Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I thank the Labour Party for this timely motion. My own leader has brought up this issue on a number of occasions in recent years. My party, when in government with former Minister Mary Harney, introduced the original smoky coal ban and there have been no legal issues in the intervening period. This is the first time the Government has publicly addressed its legal strategy and told companies suing it that it is afraid of them. It is certainly giving those companies legal strategies' ammunition. The Minister and Taoiseach have done this deliberately time and again.
If this decision ever comes before a court - I hope it does not because I want to see the other towns included - it will highlight that the 10,000 population figure is utterly irrational. Ashbourne is on the list for the smoky coal ban. About 3 km in the direction of the prevailing winds lies Ratoath, a town with a population of 9,533 which is not covered by a smoky coal ban. This is ridiculous. It is a really bad way to do policy. The coalman will have to sell different products in different towns, as is already happening. I met a coalman last week in Duleek and I discussed this very issue with him. There is a smoky coal ban in Drogheda. There is very bad air quality in Duleek because of smoky coal but, as the coalman told me, the big problem is the three coal lorries in Drogheda selling smoky coal illegally. These three lorries are doing regular rounds and the Government is doing nothing about it.
Every year, 1,500 people die as a result of smoky coal and bad air quality. I have calculated that approximately 60 people in my county of Meath die every year because of this. Only last week in Dunshaughlin, a constituent asked about a smoky coal ban for that town because of the air quality and how that affects him. Dunshaughlin has not been included and it is only a few kilometres from Ratoath and Ashbourne. The same applies to Kells, Duleek, which is near Drogheda, and Laytown-Bettystown, a census town with relatively arbitrary boundaries. Laytown-Bettystown is an important urban settlement. Its boundary could be changed in one direction to give a population of 15,000 or 20,000 or changed slightly in another direction to give a population of less than 10,000. These census towns, as I understand it, have no basis in law and are simply census towns for statistical purposes. The Minister cannot tell me that I could not change the boundary of Ratoath slightly and add 467 people to the population and thereby have the smoky coal ban apply to it. The Central Statistics Office would only have to do its business slightly different. The CSO census town boundaries changed between 2011 and 2016, particularly with the abolition of town councils.
This is an utterly irrational approach and the Minister should go back to the drawing board. What is needed now is for the Minister to be brave. He should be as brave as Fianna Fáil and Mary Harney and bring in this smoky coal ban nationally. There should be one system in operation and enforcement should be taken in respect of those who are selling unhealthy coal. This has to happen because lives are at stake. It is rare in this Chamber that we can directly state that a decision will save lives. The decision of Mary Harney saved lives in Dublin and other places. The decision of Deputy Micheál Martin, when he was Minister for Health, to ban smoking has saved lives. This Minister's inaction will cost lives. He has a chance to change his decision, however. He can bring in a rational solution to this issue.
A rational response would be to put it up to big business, which is the international business as opposed to the Irish coal industry. It is the foreign coal industry that the Minister is concerned about. He should put it up to the international coal industry by making a statement that he is prepared to be as tough as people in office before him. He would make clear he will be as tough as all the other parties in this House are saying they would be. Given Fianna Fáil's track record, the Minister can be damn sure we will do this if we are in office. That time cannot come quickly enough.
The Minister must look at this issue rationally. The figure of 10,000 is absolutely irrational and will not stand up to scrutiny. The example of Gorey and Enniscorthy was given, but Ratoath and Ashbourne must be the clearest example. They are almost twin towns. A few fields separate them, yet the Minister has taken the decision I outlined.
I welcome the amendment proposed by my colleagues, Deputies Cowen and Jack Chambers. It concerns the importance of having a just transition for workers and communities affected by the phasing out of fossil fuels and calls for that to be prioritised. I compliment the Deputies on their work on this issue. There is a need for the immediate deployment of available funding streams and the establishment of the independent task force that has been discussed. This needs to happen because the phasing out of fossil fuels is bringing a change to communities all over the country. They need to be ready for it. By far the greatest change a ban could bring is that lives would be saved. It would mean the Government would be operating not in fear of or in hock to legal threats from big international business, but would act in the interests of the citizens of Ireland and in the interests of saving their lives. This Dáil is appealing to the Minister with one voice, apart from Fine Gael, to put the smoky coal ban in place across the country.