Dáil debates

Thursday, 26 January 2023

1:14 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to address the House on Ireland's forestry strategy and other forestry matters. I emphasise again the importance of the forestry sector to the Irish economy and the important role of forestry in the delivery of our targets under the climate action plan. I am heartened by the cross-party support for forestry and for improving our afforestation rates in the country. Almost every Deputy in the House has spoken about our need to increase afforestation rates for the benefit of farmers, rural communities and our climate.

For various reasons, forestry planting has not been or is not where we want it to be. Afforestation rates have not reached their heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s for a raft of reasons. We have very ambitious climate targets, with forestry planting being at the very centre of these ambitions. As we face into a decade where we will need to reach up to 8,000 ha of forestry planting each year, our new €1.3 billion forestry programme will be a real game changer as we face into this challenge. We have 11.6% of the country under forestry at the moment with a target of reaching 18% by 2050. The challenge is great but our ambition is higher. This is an ambition with farmers at the very centre of it. This is why the programme for Government has committed €1.3 billion to this new forestry programme with substantially higher payments for farmers.

Putting it plainly, farmers will receive premiums for 20 years in the new forestry programme, which are up 66% on those of the previous scheme. This is the biggest and largest forestry programme ever introduced by any Government here and has been designed to have an emphasis on close-to-nature forestry and to ensure that farmers will be its primary beneficiaries. Comprehensive public consultation has taken place over the past year on the development of a national forestry strategy which has resulted in the publication of a shared national vision for the role of trees and forests in Ireland to 2050, together with the new draft strategy which sets out a clear set of objectives for the role of trees and forests in Ireland between now and 2030. The new Forestry Programme 2023-2027 will be the primary means by which the new strategy will be implemented over the next five years.

As I said, this comprehensive package of measures included a programme which will see an increase in forestry premiums between 46% and 66%, with farmers receiving 20 years of premiums compared to 15 years of premiums payments for non-farmers. In addition to receiving 33% more premium payments, farmers who plant new forests will receive the single farm payment on land converted to forestry. Other private landowners will not receive that payment.

The new forestry programme will also include a small-scale native woodland scheme whereby farmers will be paid to plant mixed native broadleaf forests of up to 1 ha in size on farms and along water courses, without the need for a forestry licence. This is another clear incentive to our farmers to consider planting their land.

The Forestry Programme 2023-2027 is subject to state aid approval from the EU Commission. The previous state aid guidelines in the forestry sector expired on 31 December 2022 and have now been replaced with a revised version as of January 2023. The introduction of these revised guidelines meant that a formal application for state aid could not have been submitted to the European Commission until the revised guidelines were in place, that is, before this month. We are continuing to engage with the European Commission to get this state aid approval process completed as fast as possible and we are leaving no stone unturned in that regard. We do not have a day to waste and we are working proactively to get the work completed in order to get the new programme officially open.

In the meantime, farmers can still engage with their planners to have much of the preparatory work done so that they can then officially submit their application once approval is received. I need to be clear that the precise timing of state aid approval will be a matter for the European Commission. We are, however, working daily with the Commission to get this process completed as quickly as possible.

On licensing, we have climbed a mountain to improve a situation that was truly dire. When the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I came to office, the forestry sector was on life support. Confidence had been eroded, licences were backed up and afforestation rates had collapsed. A broken appeal system had ground licensing to a halt with 6,000 licences awaiting over 120 days for approval. That number has reduced by nearly 5,000 now.

The backlog came as result of a 2017 court ruling which required significantly more scrutiny on each application, which delayed every single application. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I, working closely with our Department officials, set about fixing that problem but with it being so deep-rooted, it took time. Working with our officials, we identified the problem and we have fixed it through investment, hard work and determination.

To emphasise how efficient the licensing system has now become, in 2022 the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued 4,713 licences, which was 1,154 more licences issued than applications received. Licences on hand with us for more than 120 days reduced from 3,700 applications in January of the year past, to 1,983 at the end of the year. The 6,000 to 7,000 licences we had on hand in total in August 2021 is now at just over 3,000 and continues to reduce every single week, even when new licence applications are factored in. Licences for timber felling and forest roads were both at record levels for a single year in the year just past.

There are now over 1,000 approved afforestation contracts with 7,343 ha approved as ready for planting. In addition, there was over 9.5 million cu. m of wood licensed, well beyond the National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, estimated demand.

We have seen real progress but we have more to do. We will continue to push and drive on to become even more efficient.

While the new forestry strategy and programme are not finalised yet, the Department has introduced an interim afforestation and roads scheme in order that those with valid approvals under the old forestry programme can plant and build roads. Under the previous programme, licences were issued for more than 7,000 ha of afforestation that have not yet proceeded to planting stage. Under the interim arrangements that have been put in place pending approval of the new programme, those with existing licences can now proceed for planting at the new rates proposed to be paid under the new programme and have the full benefit of those new rates. We have received significant numbers of applications to proceed with planting in the coming weeks and months under these arrangements. We are committed to keeping this critically important industry moving through this relatively short period of uncertainty. Felling and non-grant aided roads licences will continue to issue and the Department's significantly enhanced licensing system will continue to progress existing afforestation applications pending state aid approval.

Under the new programme, farmers, as the biggest landowners in the country, will have the opportunity to play the most significant role in the creation of new forests. We hope that they will take advantage of the generous incentives on offer to help drive increasing afforestation. The afforestation targets set out in the forestry programme and the climate action plan are ambitious and will require the input of all stakeholders. The Government asked Coillte to get back into afforestation in order to help meet the country's ambitious forestry targets. The independent semi-State company, through its strategic vision, which was launched in early 2022, set a target of 100,000 ha of afforestation by 2050. However, the company is precluded from directly receiving premiums following a decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union, and it simply cannot draw down premiums itself. Coillte has, therefore, been exploring all options to support the creation of new forests in Ireland. This includes, through the harnessing of funding and assets from private and public sources, afforestation grants and premiums to provide long-term social returns for all stakeholders.

I am acutely aware of the concerns that have been expressed regarding Coillte's involvement with the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, and Gresham House. Coillte has partnered with ISIF to establish the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund as one of a number of models it intends to deploy in order to enable afforestation on a meaningful scale. As the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last night, and as we say again, the structure of the deal between Coillte, ISIF and Gresham House is not our preferred option. Our preferred option is for farmers to plant forest on their own land. That is what we have designed the new forestry programme to achieve. However, this fund is an option Coillte has put in place to help us reach our highly ambitious forestry targets.

The total area of new forest planted through the fund will deliver approximately 3.5% of the 100,000 ha of new forest Coillte has committed to enabling between now and 2050. Of the State's overall national target of 450,000 ha of new forest by 2050, the fund will plant less than 1% of that total. Coillte will not sell any existing, publicly owned forest to the fund, nor will it seek to purchase any other public land on behalf of the fund. Any land purchased by the fund will already be in private ownership and, obviously, no private landowner will be forced to sell land to the fund. Coillte and ISIF have entered into binding, contractual relationships in respect of this initiative, which has commenced its work, the afforestation element of which is expected to last for five years.

Building afforestation momentum in a sector that has been stagnant is necessary but there are various options to reach our ambitions. This is why the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I have asked Coillte to closely examine how it can work more closely with the State, as well as farmers and local communities. Again, this type of strategy is not our preferred option for strategic partnerships in the sector. Our preferred option is for farmers to plant trees on their own land, which is what we are incentivising through the new €1.3 billion forestry programme. We want all strategies to be based around working in partnership with farmers to support their ambitions for forestry but we must also be realistic. For various reasons, forestry plantations are not where we want them to be. Afforestation rates have not reached their heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, for many reasons. We have highly ambitious climate targets with forestry planting at the very centre of these ambitions.

Our main focus now is on securing EU state aid approval in order to introduce the new programme as quickly as possible. This is a €1.3 billion forestry programme that is focused on the future and not on the past, and on driving economic activity in rural communities throughout the country. This programme puts our farm families at the centre of its record premiums and a 20-year tax-free income. We have much more work to do to change the perception around forestry. Increasing our afforestation rates will be good for the environment, for our climate targets and, critically, for family farm incomes. We are entering and facing into an exciting future for forestry. We all look forward to working together to seeing Ireland become a leader in the forestry sector.

1:24 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister has been speaking for almost 15 minutes and we have not got a script yet. That is not a good situation.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy. I have asked for-----

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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It is being printed.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is being printed.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Yes. We will get it to the Deputy as soon as-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have already asked for the script. It is coming.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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So is Christmas.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Sinn Féin is next.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Government only using half its allocated time for opening statements?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It is the Deputy's turn.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Carthy used about four hours yesterday.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Government still managed not to answer any questions. Fair play.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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You can come back next week if you want.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this debate. I also welcome the Minister and the Minister of State. I have lost count of the number of discussions and debates in which I have participated in this House, and at committees and elsewhere, in respect of Ireland's forestry policy and its underlying failures. I have often said that a good forestry strategy is one that will deliver for the environment, our local communities and the economy. Unfortunately, we have had a worsening situation over the past decade or so, whereby none of those objectives have been met. In fact, the situation has got worse over the past couple of years.

If I welcome anything over the past number of weeks arising from the Gresham House deal that Coillte has engaged in, it is that it has finally put a spotlight on those failures. This is now a matter of public discourse. In my time in politics, I have rarely seen an issue that has united so many facets of Irish life, that has been the talk of so many different arenas, and that has angered and frustrated so many different people. The deal that Coillte engaged in with Gresham House has been roundly and rightly condemned by environmentalists, farmers, local communities and virtually anybody who has uttered an opinion in this House and outside it. It crystallises the underlying inability of the Minister, the Ministers of State and their Department to get this issue right.

The Gresham House deal, despite what we were asked to believe in the opening days of this debacle, was not something that came as a shot out of the blue for the Government. This deal was essentially signed off on by the Government. It would not have been possible were it not for a letter of expectation issued by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to Coillte in June of last year. I believe that happened as a result of negotiations and discussions with Coillte. The Minister's defence of that was we should have realised that this was what Coillte were planning to do because we received briefings from it.

I have met with Coillte a number of times, seen its broad strategy, discussed with it some of the detail and asked it how it wants to achieve this. Coillte has never suggested to me, in private conversations or in public briefings, that the route it saw was through an engagement with the type of investment fund Gresham House represents.

