Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)


3:15 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I do not know where to start as this is such a wide area to discuss, but it is exceptionally important. It is definitely the issue of our time. The next ten years will be the deciding factor in how the entire planet, including Ireland, will decide what its future will look like for its people. As the youngest member of Dáil Éireann and one of the youngest parliamentarians in the world, I am extremely worried about the rate of progress.

There are many areas I could refer to but I might as well give the background to my pathway in life. I grew up on a family farm in east Cork. Dairy farming is a hugely important part of my constituency's economy. Both of my parents are working in the dairy industry, my mother as an employee of Dairygold, like thousands of others in Cork East and throughout Munster, and my father as a dairy farmer. I have seen the importance of dairy to the economy but it has to be said there is a lot of worry and uncertainty in the Irish agrifood industry, particularly in the dairy sector. I single out the dairy sector because it is often landed with the accusations about emissions.

I grew up in a country in which there was so much focus on medium-sized farmers. They were told to buy land, build sheds, build new parlours and spend hundreds of thousands of euro to expand their operations. Many of them did so on the advice of the Government. I remember being at one of the phenomenally well organised open days in Moorepark, Fermoy, where I heard milk described as "liquid gold" in one of the ministerial contributions. Now we are facing a situation in which tens of thousands of people are working on farms that are under enormous pressure. There is a lack of workers, which has put a great strain on farmers right around the country. There is great uncertainty after spending all the money on the advice of the previous two Governments, only now to be facing the impact of reducing the national herd, which we are now discussing. I am very conscious of that. I am conscious of it from two perspectives, one based on my background and the other based on my being a young person trying to protect our environment.

I have a very logical suggestion for the Government that I hope it can work on over the coming months and, indeed, over its term in office, which I hope will last the full duration. We have to make sure that medium-sized dairy farmers in Ireland are supported to retain the number of cows they have. It does not make any sense to tell them to expand if we are talking about reducing the size of the national herd. The reality is that for many at grassroots level in agriculture, it has been a case of continual expansion since the milk quotas were abolished. This is not specific to my constituency. Deputy Sherlock, who was here a moment ago, is also from Cork East and will be aware that in the north of that constituency and well into counties Tipperary and Clare, one really gets an insight, from a climate-action perspective, into how important the dairy sector is on the ground. This is the case throughout the south, where there is a lot of grassland.

We have to do more to expand in the area of environmental protection and must incentivise farmers to engage in climate-friendly activity. If I were asked whether I believe we are doing enough, my honest answer would be that we are not because, for a lot of farmers, every single square inch of land available, be it owned or rented, goes towards grassland. The farmers are not interested in trying to encourage the establishment of habitats because it just does not make financial sense. We need to make it financially sensible. That needs to be done not only in Ireland but also throughout Europe. What many European countries have done is phenomenal, including in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. I could go on and on about how such countries encourage farmers to engage in serious climate-friendly activity.

Having one's own power-generation capacity is an exciting area on which I am watching the Government make progress. The same applies to microgeneration using small wind turbines, perhaps located on agricultural land. This allows farmers to supply their neighbours with electricity and sell electricity back to the grid, including to local schools. Some schools were considering this as an option but for many years in Ireland we held people back who wished to sell power back to the grid. I acknowledge the presence of the Green Party, whose members are in government. They are very passionate about pursuing the policy on microgeneration. It is good and I acknowledge it. It will be very positive.

I am the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on transport. In Cork, we have a dirty problem, namely, the number of people in the county, city and metropolitan area commuting to their places of work in private cars. This is because the public transport system is simply not up to scratch. It is critical, through legislation we are bringing to the Dáil, including the Bill we are discussing, that we try to push on the existing metropolitan strategies on transport and improve public transport in our cities and metropolitan areas.

