smokeless charcoal. But nothing has been found yet.
The big picture here is really smoky coal. Three years ago, a number of coal distributors threatened to take legal action against the state if the coal smoking ban were extended nationwide. Their argument was that it would be unfair and discriminatory for the state to impose a ban on smoky coal while granting an exemption to other equally polluting solid fuels like turf and wet wood.
So, to ban smoky coal, the government feels it has no choice but to impose certain limitations on the sale of sod or it will face legal action.
The regulations – when they finally arrive – cannot be too broad in terms of turf exemption, otherwise the door will be open to legal action.
That said, when you talk to TDs and senators from all government parties, they all say they think a workable compromise can be found.