The letter of expectation directed Coillte to develop initiatives that included participation in a subsidiary or partnership enterprise. It is clear that the letter directed Coillte towards this fund. There has been an attempt by the Ministers over recent days to minimise this. One of the figures they keep citing is that the deal represents only 1% of the overall ambition, but we know that what it will represent is a purchase of 12,000 ha, 8,500 ha of which is already afforested. The Ministers still have not explained what possible benefit to the Irish people there is in having land that is already afforested and in local ownership transferred to the ownership of a huge foreign investment fund. The 3,500 ha over five years represents 700 ha per year. If we were to set that against what was actually planted last year, far from 1% or 3.5%, it would represent more than a third of all trees planted in a given year. The Minister, I had thought and hoped, would have taken the opportunity today to indicate that he plans to issue a new shareholder letter of expectation to Coillte to instruct it not to proceed with any of these types of deals in the future. From our discussions last night, we have learned that there are ways in which the Minister can ensure that the Gresham House deal does not proceed. The first thing he could do is tell Coillte not to put €10 million of public funding into the project but instead use that money to purchase publicly owned land. The second thing the Minister could do is issue a public pronouncement encouraging investors not to put their money into the Gresham House deal because if Gresham House cannot pull together the €200 million, this deal will fall apart.

The really disgusting thing that has happened is that for all the pronouncements we have all heard on our local radio stations and all the rest of it, we had an opportunity to send a very clear message through the Private Members' motion that was before us last night. Unbelievably and bizarrely, but probably not surprisingly, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Deputies abstained. For all the bluff and the bluster, when it came to it they would not support a motion that very clearly called on Coillte to stop the deal with Gresham House.

Now all the failures of forestry policy that have been ongoing for so long have been exposed. In 2004, as has rightly been said, a state aid ruling essentially meant that Coillte could not draw down the premiums and grants in respect of forestry and removed Coillte from the market. Very quickly after that, however, the market recovered to such a point that in 2010, six years later, we were hitting more than 8,000 ha per year in afforestation. There will rightly be debates about the types and locations of that afforestation, the impact it had on our biodiversity crisis, which many would argue was worsened as a result of that policy, and the fact that to some degree we managed to create a forestry policy whereby, by planting trees on bogland, we became one of the only countries in the world that made forestry actually damaging and carbon-emitting as opposed to something beneficial to the environment. However, we planted over 8,000 ha per year. That means there is a model in place by which this could be delivered, and the model was working in partnership with farmers, in particular. It was subsequent to that that the market moved and, through Government policy, investment funds were encouraged to come in and purchase large swathes of land in order to be able to draw down the premiums for which they were not excluded. We see the devastating impact that that has had in places like Leitrim, west Cavan and west Kerry. From 2010 the number of hectares each year being afforested steadily declined. Aside from the fact that we now had these new investment-type models coming in on a private basis, the numbers went down, up to and including in 2017, when the court ruling to which the Minister refers had a huge impact on the licensing process.

What did the Government do after that? In 2019 it commissioned the Mackinnon report. It was delivered in December 2019, and in January of the following year, 2020, the Department issued the draft implementation plan of the report. In November 2020, almost a full year later, it appointed Jo O'Hara to advise on the implementation and she delivered the implementation of the Mackinnon report in February 2021, whereby Project Woodland was established. Project Woodland went on to commission a series of specific reviews. I have lost count of the number of reviews and reports the Department has carried out. Not to be outdone, we on the Oireachtas agriculture committee got involved in the process and commissioned a report. I would safely say that if we were to stack all the reports relating to forestry that have been received since August 2019 on the floor of the Dáil, they would hit its high ceiling. The problem, then, is not the lack of resources, a lack of reports or a lack of ideas; it is the lack of political will to actually implement them. We have known since, aside from the licensing issues, why farmers disengage because they have been quite upfront in telling us. The licensing debacles were an issue. Farmers who a generation ago planted trees and forests and then came to the point where they were actually felling them ended up finding themselves with four- or five-year delays before the felling licences were provided. We know that the issue of ash dieback has never been dealt with effectively. Farmers, through no fault of their own, albeit arguably through the fault of the Department for having allowed ash dieback to enter the country in the first place, saw their entire investments completely destroyed. The Government in large part told them it was their own loss. Then, when they did intervene, they did so in a way that was not anywhere close to what needed to be done.

Here we are, then, in January 2022, and here is what some people might not realise. People who own land, whether public, private or community-owned, and who decide they want to play their part and want to plant trees today cannot apply to do that. They cannot submit a licence. The Minister says "We do not have a day to waste" in getting this programme through. He forgot to say that the application has not been submitted, so we have not a day to waste in getting this application through but the application itself has not been submitted, and we hear reports that the European Commission has some very serious concerns about that programme.

What, then, needs to happen? We need to start engaging with the sector. The first thing we need to do in order to build goodwill is to do precisely what we have asked in respect of Coillte. A new letter of expectation needs to issue to Coillte telling it that no more of these deals will be tolerated by the Government. Second, we need to try to scupper the current Gresham House deal. That is certainly within the mechanisms. The third thing we need to do is get clarification on the state aid rules. As I said last night, my understanding is that it might be possible for Coillte and other public bodies to avail of premiums and grants. If that is the case, it would be not only unacceptable but a national scandal if, instead of doing that, Coillte were to put its funds into a private investment fund in order to purchase land. There is an organisation called Social, Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland, SEEFA, that represents upwards of 85% of the forestry sector. Despite being asked several times, the Minister has not committed to meeting the association. I would have thought that that would be a good first step. In respect of the licensing programmes, and despite what has already been said, there is a target of 100 licences per week. Essentially, that is the target the Government has set to achieve. It achieved it in 18 weeks last week; it was 19 the year before. While the overall number of licences issued increased, there are still delays.

I am running out of time but I will finish on two remarks the Ministers have made in recent days. They go to the heart of the dichotomy we have and the divergence of views.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, said: "This is a hugely exciting time for Irish forestry, and we have designed a Forestry Programme that will deliver for climate, for biodiversity and for our farmers." The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, decided to outdo her and said we were at the dawn of a brilliant, bright and exciting future for forestry. One forester who rang me last night described the current situation as the darkest hour in Irish forestry in that person's 25 years in the sector. That is the dichotomy.

1:44 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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We have turned a corner and are moving forward. We have turned it around and are putting them in.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Government is out of touch with the people we will need to deliver this programme. We need farmers, but the Government has alienated them. We need the forestry sector, but the Government has alienated it. We need local communities, but the Government has alienated them and disengaged them from the process. Unless the Government realises these failures, it will not be able to address them.

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this subject again. I also spoke during Sinn Féin's Private Members' motion, which made three concrete proposals. Deputy Carthy has touched on a number of them, those being, licensing and how the State can get itself off the hook in the Coillte deal. In my comments, I will focus on the forestry strategy.

Sinn Féin's Private Members' business called for the publication of a forestry strategy as a matter of urgency and for it to prioritise afforestation undertaken by local communities, farmers, landowners and public bodies over investment management ventures, which is the model of delivery that should be at the strategy's heart. In his concluding remarks, the Minister referred to the Government's approach and said:

The second part is that we publish our new forest strategy as soon as possible, and an ambitious one. This is what we will be doing. We are working on finalising that at the moment and it will be a really good forestry strategy to go with the unprecedented high premium rate that we already announced just before Christmas.

There was no mention of the delivery mechanism or the prioritisation of local communities, farmers, landowners and public bodies over investment management ventures. That should come as no surprise.

There is agreement that we need an ambitious plan for forestry, but the Government seems to be ignoring it, which is the disappointing element. There is an agreed vision of what the future of forestry should look like. Indeed, the Department conducted an extensive public consultation using surveys, various deliberative models and stakeholder engagement, and prepared a summary report of the result. What does the citizenry say when we speak to it about the future of forestry? There is a wisdom in crowds, as there always is. Regarding Ireland's ambition for forest creation, and according to the report, citizens recognise:

1. The current level of forest cover in Ireland is too low and there is an urgent need for a greater level of ambition.

2. Ireland needs a major expansion of new forests, to where there is a greater balance with traditional agriculture in the landscape.

3. Land availability is a critical element to any future increase in forest cover.

4. A significant shift in land use change is needed and will require much better integration of trees and forests with traditional farming and agricultural practices.

5. There needs to be a regulatory system in place that can deal efficiently and effectively with the requirements of forest establishment and management.

The right reasons - Forests for Climate

1. Climate change is a key driver for increasing forest cover.

2. Combating climate change should be a priority objective when planning new and managing existing forests.

3. Forest carbon accounting will be a key tool to understanding the climate change impact of the forest sector and to informing decisions on future land use planning,

4. Increasing the use of wood and wood products, both as a long-term store of carbon and as a substitute to using more carbon intensive products are key ways that forests can contribute to meeting our climate targets.

5. There is a preference [among the citizenry] for managing forests in a way that addresses climate change.

People want forests in urban and rural areas. According to the report:

1. There is generally a very positive attitude toward forests in Ireland and they are an important natural resource for urban and rural communities, using them regularly for recreation and health and wellbeing [sic].

2. Continued access to public forests is vital to maintain the benefits of forests to people. There is a general divergence in preference for access to publicly or privately owned forests ...

5. Continued and improved engagement and communication with forest owners and farmers is essential to maintaining good working relationships and building confidence and trust.

I have more to go through, but it already seems that if the Department, Minister and Minister of State actually listened to the public consultation that they conducted, they would not have landed themselves where they are.

The consultation continues:

The right reasons - Forests for Wood...

2. There is a preference to see more wood products used in the construction of Irish houses an in energy generation ...

5. There is a need for wider education and awareness raising on the benefits of wood and timber products.

Using forests for nature shows a major gap in the Government's approach. The consultation reads:

1. Supporting and protecting nature and biodiversity are key drivers for increasing forest cover and planning and managing existing forests.

2. There is a preference for expanding, enhancing and restoring native woodland habitats.

3. Establishing non-native conifer forests on sensitive peatland habitats is a key concern. The existing biodiversity and climate mitigation value of candidate afforestation sites should be an important consideration in this regard.

4. A diversity of approaches to forest establishment and management should be used in support of nature ...

The right trees

1. There is a preference among the public for more diverse mixed forests and native forests.

2. The urgent need to create more forests should not be used as a reason to continue planting less diverse forests ...

The right places

1. People would like to see more forests established on a mix of private and public lands and in urban and near-urban areas ...

The right management ...

2. There is an interest at community level to facilitate greater community involvement in forest establishment and management ...