Let me put the issue into perspective. The Jack Lynch tunnel and Dunkettle interchange in Cork comprise one of the busiest junctions in the country. Cork is many times smaller than Dublin, yet the number of vehicles that use the junction is only a few thousand smaller than the number that use the Red Cow junction in Dublin. Comparing Newlands Cross to Dunkettle puts the matter into perspective. It just shows the root of the problem; it is terrible. I have been working on this for ages, even before I entered politics.

The issue that first brought me to Leinster House was to lobby to improve public transport when I was a transition year student. It was a very exciting day. We met the Taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, when he was Minister with responsibility for transport. That very day he was appointed to the Department of Health because it was the day of the Cabinet reshuffle. We were the only ones allowed near Enda Kenny that day.

I have been pushing this for such a long time but the bureaucracy involved in public transport in Ireland is a disgrace. What bothers me about it is that very talented people work in the Departments and at Irish Rail, Bus Éireann and Local Link - I could go on but I will not - and they want to fix this issue. Leadership in Ireland, however, as we know with the Civil Service, must come from the top down. I am a bit worried about the focus in the Department of Transport on cycling, walking and that type of infrastructure. We have to get down to brass tacks in terms of the numbers of people moving. Public transport, particularly in rural Ireland through our rail and bus corridors, needs to be prioritised and examined.

It makes no sense to me that Bus Éireann is a State-owned company divided in two. There is the commercial side, which there is no political oversight of or interference in, and there is the State-controlled entity within Bus Éireann which is responsible for its public service obligation, PSO, services, yet there is no co-ordination between the two. To add a third wheel to the mix, the way in which we co-ordinate our student transport services to secondary schools is also very frustrating. Every year since I have entered politics, and every rural Deputy will probably agree, our ears are chewed off by angry parents, and rightly so. They have every right to be furious over the lack of bus places for students going to and from school.

When I was a student at Trinity College Dublin - I travelled from Youghal to Dublin to attend Trinity - I noticed that when public transport services are run, everybody uses them to get to and from their places of work or education, whether they are in primary, second or third level. We do not do that in rural Ireland. Dedicated bus services serve many secondary schools in major towns, such as Midleton, Carrigtwohill, Youghal and other towns of more than 5,000 people where there are very good public transport links within close proximity of the schools provided by private bus operators. It would make a great deal of sense to have a bit of co-operation to expand the school bus services by working with Bus Éireann to a greater degree. Every year, this crops up as a big issue and it will be very important in order to get cars off the road. There are hundreds of thousands of journeys every day and that is what this is all about.

We can only do what we can. Ireland is a small nation and I fully agree that we have a responsibility to do something about climate change. I object to some of the language I have heard from certain Deputies in recent times about the impact that Ireland has because ours is a small nation and what we do does not matter. That is not true. The world looks at Ireland as an example of how to get things done properly. We are, after all, according to the human development index, in the top four countries in the world in which to live. Ireland is a world leader, regardless whether other Deputies agree or disagree, and we have an opportunity to go and do something with the issue. School transport is a key area and we could take action in respect of it in order to significantly reduce the number of car journeys people take.

On the speed of development of rail projects, three huge towns in my constituency are still awaiting news on the Cork metropolitan transport area strategy. I spoke recently in a one-to-one meeting with the CEO of the National Transport Authority, NTA, Anne Graham, and I am very appreciative to her. The NTA is working very hard but we have not received timelines. We need timelines to push on with the expansion of rail services in Cork. The plan in the Cork metropolitan transport area strategy for people living in Mallow, Cobh, Carrigtwohill and Midleton is to triple rail capacity in the county and the constituency I am very happy to represent. In addition, there are wonderful plans for park-and-ride facilities but we have no timelines for them either. The Minister of State might convey to the Minister and their colleagues who work in climate action that we have to start setting the process in motion. There have been too many plans in Ireland for different initiatives and they never develop into anything. I am very worried about the development of the metropolitan transport area strategies and ensuring they happen.

The issue of rail freight is going to be very important. I would very much appreciate it if the Government could do more to take lorries off the road, particularly at night. There is no reason we cannot use rail freight in Ireland.


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