Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I thank Deputy Sherlock for tabling this motion on behalf of the Labour Party. I thank all the parties that have indicated their support for the principle of clean air and clean water, which are fundamental essentials to a healthy human life. The Taoiseach stated in the House last week that Ireland is the third most advanced country according to the UN human development index. Despite this, we have neither clean air nor clean water because of this Government's refusal to implement the serious changes that would clean up our rivers and lakes, improve our water quality and ban smoky coal.
The towns in which the smoky coal ban is due to come into effect are home to 156,000 people. As the Minister is aware, they will not be added to the list until next September. Again, we are laggards in the implementation of essential health measures. The towns not covered by the smoky coal ban are home to 356,000 people. We need to reflect on this. When it comes to clean air and water, this Fine Gael Government is showing the back of its hand to 356,000 people in Dunboyne, Arranmore, Nenagh and other such places. Enniscorthy has a population of 11,381. That town will be subject to the smoky coal ban next September. What about Gorey, in which almost 9,822 people live? It is wonderful that we will start to clean up the air in Enniscorthy next September, nine months from now, but I do not understand the Minister's reasoning in the context of bypassing Gorey, particularly when the regulations are exactly the same. Leaving 356,000 people behind is really bad.
The Government has performed very poorly in the management and organisation of the health service. This is despite the fact that yesterday we voted for expenditure of €17 billion, the largest health budget in the history of the State. However the Government could cut ill-health figures and waiting lists at a stroke if it only had the courage to do so by introducing a ban on smoky coal and ensuring the presence of clean air and clean water in major towns and villages. As I said, it is really difficult to know why Enniscorthy is included under the smoky coal ban but Gorey, with just 1,000 fewer inhabitants, has been left out. That does not make any sense, particularly when we consider all those children suffering from asthma, the older people who have suffered from that condition all their lives and the many who will contract late-onset asthma in their 50s and 60s. Families all over the country are listening to their children wheezing and trying to catch their breath tonight because it is so wet and miserable out there. Families will be listening to their elderly people wheezing too, and the trolleys in hospitals will be full of those suffering from various cardiac and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, problems because this Fine Gael Government refuses to act. What cowardice.
We are told that the Government has legal advice but it refuses to say in any detail what it is or from where it comes. Is this the legal opinion of a single individual barrister? I do not think it is the opinion of the Attorney General, because if it was the Government might have the courage to tell us a little bit more about it. As a former Minister, I know, as does anyone who has held ministerial office, that advice comes to Governments in all shapes and sizes. If a Government wants to, it can seek out the legal advice that best suits its desired outcome. This is what the Government seems to have done. If the legal advice was as substantial as it suggests, the Government would have told us a lot more about it.
We have evidence that the smoky coal used in Ireland is between 4% and 6% sulphur. Sulphur is the most dangerous component when it comes to air pollution and damage to people's health and lungs. There is a massive smuggling industry that takes smoky coal across the Border and sells it not just in the towns where it is legal and will remain so, like Dunboyne, but in housing estates all over the country. Those of us who campaigned in the recent by-election will know that in certain big estates one can literally taste the smoky coal in the air. Perhaps the Fine Gael people did not do those walkabouts in estates. I ask the Minister to have some courage and ban smoky coal throughout the country.