4. Using a suite of options in encouraging more farmers to plant trees will be important.

Nowhere in the above did the citizenry say that we should develop a complex market mechanism and use investment funds to buy up tranches of private land to deliver corporate profit. Rather, the people have said that they want a model of forestry that delivers for local communities, the environment, farmers and the economy. Indeed, this is the same sentiment that came from the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss last week. The Government has landed somewhere entirely different, though.

There has been extensive discussion of the Coillte deal, which is a bad deal for Ireland. Today in the Irish Examiner, Mr. Paul Hosford reported the deep concerns of the European Commission, specifically its Directorate General, regarding the elements of the Government's plan relating to biodiversity and nature, for example, planting on peatlands and the impact on birds. The Irish Examinerreads:

[The commission] has previously drawn attention to risks of inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peatlands and negative effects on areas of high ecological value ...

I will draw a connection. When the Government consulted the people of Ireland, they said exactly the same thing as the European Commission did.

The Irish Examineralso reads:

The [strategic environmental assessment] report also does not ... adequately address concerns about the piecemeal encroachment of forestry plantations and roads into open landscapes under high natural value farming and relied upon by open habitat birds, notably the hen harrier and the breeding curlew. Breeding curlew numbers have collapsed from an estimated 3,300-5,500 pairs in the late 1980s to no more than 150 pairs at present.

There is an agreed vision - my party certainly reflects it - in the report of the public consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. The Government is failing miserably to deliver on it.

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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At today's Business Committee, it was agreed that the Labour Party would give time to the Independent Deputy MacSharry, who has just arrived. I believe I have seven minutes.

The Minister and Minister of State are present.

We have seen, with the demonstration today and with the reaction from the public up and down this country to the proposed Gresham House deal, how strongly people feel about their woodlands, their ancient woodlands, which have been under pressure and under stress after centuries of mismanagement, and the woodlands that are yet to be.

The previous Deputy spoke about the importance of woodlands all over the country. I look at the Swords Woodland Association, which is a proactive group in my home town of Swords and which over the past five years has been in schools educating young people about the importance of woodlands and trees. They have had multiple plantings of trees all around the town. They have initiatives on the importance of hedgerows in biodiversity. It is a positive proactive association of which I am proud to be an ambassador, although the real work is driven by a fantastic group, including Councillor Joe Newman and Mr. Edward Stevenson, who are bringing the importance of woodlands to communities in urban settings.

People understand and connect with the importance of publicly-owned woodland space for our climate change objectives, for our biodiversity and for peaceful places to be and when this proposed Gresham House deal came to public consciousness, we were not surprised at the reaction that we have seen.

The Minister said Coillte wrote to him on 16 December to inform him that the deal with Gresham House had been signed off and that due to the Christmas break, he was unable to turn his attention to it until January. We also know the Minister has been aware that Coillte was looking to engage private investment since the end of 2021. To be fair to the Minister, he has not shied away from this.

The nature of this deal did not sneak up on the Minister or, indeed, on the Government on 16 December. There was no sleepwalking into this. This was something that was coming down the tracks for more than a year. We have heard from the managing director of Coillte that the Minister had been kept in the loop on this deal in the months leading up to it being signed off. The Minister knew this was in the pipeline and dropped the ball on doing anything to stop it.

The Minister admitted that this is not the preferred way to go but that begs the question as to what is Fianna Fáil's preferred route on this. The Government has had two years to look at better alternatives, which to most of us in the House are obvious. However, as a result of inaction, we are left with an outrageous deal that, by the Minister's own calculations, is less than preferable.

Perhaps it is the Fine Gael influence that has rubbed off on the Minister. This deal has their fingerprints all over it and I am sure they are delighted to finally be getting their wish of privatising forestry after they were blocked from doing so by the former Minister, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, and the Labour Party on their last attempt almost a decade ago. We have the scars on our back and know exactly how Fine Gael feels about forestry in this country and where it wants to go. It was hoped that the Green Party and Fianna Fáil would be able to stop such a way forward but this deal has all the hallmarks of what Fine Gael has wanted to do since its NewERA document many years ago.

The EU state aid regulations have prevented Coillte from receiving State grants and premia. In what world is the solution to this to simply hand the money over to a small number of investors syphoning funds from the public purse into the pockets of investment fund managers based outside the State? In the two years they have been aware that this was the course Coillte was looking to take, has the Minister not been petitioning the EU to change its rules around State grants?

In response to a question on Leaders' Question from my party leader, Deputy Bacik, today, the Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said that they will go to Europe for the change, but why is it taking so long? Why have they not gone to Europe already? Why is it in the future? If it is in the future, when exactly will the Minister go to make these changes?

The case to make is clear. There is a direct correlation between when those rules were introduced in 2003 and a decline of our forest sector. The Government knows that these rules have hampered Coillte's ability to carry out its mandate and we have heard from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, among others, that the State should go to the EU to seek a change in these rules.

We heard from the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, earlier this week that the Government has still not approached Brussels. This backs up what the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said in response to a question on Leaders' Questions today. When the Minister of State learned of Coillte's plans two years ago, her first port of call should have been to look for a change in these rules. This still has not occurred.

We accept that a new approach to forestry needs to be taken if we are to meet our targets but privatisation through the back door is not the solution. Coillte has claimed that it cannot meet the scale of investment required but the fact remains that it is an extremely profitable enterprise and has the capacity to borrow. It has more than €1 billion in net assets. Its 2019 balance sheet showed €58 million in profits and its 2021 balance sheet showed €119 million in profits. These two profit figures alone would show that to meet the amounting of funding of €200 million that this deal is looking at raising, Coillte would have the ability to service and repay a loan of that amount if the rules allowed, and it would prevent taxpayers' money being syphoned off into a foreign financial house through State grants and premia.

A syphoning off of State funds is exactly what we are seeing here. Coillte is getting into bed with private investment funds, the sole purpose of which are to generate profits for their investors. What this means in practice is that grants that could have been used by local farmers to develop their own forests on their own land are going to foreign investment fund managers and profits from the afforestation industry that could have been kept in local communities are being exported.

The commercial motivation of Gresham House will mean this deal results in as little regard for biodiversity and climate concerns as they can get away with. All the great work that organisations are doing locally, such as the Swords Woodland Association, can only do so much. We need Coillte to be resourced. We need the rules to be in place to ensure it can meet and, indeed, "smash" - the word the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, used today - through the targets. Unfortunately, this Government is not going in this direction and we have great fears about the future of afforestation industry.

1:54 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I attended as much of last night's meeting as I could. It was very long and not being a member of the committee, it went on so late I could not wait long enough to contribute.

The Minister, Deputy McConologue, said it is not the Government's preferred option. I appreciate that. The Minister also said that "binding, contractual" arrangements have been entered into. The first issue I have with it is the autopilot approach that consecutive Governments and various Ministers take to the semi-State sector. It is a kind of autopilot that they are over there, the Government will get the dividend and it will give them the nod on what they are looking for, in terms of raising money or whatever. That is poor practice. We need to take a more hands-on approach to broad policy agendas being followed within the semi-State sector, and particularly Coillte. This proves it. By the Minister's own admission, it is not his preferred route to go. The Minister tells us that he is incapable now of preventing it because there are contractual arrangements.

Yesterday evening, I sat beside Deputy Michael Collins and I provided him with a copy of the relevant piece of the 1988 Act. He said the Minister had the power to prevent it. The Minister frowned at that. The Minister has the power, by the way. For his information, under section 38(2) of the Forestry Act 1988, under general ministerial powers, the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Finance and other Ministers, can specifically direct. When it comes to raising capital, I would suggest most certainly the Minister can.

In effect, what we will have here is potentially a brass plate on Merrion Square with" Gresham House" on it. Its investors, wherever they will be in the world, will be the owners of land here. That is where the premia will go. That is where the beneficiaries will be. What is more, funds such as Gresham House will likely flip that investment multiple times between now and the maturity of the timber, etc. Unlike the lies, quite frankly, and the misleading nature of some Coillte comments that this will do great things for local investment, there will be no premia being spent in Connacht Gold or in the local Centra, as there is at present.

We are powerless to prevent any foreign person buying land in Ireland or doing what he or she wants in Ireland. The market dictates but I would suggest that when it is the State-sponsored foreign plantation of our nation, the public are entitled to take a view that we do not want to incentivise this.

If there was market failure and if there was not a robust competitive market for the purchase of land and planting, and the Minister acknowledges the serious difficulties over recent years that we are making progress on in terms of backlog on felling and planting licences, there is no issue with money. On 5 January, for example, we, through the NTMA, raised €3.5 billion in the markets for green bonds.

Coillte could have a forestry bond that could raise money directly. The NTMA could have set up a separate special purpose vehicle to invest if Coillte needed money. The Ireland Strategic Infrastructure Fund, ISIF, could have put the money in. If, as the Minister has stated, it cannot be prevented now, can he give this House an absolute assurance it will be prevented in the future and that he will encourage not only his Department but all his colleagues in the Government to take a more hands-on approach to our semi-State sector.

2:04 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Matthews. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on Ireland's new forestry strategy. I commend my colleague the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her Trojan work in securing an unprecedented €1.3 billion to execute this key pillar of Ireland's climate action plan over the next five years and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on his leadership in this role. As the Taoiseach told the IFA last week, the forestry strategy was designed to benefit rural Ireland by giving farmers the biggest opportunity to meet our forestry targets and ensuring the overwhelming majority of the economic stimulus it provides will be felt in rural Ireland. As a rural Deputy representing a constituency with a proud agricultural tradition, it is especially important to me that farmers are at the heart of Ireland's response to the climate and biodiversity challenge. They own and manage two thirds of our land, so it is our responsibility as politicians to ensure they are empowered and equipped to lead. There are also benefits in the forestry strategy for nature, and I welcome the provisions to expand substantially the native woodland cover, ensure more diverse mixes of species, address legacy impacts, restore afforested peatlands and support closer to nature forest management.

We have work to do across government to ensure robust ecological assessment procedures to safeguard habitats and species of ecological importance such as the freshwater pearl mussel, marsh fritillary butterfly, red listed bird species, species-rich semi-natural grasslands and other high nature-value farmland areas, especially with respect to the native tree area scheme. This is at the forefront of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett's, mind. When we think of forests, what do we think of? Is it stands of healthy conifers that will be felled for valuable sawlog to support the rural economy and national housing targets, beautiful non-native beech and bluebell woodlands that were established centuries ago on old estates that we now enjoy for walks with our families, or the soggy biodiversity-rich temperate rainforests dripping in mosses and liverworts that might naturally occur on large swathes of our island? I argue we should think of all three. We should not forget about the other forests either, the islands of low yield class timber on peat soils on the western seaboard, many of which are uneconomic to extract, the ancient and long-established woodlands that are dying in slow motion, choked by invasive rhododendron and laurel that crowd out the next generations of trees, the dense monocultures of conifers that exclude both light and communities, and the bare hillsides that might regenerate on their own through a succession of grasses, bushes and shrubs to natural woodland were they not relentlessly grazed.

