Thursday, 19 January 2023
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Holly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
I want to know what the Tánaiste's Government knows about Coillte's plan to sell off vast tracts of rural Ireland to a British investment fund and when it first learned about it? Last November, the Government announced €1.3 billion in new forestry supports. I welcomed the announcement and thought it was a good news story for farmers, who would be encouraged to diversify and begin planting trees in greater numbers. Conveniently, the Government forgot to mention that large swathes of this much-needed State investment would be diverted from farmers and rural communities to international investment funds.
Earlier this month, Coillte announced it had done a deal with the British investment fund, Gresham House.The Irish Strategic Forestry Fund will acquire tens of thousands of acres of forestry ground using a €200 million war chest, most of which is coming from the investment fund. As part of the deal, Coillte does all the work and private investors reap all the rewards. Coillte sourced tens of thousands of acres in rural Ireland for the fund. It will plant the trees and manage the forests. Meanwhile, of course, the fund will be entitled to grants and premium revenues of up to €60 million from the Government's €1.3 billion forestry supports, and this will be just the start. Similar partnerships with other funds are surely on the cards.
The news of this scheme has sent shockwaves around rural Ireland. There are fears land prices are going to shoot up as a result of this land grab by private investments, and those fears are well placed. We have seen what happened with housing costs when vulture funds entered that market. Why should the impact on agricultural land be any different? Environmental groups are also deeply concerned. The Irish Wildlife Trust has labelled this a scandal. It will be devastating for our biodiversity.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach tried to distance the Government from this grubby deal. He said it had not been signed off by Cabinet and that there had been no memorandum to Cabinet at any point. There may have been no memorandum, but that does not mean there was no awareness at Cabinet that this was happening. According to reporting by The Irish Mail on Sunday, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, knew about plans for Coillte to use public-private partnerships to acquire land as far back as March 2021, nearly two years ago. Last week, after public outrage boiled over about this deal, the Tánaiste said it should be reviewed and alternatives explored. What did he mean by that?
Will the Tánaiste clarify when the Government found out about this deal, why the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who is meeting Coillte today, has developed an interest in it only in the past week and why alternatives were not explored before this deal was entered into? Finally, if the agreement is going to be reviewed, does this mean the Government is going to reverse it?