In December, during a Dail debate on extending the ban on the burning of smoky coals, there was a queue of Fianna Fáil TDs looking to speak in support of better air quality.
My colleague Barry Cowen has been to the fore in arguing the case for a just transition for workers in traditional industries in the midlands so that they can work in more environmentally friendly ways. Micheal Martin, the party leader, regularly talks about recognising the importance of biodiversity and wants to make more effective use of the lawns in Leinster House. While Jackie Cahill, the Tippeary TD, has advanced arguments around supporting greener ways of farming.
All of this sprang to mind during a recent teleconference Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting as I listened to contributor after contributor cite the need for any new government to address climate change and to put in place practical measures to help us do so. The framework document agreed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been presented as an invitation to smaller political parties to enter into government talks. It contains a number of ambitious aspirations around the environment and climate change, which have been described as measure that could bring the Greens on board.
Rural Ireland has a fear of the Green Party because of a perceived lack of understanding by that party of life in smaller towns and villages and the countryside. Rural dwellers and farmers are often the best guardians of the environment and are keen to play their role – all that they are looking for is ways to ensure that they can have a way of living that can support their families and sustain their communities.
There is strong support in Fianna Fáil for an effective response to the climate challenge and much of the debate has been focused on how policies can be practically implemented. How do we introduce capital and training measures for anaerobic digestion? If we have proper infrastructure so that people can work remotely, won’t that reduce commuting and congestion? Could we provide carbon credits directly to landowners to trade?
On this last question, it is short-sighted that at present the carbon credits that ensue from the work of those who invest in forestry or the development of carbon sinks are owned by the state. Why not let the farmer offset the carbon emissions from their farm through carbon credits that they have produced in other ways? Or if they produce a surplus that this can be traded with industry and generate an income?
One of the most progressive politicians pushing the widescale planting of native trees nationally is Councillor Erin McGreehan, a Fianna Fáil representative based on the Carlingford peninsula. Many others are involved in local “green” community projects.
Ireland needs a government to address the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis but the new administration must also address the challenge of climate change. It is a matter for the Green Party as to whether they choose to roll up their sleeves and go into power to actually effect change, or to play second fiddle on the opposition benches to Sinn Fein, a party with a weak record on wanting carbon reduction measures.
While no party has a monopoly on the green agenda, if Fianna Fáil goes into government, particularly if the Greens run away, we should take the lead on transforming how we do things in Ireland in more sustainable ways.
We must make sure our policies over the next four to five years result in a reduction in carbon emissions but equally importantly, ensure a quality of life for our citizens by providing upskilling, training and capital supports as well as the required infrastructure using technological advances. Our party has a far better record of engaging with business, farmers, the construction industry and rural communities to ensure that this can happen.
Addressing climate change and biodiversity is too important to be seen as the preserve of the Green Party. Fianna Fáil in government will need to deliver on our strategy to bring people with us on the issue and ensure sustainable results.
Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Senator from Wexford