Social and economic policies of the past, which were undertaken for good and valid reasons at the time, left us a difficult legacy when it comes to forestry. The decision to ensure the nation's strategic timber resource never competed with agriculture and confined forests to the productively poorer lands was made in the shadows of the Great Hunger. The planting efforts on vast peatlands and of the west in the 1970s and 1980s provided desperately needed rural employment for so many people and was the only alternative to emigration. The intensification of agriculture that overwhelmed the wooded corners of fields and tall thick hedgerows transformed the fortunes of many farmers, and the planting and felling protocols of more recent decades pursued maximum economic productivity in the regions left behind, often to the detriment of environmental or social productivity.

The forestry of the future must take account of this history and we, as elected representatives, must ensure the whole story is told if we are to make better decisions today. In my role as Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, I am keenly aware that the Ireland of today has a very different set of values to the Ireland that wrote the first 100 years of our forestry story. These new values are very much to the fore in my Department which undertakes extensive work to conserve and restore existing native woodlands, create new ones and restructure and rehabilitate the forests where a different habitat is better for nature.

In our national parks and nature reserves from Glengarriff to Glenveagh, we are restoring ancient oak yew and alluvial woodlands, planting new native woodlands, collecting seeds and establishing conservation populations of genetically unique tree species, removing invasive species such as rhododendron, cherry laurel, beech and sycamore restoring and rehabilitating afforested peatlands, erecting deer fencing and managing populations on an ongoing basis. This work has been significantly ramped up thanks to the increased funding provision for the National Parks and Wildlife Service under this Government.

We are also taking a longer term more strategic view of the management of these special places. In Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal, we are implementing a new woodland management strategy with a 100-year time horizon to 2120. In Killarney National Park in County Kerry, we recently published a 30-year review of the vegetation change in permanent native woodlands, the findings of which will inform future management, including the new rhododendron management plan which is currently being finalised. In Wicklow Mountains National Park, a new deer management plan is expected to be completed later this year. At Wild Nephin National Park, we are at the beginning of a major ecological restoration project to bring a former conifer plantation back to healthy peatland, native woodland and riparian habitat where natural processes are the drivers of change. At the national level we are almost finished a scoping study to map, monitor and protect Ireland's ancient long-established native woodlands, which is a vital step towards a full national inventory of these amazing habitats.

We also continue to manage deer hunting licences, with more than 6,000 issued by my Department last year. Deer grazing remains an overwhelming pressure on the establishment and regeneration of native woodlands across many parts of the country despite the culling of more than 50,000 animals last year. I firmly believe a long-term, strategic and sustained approach to deer management that is led by data is needed. We need a deer census, a deer forum to explore management possibilities, including contracted service providers, and to promote venison as a source of wild organic lean protein and mainstream it in our diets. We also need to think more broadly about grazing in general, especially grazing by sheep. Conservation grazing has a role to play in the management of our uplands, but what we have now is not working for nature, water, climate or people and we need to rethink it.

Invasive plants such as rhododendron and cherry laurel present significant challenges and a major programme based on sound science and best practice and managed strategically on a site-specific basis needs to be undertaken. Communities can play a vital role in this work, and we have seen fantastic examples of people coming together to support nature. An inspiring one is a group of farmers who, through their participation in the rural social scheme, are removing rhododendron from Bundorragha Catchment in County Mayo, and I would like to see much more of this take place. It is clear we need to think big and take bigger action. The next five years will be crucial.

The European Commission's proposal for a new nature restoration law is focusing minds on the challenge ahead and its implications for all habitats and sectors, including woodland and forestry, and it is starting to become clear. Early analysis suggests we will need to establish approximately 1,300 ha of sessile oak woods and approximately 500 ha of alluvial forest every year to achieve the 2030 targets. This goes well beyond the scope of the new forestry strategy, and while the role of Coillte has been much discussed in this House in recent weeks, a key question remains to be asked. Is there potential for Coillte to ring-fence a portion of the profits it returns to the State for the creation of permanent native woodland in support of the nature restoration law? I would like to see this explored. Speaking in the Chamber earlier today, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, signalled his intention to look at the mandate of Coillte. Last month I wrote an op-ed piece setting out my hope that we will be able within my lifetime to remove fences that corral nature into so-called safe places. If we are to achieve or even move towards it, we need a clear sense of who and what our forests are for, where they should and should not be; and a sustained, targeted focus on how they are managed for the next 100 years.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I join the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in acknowledging the massive investment secured by the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in our forestry plan and thank them for it. Some of the facts and figures that have gone out on the investment opportunity with the Gresham House fund have been misleading. It is important to put it in context. The Government policy is to establish approximately 450,000 ha of land into forests by 2050. Coillte will manage approximately 100,000 ha of that. The investment we are talking about equates to approximately 3,500 ha of land and not the 50,000 ha that is being widely reported. That is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. The use of the term "vulture fund" is also misleading as there are no distress sales. Anyone can buy or sell land, anyone can plant trees and anyone can invest in this opportunity. We need to get those facts out.

However, the set-up of Coillte is something we wish to address and this gives us the opportunity. Perhaps it has highlighted the need to address the mandate of Coillte and establish a new mandate for the company which will deliver multiple benefits, including environmental and community objectives as well as the production of high-quality timber, and retain the commercial forests of Coillte in public ownership.

Coillte has a vision over the next 30 years to achieve a 50:50 split in developing forests for nature and for wood, which is a huge improvement on the current 80:20 split there is now. It should happen faster. One of the difficulties with Coillte is that, while it is a commercial entity, it does not retain the profits from its commercial ventures. I understand the profits go back to the State, making it a commercial State agency. It is prohibited from apply for Government grants because it would run foul of state aid rules.

On the remit of Coillte and how we can improve things, we are all in agreement that we have to plant more forests. Nobody would disagree with that nor would they disagree with the fact that the supports and incentives for farmers to do it go further and are a better grant than for somebody who invests but is not a farmer. We should be trying to encourage and work with the farming communities and landowners to plant more forestry. That said, if Coillte were allowed to maintain its return and reinvest its profits back into forestry in Ireland, we would likely need fewer outside investors. It is important to remember we will always need outside and private investment in much of what we do in this country. In housing, for example, there is an annual investment from the public purse of more than €4 billion, but the total per year is probably around €12 billion. That type of private investment is always needed.

This fund is seeking an investment of €200 million from a diversity of investors that could come from all over the world. It is not a quick buck or a quick return. I have heard people say this will inflate land prices and that investors will come in and make a quick killing. We are talking about investment in something that is not going to be harvested for 30 or 40 years. There will be grants over the duration the timber grows, but it will go back into managing it. The return on this is the timber produced at the end. I would like to see that timber being produced by Coillte commercially, but on public lands and that return going to the State.

We need a lot more timber in this country. We are talking about the construction of approximately 40,000 houses per year. The figure changes from time to time but we are looking at a figure of between 35,000 and 40,000 houses. If we build all those houses with concrete, and we covered this in the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage recently, we will overshoot our carbon targets. Therefore, we must have much more timber frame construction and move to modern methods of construction. We have the raw material growing here. We know that soft wood, such as spruce, can be used to manufacture cross-laminated timber with which we can build much higher than the two- or three-storey buildings within the current regulations. All around the world, buildings are 12 to 14 storeys. That is what we need to be aiming for. That is what we need to be using the timber for. We must plant a lot more forests to do that.

We have failed, but this investment opportunity represents less than 1% of where we have to go with Government policy by 2050 to achieve the target of 450,000 ha of new forests. I would prefer if it were Irish investors and landowners, keeping it in the country but we have to rely on investment from time to time. It has been grossly misreported and I am glad to be able to put some facts on record.

2:14 pm

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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When this Government talks about forestry, biodiversity or our environment, it says all the right things. It says all the things that people in our communities want to hear. We have the Tánaiste talking about rewilding land. We have the Taoiseach talking about turning the tide on climate change and biodiversity loss and leaving the planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it. We hear the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan's evocative descriptions of forestry and what Ireland could and should be. However, while all the talk is there, the reality is their actions say very different things. We have seen in recent weeks, with the Coillte deal coming into the public arena, is the complete hypocrisy of the Government being exposed when it comes to forestry, biodiversity, rural communities and just transition.

It is not just the Coillte deal. There is also the matter of the EU letter that is currently online and that scathing criticism of this Government and its approach to forestry and biodiversity. People are awake to this now. The reason we are all inundated with emails and the reasons for the protests at the gates of Leinster House is because people can see what the Government is trying to do. They see the reality and discrepancy between Government talk, press releases, spin and its actions. I ask the Minister to listen to those voices. It is not often in this Chamber that we hear politicians from across the entire spectrum, environmental groups and farming organisations all saying the same thing. That does not happen often. That in itself should be ringing enough alarm bells with the Minister and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to say we need to stop this deal. The community is saying this is not right. The biodiversity assembly is saying the same thing. It is not just one voice, one sector, or one interest group. Everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet, except for the international investors who will make a profit from this deal.

It is a bad deal for the public purse, for biodiversity and for rural communities, and it is the absolute opposite of a just transition. A just transition is one in which the Government is supporting rural communities to make the changes we require of them to meet out climate targets and improve our biodiversity. That is the responsibility of the Government. Again, this is another area in which the Government repeatedly talks up its actions. However, this is not a just transition. This Coillte deal is pitting international investors with very deep pockets and who are being subsidised by the State against rural communities, and that is not how we want to meet our climate targets. Our climate targets are very important but how we get there and reach those targets is also incredibly important. If we leave large swathes of our communities and residents behind, it will lead to a very destabilised, unfair and inequitable society.

It is interesting that the Minister has said this deal between Coillte and Gresham House is not the Government's preferred option. We have heard from other members of the Green Party who would also prefer if it were the State investing in this forestry so that we do not have to go out to the private sector. Over recent weeks, it seemed very handy that Coillte was there and for the Government to say "It's not us", that this was Coillte, that it had nothing to do with the Government, that it did not know about it and was not sure what was happening, and that this is Coillte's baby, as it were. The reality is, however, Coillte was set up by the Government with a specific mandate and it is performing to that mandate. It is the Government's responsibility to work out whether that mandate is in the public interest and whether it represents what we need now in light of our climate and biodiversity crises. It is clear it is not. We have heard from Green Party members who have said that perhaps we should be looking at Coillte's mandate. In the context of this deal, however, has that horse bolted? Is the Government too late in reforming Coillte to prevent this model, where profits will go out of the country and the heavy lifting is being done by a State entity? Coillte will find the land, plant it and manage it, and international investors will be subsidised to receive those profits in 20, 30 or 40 years' time.

The question is why the Government is not making that investment. If it is financially viable and financially attractive enough for an international investor to do this, surely it is also financially attractive for the State to do it.

We have heard repeatedly about how there is a €5 billion surplus this year, so why is the Government not using some of that money so that we do not have to go to international investors but can keep control of our natural resources? Surely at this stage we have learned that Irish natural resources should be remain within the management of the Irish State. What the Government is doing is cementing a model that will be there forever and a day. It will affect generations to come and that is not in the best interests of the State.

I will address the letter the EU allegedly sent to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the forestry strategy. The letter is damning and completely undermines much of the commentary from the Government benches today about the benefits of this forestry strategy and what it will do for our environment and all the improvements we are seeing. What this letters says is that the EU has serious concerns about the forestry programme, the risks of inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peatlands, and the risks and impact on areas of high ecological value, including landscapes that are important for the hen harrier and the curlew, that have been repeatedly raised with this Government. It is estimated that the curlew will be extinct within ten years. We are down to 105 breeding pairs. That is on the Government's watch. It has been repeatedly warned. My children, your children and our grandchildren will only be able to see curlews native to Ireland in books, and that is on the Government's watch.

The EU has also raised concerns about damage to catchments that are critical to the freshwater pearl mussel, the fact that peatlands are deemed suitable for planting if they are less than 50 cm in depth and the effects of afforestation on rare grassland habitats. This is a scathing letter but it is a very clear assessment not only of our past forestry policies but the policies being proposed by the Government. There are questions about whether the state aid mentioned earlier will be available to us if we are not addressing the EU's environmental considerations and concerns. The EU also talks about public participation, the level of fees, changes to that and how that affects people's rights under the Aarhus Convention.

This is a scathing assessment of the Government. While we get a lot of spin and PR about €3 million funding for this and €10 million for that, the Government is failing to introduce the systems changes that are required. We cannot address our climate and biodiversity crises with a shallow approach. We need to make significant changes to how Government thinks about these things. The unfortunate reality is that the compass of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and now the Greens continually tracks towards corporate profits when it comes to climate action, the environment and forestry. We seem to have a green-tinted Government but not one that actually makes the changes we need to see. This will be a lost opportunity because I do not think I have ever seen such support for environmental measures in my lifetime as this Government has - not just from the community but across political parties. The Government is wasting that opportunity and instead of building up a healthy environment for our communities, it is undermining future generations in respect of our climate and biodiversity crisis.

2:24 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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That was well said by my colleague on the Committee on the Environment and Climate Action. I cannot speak about our forestry strategy without addressing the issue of Coillte and what my comrade Deputy Carthy raised here on Tuesday. It is not often that I am speechless but I was glad I had a couple of days before I got to speak on this issue. The proposal by Coillte to sell 12,000 hectares of land to Gresham House, which is a foreign private investment firm, is inexplicable, cheap and trashy. I believe the revulsion at this plan is widely felt across the House and that the outright rejection of this casino is gutteral for all of us who believe in the integrity of the land and the dignity of all who are proud to call Ireland our home.

This Government is already selling our housing to vultures and cuckoos and selling the care of our elderly to global corporate markets and here it goes again selling our forests to a foreign investor. Deputy Carthy read the response to a parliamentary question that stated the Government had issued a letter of shareholder execution to Coillte to include partnership or participatory enterprises on 2 June 2022, which was eight months ago, so the Government knew all along. It knew and it did nothing. It knew then and it knows now that this land and good forestry are essential to the future of our farmers, communities, climate plan, biodiversity and how we live on this island with the changes and demands the climate crisis is bringing. Instead of the message stad anseo, with the granting of the shareholder letter, the message was away libh. There is a shocking cheapness, ignorance and crassness to this deal that has no place in the heart of an Irish Government that fancies itself as mature and all grown up. Are you having a laugh? It has the mortifying feel of the gombeen man selling what is priceless for a few coloured beans. It is so brazen and cheap. It displays the old-fashioned, dangerous and damaging thinking that sees humans as separate from the land and nature as opposed to being part of it and regards the land and nature as being there for us to exploit and, in the case of Coillte and the Government, to exploit for private profit by a foreign investor.

In north Kildare, people were angry and sickened by this even before Deputy Carthy got to his feet with the revelation he put on the record of the Dáil on Tuesday night. I was already inundated with emails from constituents in north Kildare who were disgusted by this, many of whom told me they had voted for the Green Party. Pimping out our land and prostituting it to a foreign investor for its private profit was not only horrifying and nonsensical, it was also downright disrespectful and unpatriotic. These people know this is land we need for our small farmers, family farms and local communities because they know that good forestry, not the cheap, splintered industrial monoculture wasteland of Sitka spruce, is what we need. We need indigenous forests for our people, climate and biodiversity. They know that good forestry brings the community into its shelter and does not leave them living in its shadow.

We already bear the historical, societal and inherited psychological scars of the stripping of our ancient woodland by a foreign power. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications would do well to grasp that this was the reason we had no wolves in the first place. Mac tíre - the son of the land - was lost to exploitation of our oak forests so the British empire could build its navy to exploit other lands and communities at the far end of the earth.

I heard the Minister's colleague on the radio last night saying this was no the repetition of the situation that inspired the song "Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár", but tell that to the hundreds of people who sent emails to us. This has really touched a nerve with the people and the Government needs to listen to them. I am getting emails from people in urban and rural areas who are united on this. For centuries, the stripping of our land will be done by a financial power. Coillte is gifting this land to Gresham as per the letter.

Well-being in forestry is essential and there will be no well-being if this cheapening of our land and people for the incentivisation of vast private profit pushes the price of land out of the reach of local farmers. It would be perverse if it did, and it will. It would not reflect the values people have and their concerns about how we live together with equality and the just transition for the future.

I call on the Minister to get on with publishing the new forestry strategy. I do not know if he attended the Save our Forests - Save our Land protest earlier. It wants investors out, nature in, and to have hedgerows, not hedge funds. The Government has to clear the remaining forestry licensing backlogs and continue to process new licence applications within a reasonable timeframe. The implementation of the Mackinnon report and subsequent reports must be central to future action.

2:34 pm

Photo of Neasa HouriganNeasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)
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I would like to follow up on some issues raised in previous contributions about the operation of Coillte and use my time to focus on the underlying issue of our State approach to forestry over the past few decades and on the legislation that we have in place, which supports it and which has formed Coillte. We know that forestry can be a viable and important commercial sector but we also now know that our forests are a vital source of climate mitigation for this country. Any State or semi-State body that fails to operate on that basis is failing the people by placing profit ahead of survival and corporate interests ahead of nation-building. In 2021, influenced strongly by a global supply and demand imbalance that created a series of supply challenges in key markets, Coillte published record profits. Unfortunately, I sit on the Committee of Public Accounts but cannot look at those profits because the Committee of Public Accounts does not get to talk to Coillte. We do not really have any serious budgetary oversight of the operations of Coillte. There is little Dáil oversight of the decisions made by Coillte. Pre-tax earnings increased significantly on the previous year to €159 million and it recorded operating cash of €73 million. Its revenue earned in 2021 was €422 million, up from €285 million in 2020. These are huge numbers.

However, Coillte as a body for forestry in this country is a failure. It is no longer fit for purpose and should be wound down or fundamentally reformed. The problem we have is this. The deal with Gresham House in fact fulfils the terms of reference in the legislation for Coillte. It is a deal based on profit above all other concerns. The legislation for Coillte sets out the following parameters for its operation: to carry on the business of forestry and related activities on a commercial basis and in accordance with efficient silvicultural practices; to establish and carry on woodland industries; to participate with others in forestry and related activities consistent with its objects, designed to enhance the effective and profitable operation of the company; and to utilise and manage the resources available to it in a manner consistent with the above objectives. The language includes "a commercial basis", "woodland industries", and "profitable operation".

In considering the deal made between Coillte and Gresham House announced this month I have had cause to review the approaches of other countries in the development of their own forestry sectors. That was an eye-opening experience. There are very few comparable examples of bodies such as Coillte in other countries, whether within or outside the EU. I found it difficult to locate any country that constrained its forestry work to purely commercial matters in legislation. In fact, I was not able to find any where there was no accompanying body that simply looked at public good. It was difficult to find any example of a deal similar to this with so little oversight from the political body in question and so little buy-in from the public. However, there were quite a few comparative similarities between the jurisdictions I looked at. Most EU countries and regions where forestry is successful and growing, both as a commercial sector and as part of their climate strategies, have many things in common. That includes both states within the EU and places such as Canada. They have broadly aligned approaches. It is worth outlining what those approaches tend to be.

They tend to identify that a nation’s forests, whether those that exist now or those that are planned for, are a key natural resource. They tend to identify that natural resources are a public good and the public, where possible, should retain ownership of them. They identify that the forestry sector is inextricable from our climate commitments and therefore environment and biodiversity considerations must be part of all decision-making, whether about finance, biodiversity or land management. They identify that almost all the forestry bodies, at least which I looked at, took a regional approach. For example, Canada took a federalised approach and then broke that down within its federal limits. One can look at smaller countries such as Slovenia and other places in the EU that have strong local government that has a significant impact on decision-making on forestry. It is not a centralised system or a body that lives in the capital city and decides on matters. It is developed with local people, local communities and local authorities, and is overseen by them.

I do not think anyone in this debate is proposing that commercial forestry, where it is developed and led by sustainable practices such as continuous cover and native planting, should be excluded from our State objectives. To the contrary, as somebody coming from the construction sector, the supply of a renewable building material could only be in Ireland's interests as we currently underutilise timber in the Irish construction sector. However, Coillte's narrow focus on commercial benefit and indeed the legislative underpinning for Coillte does not meet with the climate or commercial demands of the 21st century. As I said, Coillte is doing what it says on the tin. It is operating for profit.

It is imperative that Coillte is removed or reformed to align with the principles of climate neutrality and, while we recognise the importance of natural capital, that we do not seek to reduce investment in our nation's forests as an exercise in accounting. Forestry can and will provide significant income to the State through timber production but it is also a pillar element in the fight to improve biodiversity, a means of capturing carbon, a space for health and well-being and a vital habitat for our wildlife. Forests are vital for the future of our planet. They improve the health and well-being of everyone. With careful planning and expert management, our forests can and will continue to thrive and be a significant amount of our landmass. It is imperative that we listen to the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss and implement its recommendation that we consider the position of Coillte. I ask the Minister to consider unpicking the Gresham House deal by dissolving Coillte as a matter of urgency. If it is less than 1% of our land, then we do not need this deal and it is not significant.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I agree in general with the comments of Deputy Hourigan. There are those outside this House who would advise that this was a done deal which cannot be reversed, that Europe has responded favourably to it and so on. It is amazing that a country outside the European Union, where this particular financial house resides, has the ability to overstep the border and make a sizeable investment that presents a danger of crippling one industry and pretending to support another. I brought this to the attention of the Minister who will know that I raised this issue on several occasions over the past years. I did the calculations like everybody else did and I could not see where the reduction in carbon was going to come from unless something was hidden in the agenda that we were not told about at all.

I want to talk about carbon sequestration for a moment. I was a member of a committee of this House many years ago when a great deal of work was done in this area. The present Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was involved in it himself and made a useful contribution. Many things that were done there still stand and still need to be brought further. However, in this particular situation, somebody saw an opportunity, allegedly but not necessarily to serve the needs of the environment on one hand, and to cripple the dairy and beef industry on the other hand, thus bringing about carbon reductions. It was the obvious thing that was waiting to happen unless there was an alternative plan.

I want to mention that there is a variety of trees that are beneficial to carbon sequestration and some trees which are not. I feel sorry for the poor Sitka spruce, which seems to be blamed for almost everything and anything, including the bad weather and climate change. That is not true and it has its role to play but good forestry and tree management needs to be controlled in such a way that shelter is provided during the bleaker months of winter by Sitka spruce or other varieties of conifer. Members should remember that the Caledonian pine, which is not regarded as a native pine in this country any more, was found in the Céide Fields from 5,000 years ago.

I know we have a habit in this country of not declaring something to be of national interest or native to the area unless a certain amount of time has passed, but this is 5,000 years. I expect that the Caledonian Pine, Red Deal or any of those varieties are well and truly established as part of the national woodpile, for want of a better description, at this time.

I would warn about this. I remember this House well when a deal was put forward in relation to the sugar beet industry. It was a vital industry. Members from various parts of this country will remember it. It was an indigenous industry and a rotational crop which had several benefits. I could not believe what happened at the time. Allegedly the farmers were going to get €177 million. Like hell they were. There was never any intention to give it to them. The speed with which the sugar factories were dismembered and transported for scrap was amazing. It is amazing what can be done when the will is there to do it. That was wrong and it has been proven to be wrong. This proposal has a similar smack about it. Its intentions can be justified on paper but in reality the damage that is likely to be done as a result of this proposal is huge. I am not an enemy of financial houses or anything but I agree with what others have said that we must control the use they are put to.

The Governor of the Central Bank was before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach yesterday. He was frank about the degree to which he could intervene, if at all. To those who say it is a done deal and cannot be reversed I say that is not true. It is not so. A sovereign state has the right at any time to change its mind for whatever reason and in the face of evidence emerging. I say to the Minister of State that this is not a criticism. I do not speak of this lightly. I do not accept the arguments put forward in its favour. It is the thin end of the wedge. It is something that will grow and grow. It will get bigger and bigger and eventually we will be owned by somebody who is not only outside the country but outside the European Union. That is an extraordinary situation altogether. I have never seen anything like it.

Indigenous industry is about to be affected. I am talking about the cereal, beef and dairy industries, all of which made a major contribution to the recovery of this country after the financial crash. Without them, it would have been much longer and more severe. If we go down that road again, we do so knowing full well where we are going and we ignore the benefits of retaining our national interest in a way that reflects well on the thinking of the people. We should not have to go down the road of being advised by so-called experts who always know more than us, of course. We are only humble citizens representing humble citizens. But they do not. They are people who have a right to hold their view in a way that is resolute and will stand the test of time.

2:44 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the chance to speak on Irish forestry. It is of vital importance not just to rural TDs but also to urban TDs. It a vital part of our commitment to tackling climate change, to reversing the damage done to our ecosystem over decades and also vital for supporting local communities across rural Ireland and strengthening the local economy. When it comes to forestry in Ireland, the reality is clear; we have been massively failing year after year. The climate action plan suggests that upward of 8,000 ha. of land needs to be planted annually. The Government has set that as the annual afforestation target between 2019 and 2030 yet it is struggling to hit even a quarter of that target. With only 11% of forest areas across the State, we are massively below EU member states where the average is around 40%. We must begin a national conversation on what afforestation should consist of, how it will look and how it will impact and benefit the countryside. We need a clear plan to address the minuscule amount of native woodland across the State.

Dubliner Eoghan Daltun has been a strong voice on harnessing the vast potential to be harnessed across Ireland's west coast. In 2009, he bought a 27 acre partly-wooded farm on the Beara Peninsula, a beautiful part of the world. He described it as dying ecologically. Now, over a decade later, it is thriving. The ecological strength of his farm on the Beara Peninsula is in contrast to the nearby Killarney National Park. If you wander across the UNESCO biosphere of Killarney National Park you will find a barren landscape, stripped bare by Sika deer, goats, sheep and, of course, the invasive Rhododendron which provide little or no opportunity for the restoration of that ecosystem. We need to see an effective strategy to remove invasive species from the biosphere. What will be central to the success of the national forestry strategy will be community involvement and community buy-in. We need local communities to be the driving force in afforestation and not international investor funds, the sole modus operandi of which is profit and profit alone. We need to provide effective subsidies to farms which want to revive and plant native woodlands and effective subsidies to help farmers and local communities to tackle invasive species and the harm they do.

The proposed deal between Coillte and Gresham House has brought about widespread opposition. It has brought together sections of society from right across the State, urban and rural, which are opposed to this proposed deal. There is opposition to this deal from every section of Irish society: environmentalists, farmers, the forestry sector, rural and urban communities. The Government needs to engage and listen to these voices and expert knowledge and we need to make sure that the Gresham House deal can be undone. I strongly urge the Government to reverse the decision and to scrap the deal with Gresham House. I urge it to look after and support farmers and communities right across rural Ireland.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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As a member of the Business Committee, I requested this special debate on Coillte some weeks ago. Like many who were on the protest today and many of the thousands who have signed the "Save our Forest - Save our Lands" petition, I was absolutely horrified by the proposed deal between Coillte, a public forest company that is owned by the people, and a vulture fund. And Gresham House is, in my opinion, a vulture fund.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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It is not.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I will explain why it is a vulture fund. I will set the context for this. Our forests were destroyed by colonial and imperial plunder. It was brought down to about 1% in a country that used to have 80% forest of native woodland. One of the objectives and missions of the revolutionaries who fought for the independence of this State, right back to Parnell and the revolutionaries who fought in 1916, was to recover and regenerate our native forests and woodlands. Therefore, it is absolutely appalling that anybody in Coillte, in government or in its Departments could think it is a good idea to have wealth-asset management companies come in here and buy up potentially 100,000 ha. which is what Coillte says that it is going to contribute. Yes, the first deal is 12,000 ha. but was the whistle not blown about this? We shall see what is going to happen. So it is potentially 100,000 ha., 0.25 million acres, and God knows where it could go from there, which will be bought up by profit-hungry investment funds. Are these people vulture funds?

Helpfully Coillte sent us a document containing frequently asked questions on the Gresham House deal. It states:

Where do the fund’s profits go?

The fund is designed to generate profits from the business of forestry and timber production. These profits will be retained within the fund and from time to time be distributed to the investors in a similar way as a company distributes dividends to its shareholders.

That is a corporate takeover for profit. It is very simple. Let us get a bit more specific. Olly Hughes is the forestry managing director of Gresham House. In an article he wrote recently, he explained Gresham House's interest in buying up forests. He did not mention the word "biodiversity". He did not mention the idea of supporting farmers. He did not mention protecting wildlife, public amenities or any of the things that ordinary people and Coillte should regard as the real value of our forests and our natural heritage. Instead, he mentioned carbon trading credits, which are set to multiply in value in coming years. The casino that we saw wreck this economy with vulture funds, asset funds and so on in terms of housing will now switch to the trading and speculation in carbon credits by profit-hungry international investors. That is what they are up to.

Who will own these carbon credits? Perhaps the Minister of State might inform us. Whom will they benefit? This is speculation on environmental destruction because carbon credits are bought by countries that do not take real action to mitigate climate change but buy themselves out of their requirement to deal with the destruction of our environment by buying up credits. Gresham House, facilitated by public money and public premiums by the State company, will facilitate speculation on carbon credits. That is what is going on. Of course, that means it wants the fastest-growing cheapest type of forestry that gains value for its investment and gains profit for it, regardless of the consequences for environment, communities, small farmers, biodiversity or climate change mitigation. It does not have the remotest interest in those things.

It will exacerbate an already failed forestry model that has been dominated by the Sitka spruce industrial monocultural model which is a blight on our landscape and has done such damage to many communities and so on. By the way, it is an accident waiting to happen. As with ash dieback what happens if anything goes wrong with these massive industrial single-species plantations? All of it can be wiped out as happened with ash. Has the Minister of State heard of the bark beetle, for example, which is running riot through spruce plantations throughout Europe? It could potentially wipe out the entire forest estate. The pine weevil is already doing damage to Sitka spruce plantations to which they are extremely vulnerable. This kind of forestry model is an accident waiting to happen. It is bad for soil, water, wildlife, farmers, biodiversity and climate change mitigation. A report for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine a few years ago suggested that our forestry model might even be a net carbon emitter. This will exacerbate this to the benefit of vulture funds.

This fact has been confirmed by, of all people, the European Commission - not my favourite people. Andrew St. Ledger and I, who were involved in organising today's protest and the Save Our Forests – Save Our Lands campaign, received a leaked document, which presumably the Government has had in its possession for some time. It contains a damning critique by the European Commission of our forestry model and of the failure of the Government to carry out a proper strategic environmental assessment on its forest programme. Is that the real reason we have not got state aid approval? We provided this damning indictment to the Irish Examineryesterday and has been published in that newspaper if the Minister of State has not read it. It slates the environmental impact assessment provided for the Government of the €1.3 billion forestry programme.

It highlights failure to comply with the Aarhus Convention, failure to fully deal with the negative impacts of what it calls the dominant Sitka spruce model, failure to address the problems of planting in the wrong places on peatlands and sensitive environments, and doing planting that is damaging wildlife, aquatic life and so on. Is that the real reason? Why was that not in the public domain? When was all this signed off without the Government supposedly being aware of it? The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is a State agency. Are we really suggesting that the Ministers and the rest of it were not aware of this going on?

I am not sure if this stuff has come into the public domain. Records reveal that a company called Gresham House Forestry General Partners (Ireland) Limited was established in April 2022 with Pat Cox, an ex-Fine Gael Deputy and MEP, as a non-executive director. The company also joined the Irish Association of Investment Managers, which is led by the former Fine Gael Minister of State, Michael D'Arcy, who was a Minister of State in the Department of Finance which, I remind the House, is the main shareholder in Coillte.

When we are talking about the failed model pursued by Coillte, who set up Coillte? It was Bertie Ahern and Ray Burke. Why does it have a mandate that is all about profit and not about biodiversity, protecting and enhancing the forest estate in the interest of the people, the public, the common good and so on? As we know, Bertie Ahern subsequently headed up the International Forestry Fund of IFS Asset Managers, based in Dún Laoghaire. We had to go marching in 2013. It was not Pat Rabbitte who stopped the plan then of the troika and the Government, signed in a memorandum of understanding, to sell of the entire harvesting rights of Coillte. One of the groups looking possibly purchasing those harvesting rights was a fund headed up at the time by Bertie Ahern. Thousands of people marched in the save our forests demonstration and the Government was forced into a humiliating, but good retreat.

The numbers will swell unless the Government gets out of this deal and end such deals. Has a strategic environmental assessment even been done of this deal to see the damage it could do to the environment? The Government needs to get out of this deal and reform Coillte.

2:54 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is a very important one for many reasons. Forestry offers tremendous opportunities and if we heed the necessity to deliver on the commitments of afforestation, we can contribute to tackling some of the biggest challenges we face as a country.

We do not need to think back too far, to the Covid-19 pandemic, to recognise the importance of our forests and public spaces as places to go for respite from the stress we all endured. I am sure we all appreciate that through national afforestation plans, through Coillte and farmers throughout the country, those spaces will be increased dramatically in coming decades.

I understand the Government intends to increase the numbers of trees planted in Ireland. This will not only help us meet the challenges we face, and I will discuss those issues shortly, but it will also allow us to provide significant amounts of recreational forests and woodlands, which can be enjoyed by all our people, young and old. This is a key part of rebuilding the bond between our people and our natural environment, something I believe most Irish people already hold dear to them, and something they want to see more of.

Our global environment is under attack. We have seen warning after warning from our scientists. We have seen the worsening of natural disasters occurring across the world and an ever-increasing number of displaced people as a direct result of climate change. We are setting ambitious goals to ensure we meet our own national commitments with regard to climate action, which has resulted in one of the most ambitious sets of climate targets this country has ever had. It will not be easy to achieve those targets but we are making good progress. The next three or four years will be the barometer as to how effective the climate action plans will be in delivering a reduction in our national carbon emissions.

Forestry will play a pivotal role in helping us to meet certain aspects of our climate action goals. We know that forests can operate as a carbon sink and, indeed, our forests can be a significant component, boosting not just biodiversity in our country but, as I mentioned, also boosting recreational space. No town or village across the country is unaffected by climate change. No town or village has not felt the effects of the housing crisis. This is where commercial forestry can provide a significant synergy that will allow us to respond in part to one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation with one endeavour. We must increase the use of timber within the construction sector. We have significant goals for housing in the Housing for All plan, which proposes to deliver 300,000 homes by the end of the decade. We will require the use of multiple resources to achieve that target. I believe timber can play a much larger role. Only approximately 20% of our homes are built using timber frame, which compares poorly to some of our neighbours, for example, Scotland, where 80% of the housing stock is constructed with timber. We also know that the use of concrete and cement is a major source of carbon emissions. By reducing the use of those materials and increasing the use of timber, we will not only be able to build a significant number of homes but will also be limiting the production of concrete as part of the process. I recognise that the use of timber in construction should not be the only reason to plant new trees and develop forests. As I said, we need our forests for a number of consequential reasons, including biodiversity and recreation, as well as housing. Finding the right balance in these areas will be key to the overall successful management and development of forestry in Ireland.

The target for the 2023 climate action plan has been set to raise the percentage of Irish land being occupied by forest from its current level of 11% to 18% of all land in the country. I note that half of these new forests will be reserved for native woodland and half for timber production. Even within the 50% for timber production, I understand it will not be monocultural. In other words, we will not have the sort of monocultural forests that have been planted in recent decades. That will mean a significant improvement in the biodiversity of the new lands that are going to be planted.

It would be remiss of me not to address the recent news involving Coillte, on which subject I have received much correspondence. The situation is being manipulated by some individuals to suit their own particular agendas. The deal that has been announced refers to roughly 3,500 ha of new forests over the next five years. In total, it will involve approximately 12,000 ha where existing forests are included. These existing forests are privately-owned, not public, land. No public land will be involved in this particular partnership. For context, I will also add that Coillte is currently responsible for 444,000 ha of forestry across the State.

I will also address the matters surrounding licensing in the forestry sector. Not a single Deputy in the House would contend that system was going well. The Opposition and many on this side of the House regularly assert that the licensing backlog was until recently at a crisis point, and the figures would back up that point. The backlog in licensing has been dramatically reduced and I commend the Minister and the Ministers of State on their work in the Department to make that happen. I also look forward to the forthcoming publication of the national forestry strategy. I understand the Minister and his Department are currently reviewing submissions under the public consultation that will be concluded shortly. I very much look forward to reading that. The strategy will make a valuable improvement to the forestry sector. I am also particularly encouraged by the increase of up to 60% in premiums and the extension of the premium period from 15 to 20 years. Those are steps that are entirely necessary to attract more people to the sector.

In the context of the state aid process, I wish to underline that many of our forestry goals can take time. I urge the Minister to keep the House informed of developments in this process as we move closer to a result within this particular application. We are all hopeful that this aspect of the matter will be resolved sooner rather than later.

3:04 pm

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome today's discussion and debate around the opportunity to further analyse and scrutinise the new national forestry programme announced on 3 November 2022. I acknowledge the massive €1.3 billion investment in forestry, particularly for rural communities, secured by my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. The forestry programme will help us to achieve many of Ireland's national environmental priorities. Forestry has a crucial role to play in meeting Ireland's climate targets, as well as addressing the decline in biodiversity. The recent national debate around Coillte has raised important concerns and questions about how we implement this new forestry programme.

Coillte was established in 1988 as a semi-State commercial business. The organisation employs approximately 900 people and manages about half of the forested land in Ireland. While commercial forestry and the production of lumber for construction will be critical into the future to assist us to meet our climate obligations, national priorities around forestry have changed and Coillte's objectives must also change. As noted by other speakers, Ireland must increase forest cover by approximately 400,000 ha by 2050, as set out in the forestry programme. It is critical that at least half of this afforestation is in the form of native woodland. There is public benefit to this, which must be recognised by Coillte.

The Coillte-Gresham House deal about which we have spoken at length today involves the planting of 3,500 ha for new forestry out of an overall objective of 400,000 ha. I understand the background to this deal cited by Coillte around EU state aid rules but I have concerns about the concentration of land ownership and the impact this would have on rural communities. If the deal cannot be reversed, it is clear from listening to colleagues, constituents and stakeholders that we do not want to see this format expanded. I welcome the commitment from the Minister that Coillte will re-engage with farming communities. Farmers should be at the heart of our forestry programme. It is essential, as Deputy Farrell referenced, that there is buy-in from farmers to attract people to afforestation. Increased subsidies are justified, particularly where there is public access to land and biodiversity is improved.

I welcome today's debate. The national conversation that is taking place around forestry and the role of landowners and their inclusion is important. Now that the debate is happening, there is greater awareness around the role of Coillte and its intentions in respect of the forestry programme. The programme is essential. There have been calls in this House for a programme for a number of years. The Government has brought forward this plan. It is relatively new. I know the Minister and the Ministers of State are engaging and listening to various groups and stakeholders, which is important. I await the Minister's response.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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There has been much discussion of this issue. I assume the Minister, the Ministers of State and everyone else across the House has received a large amount of correspondence from people who have been put out by what they have seen. We can probably all make easy politics of a situation where natural resources are being sold to a British investment fund. That sells well. The problem is that it is partly true. How did we end up in this particular set of circumstances? I am not entirely sure how the conversation went or how Coillte suddenly decided this was a good idea. I accept the difficulties that exist in respect of state aid rules but I do not understand why there was no conversation at Government level. I do not understand how the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, can say he did not know about this deal until it was done in December.

I am not sure whether the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, knew about it before that point. What I do not understand is how there was not a conversation to state that this is not what we seek to do. We can get into arguments in regard to 12,000 ha and 1% and all the rest of it but really this comes down to what the Minister already said is not his preference. Therefore, it is an acceptance that this is a bad deal. This is a bad deal in regard to afforestation and the Irish people. Therefore why are we doing it? On some level this has happened. The second question is, what are we doing to extricate ourselves from what is a really bad situation? What legal advice has been sought in regard to how we backtrack from this? It is all well and good saying deals were done and mistakes were made and we move on. The fact is this is a major disaster. In fairness, we have to congratulate all those people who have become worked up in regard to this. While we might be talking about 1% and 12,000 ha, most of it land that was already forest, the fact is that we could have been talking about a huge number of the future plans in regard to afforestation. The only reason this happened is obviously that due diligence was not done in regard to the European Commission from a point of view of providing another modality or means for Coillte to do this. Clearly a huge amount of work needs to be done to buy back trust with farmers. We can talk about ash dieback or the issue with licensing and backlogs and so on but the fact is what we are all hearing is that the Government lacks credibility because it is dealing with farmers and others who have been burnt too many times before. We need to be able to engage them and bring them back into play. We certainly do not need this deal that nobody seems to think is a good idea. The Minister of State does not seem to think it is a good idea. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, does not think it is a good idea. We have heard multiple Government Deputies also saying that. The Tánaiste said this needed to be reviewed. Has anything been done in regard to reviewing this? We absolutely need to backtrack out of this deal and introduce a real means of doing business. What conversations have taken place with the European Commission and who has had them from a point of view of getting around state aid rules?

We know state aid rules have changed. We know that when the Germans and the French talk to the European Commission in regard to the need for them to deal with variances, anomalies and stuff they determine is absolutely required by France or Germany, they are able to deliver changes in regard to state aid rules. I believe therefore that there is a fair argument here in regard to this. I also accept that on the particular issue I had with the European Union and the European Commission was their at times absolute opposition to public and state services. Now I think the European Union and the European Commission have learned a lesson through Covid-19 when they saw the absolute necessity that sometimes the State has to step up to the mark. Therefore you have to facilitate the State and semi-State bodies such as Coillte. We cannot have a case where the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, is going to put in €25 million and Coillte is going to put in €10 million. Let us be clear. Gresham House is only here to do business for Gresham House. What would the point of it be if for any other reason? It is hardly going to be altruistic. We have all accepted it is a bad deal so the deal needs to be stopped. We need a move back from it but I want to know what conversations have been had from a legal point of view. We need to find a means to do this properly and do the business that needs to be done from a climate change point of view. I hope the Minister of State will have answers to all those questions.


3:14 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have let the clapping go on until now because I know there is an eager group of people in the Gallery but it really is not permitted in the Dáil Chamber. If they could restrain themselves, I would appreciate it.

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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When the news of the plan by Coillte to sell off huge expanses of land in rural Ireland first emerged people thought it was a rumour. When stories circulated that land was to be bought by a British investment company and fund they were convinced it was a practical joke. Unfortunately, it was neither a rumour nor a joke. In fact it would appear that a deal was done before the majority of those impacted had an opportunity to ask questions or raise objections. The low-key manner in which all of this took place gives serious cause for concern. Aside from being a shock to the farming community it has caused ripples of lost confidence in the belief that Government is putting Irish farmers’ best interests front and centre. These ripples are not unfounded. The irony of this plan by Coillte to enable Ireland to meet its climate target is not lost on the farming community. When one looks a little deeper questions arise as to why we are now worried about meeting our targets and how did this situation arise. The finger can in fact be waved in the direction of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Coillte last year was issued with 110% of the felling licence allocation with only 68% of the private sector afforestation target reached. This failure to grant adequate licences to farmers has been ongoing since 2016. A worrying 416 private afforestation applications remain unprocessed despite desperation and pleas to the Department from applicants. This has massively impacted on farmers’ ability to remain in forestry.

The Department has failed to ban imports which has allowed ash dieback to take hold in this country. Farmers have found themselves with dead plantations as a result, effectively pushing them out of forestation. The administration of the ash dieback reconstitution scheme is ponderous and slow. This scheme is of critical importance to many forestry holders throughout County Tipperary and throughout the country. It is totally unsatisfactory that of the applicants who applied in 2022, 587 have yet to be processed and approved.

The decisions by the Department on land designation which have been deemed to have been without any scientific justification have resulted in farmers being told that their land is unsuitable for forestry. How many land owners contribute to meeting climate targets? How can they contribute if their efforts are blocked? In order to deliver on our climate obligations Coillte had to do something. It brought the Gresham House asset managers on board. As a result the Irish Strategic Forestry fund came into being with the aim of seeking investors. We are told that Coillte will be the land purchasing, planting and forestry management body. However, the new fund will own the land and be entitled to any grants and premiums.

Where does the blame rest? Had the Department issued licences and addressed the problems with imports, would Coillte have needed the support of an investment fund? This is the key reason farmers and their prominent and influential representatives bodies do not agree with this approach. They are also concerned that land prices will soar. In fact prices are already on the rise. The shared aim of farmers with the support of Government should be to address climate change. Government has completely let farmers down in this regard. It has also forced Coillte, an independent body, to take action. The investment company is not trying to make a job of meeting climate targets easier for Ireland. Its objective is to capitalise on the fact that we have failed to do this for ourselves. Its end-game is not climate action but its bank balance. It has no allegiance to Irish issues.

The arrangement put forward is a sell-out of a national resource. It is not acceptable. It does not have the support of industry partners nor of the majority in this House. It does not have the support of the public and overall it is a bum deal for the Irish people. It has not been thought through and will have lasting consequences. It must be reviewed.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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As I am a mere Deputy in this House, I am going to read an email that has been sent to me by the private forestry sector which is clearly very angry.

The email states:

Just a couple of points from the private forestry sector perspective on the proposed Coillte-Gresham House partnership, particularly on the assertions of ministers McConalogue, Hackett and Ryan that Coillte are needed to reach our 8,000 hectare afforestation targets. ... The reason Ireland are failing to reach afforestation targets is not because Coillte are not participating but because the forest service in the department of Agriculture have literally made it impossible.

Historical issues leading to the decline.

- Arbitrary departmental policy decisions on land designations without any justification or scientific rationale reduced the supply of suitable forestry land to the private sector since 2010.

- Failing to ban plant imports and allowing Ash Dieback into Ireland was a clear dereliction of duty. The reluctance to provide adequate supports for farmers with dead plantations since has resulted in a decline in farmer participation in forestry.

- Above all, the shambolic forestry licensing system designed by the department has resulted in a complete collapse of the sector since 2016. This licensing scandal is now in its 6th year, why has this not been addressed.

- The final nail in the coffin is that currently and for the first time in living memory we don't even have any forestry program in place.

Furthermore, the minister has no idea when or even if the proposed programme will be ratified by the European Commission. For us, this means that in the depth of the worst crisis in the history of our industry that all schemes are now closed and our work terminated. In a climate emergency the ministers department have somehow created a situation where afforestation applications are not even being accepted. Surely Ireland is the only country on the planet where this is the case. No applicants permitted to plant trees, we are not open for business!

In numbers

The licensing output and stats on the ministers department for 2022 also needs to be questioned.

On target licence delivery, the Department’s own figures for Coillte felling are that the target was 1,530, licences issued were 1,687 and the target achieved was 110%. However, for private felling, the target was 1,830, licences issued were 1,606 and only 88% of the target was achieved. That is a pattern that the email sets out in a diagram. The email continues:

Coillte were issued 110% of their felling licence allocation for 2022.

- Only 68% of the private sector afforestation target reached.

- Four hundred and sixteen (416) private afforestation applications remain unprocessed.

I will run out of time before I finish the email but I want to highlight that there is palpable anger across the sector. The final lines of the email state:

[The Minister] Eamon Ryan spoke last week about having rules changed in the EU so Coillte could claim grants and premiums. Would it not make more sense to fix the forestry licencing system here and allow Farmers to plant their own land - or does that not fit their agenda?

3:24 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I am happy to take part in this important debate about the future of forestry in Ireland and to examine the rationale of the Government's current policy. Ecology and biology have long been used in the lexicon of forestry language and we can now add a new word, “codology”, because that is the best description of the recent activity announced by Coillte, a State-supported company which, despite its annual profits, could not muster financial expertise other than to go to Bond Street and Threadneedle Street to find UK partners to figure out how to add capacity to its operations.

The domestic forestry sector has been in crisis for a number of years and that is down to just one reason, which is the inefficiency of the forestry office to process applications. Where farmers have had land suitable for forestry, the delays have meant they have diverted into other streams. This point is best highlighted by looking at the historical activity of the domestic forestry sector. In 2000, private domestic growing delivered over 14,000 ha, in 2010, it delivered over 8,000 ha and in the middle of Covid, in 2020, it still delivered 4,000 ha, which is half of our annual 8,000 ha target. However, the message coming from Government is that the domestic activity cannot deliver the afforestation targets we need to meet the climate goals.

Helping this narrative is the deliberate prioritisation by the forestry office in terms of putting State-supported activity ahead of the private growers in Ireland. In 2022, Coillte achieved 110% of its felling target, which I am sure it was delighted about, whereas, on the other hand, private felling achieved only 80% of its felling licences and just 68% of its afforestation licences. The continuing failure to provide an efficient licensing regime to the sector is at the heart of the rationale for Coillte to go looking for foreign moneys and for partners capable of achieving subsidy and premium approvals. The Gresham House deal initially was to develop 12,000 ha of Irish forestry over the life of the programme, and this would deliver hundreds of millions in State subsidies to that concern. These moneys will not be transferred to Irish families; rather, they will go to international investors. In addition, given the pushback in recent days from Deputies in this House, Coillte is now saying it will focus on acquiring over 9,500 ha of existing forestry, along with a target of 3,500 ha of afforestation. In other words, two thirds of the fund will now go to acquire lands already forested, delivering nothing in increased climate change target benefits to Ireland.

What of Coillte’s responsibility to deliver biodiversity in its afforestation activities? Will it be forced, like the private sector, to provide 20% broadleaf on schemes and 15% open area, or will it, as it does in Leitrim, plant 100% Sitka spruce and then come down to Wicklow and plant 20% broadleaf as part of those schemes? The failure to address the dieback issue is at the heart of the difficulties for farmers getting into the new forestry programme. The Minister has to try to sort out a new scheme. I know that is stopped because it is waiting for approval, but surely the Department can find a way.

I am well aware of our need to protect biodiversity and to achieve our climate targets in the forestry sector but I, like others in this House, am fundamentally opposed to the creation of State monopolies, which, the way the present policy is going, is what will propel Coillte. I am also fundamentally opposed to the idea of using Irish taxpayers’ money to incentivise foreign investment interests to enter the Irish forestry market and displace rural and regional farm ownership and farm families. Forestry growers want and need a functioning licensing department that deals with their applications quickly and allows them to enter the forestry programme. The Government’s focus must return to incentivising the perpetuation of our rural and regional economies and it should stop aping other systems, using foreign capital as an excuse to reduce Irish farm capital and to brainwash further and pressure our rural communities to migrate to other settlements. Our Irish lands must be kept in Irish ownership as that is the only guarantee that they will be available to future generations.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Deputy Richard Bruton is sharing time with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I have been listening to this debate and I have to say to my colleague, Deputy Shanahan, that I think the reaction to this investment is hysterical and has not taken into account the genuine climate crisis that we are facing here. Our land use in forestry, instead of being a source of sequestration, is actually emitting 7 million tonnes, which is more than 10% of all of our emissions, and that is going to rise in the coming years to 11 million tonnes. It is very much part of our climate crisis and the challenge that we have in the forestry area.

Forestry needs investment because it has to stand the planting cost and people also have to stand without income for 30 years. The State cannot do this alone. We need to mobilise private investment to achieve that as it will not all come from farmers being able to fund it. The reality is that we are 90% off the current target. The investment that is proposed by Coillte here is less than 1% of the new planting that we envisage doing over the next 25 years. That is the reality. I have come in here time and again and listened to Opposition spokespeople lambasting the Government for not having a more effective planting strategy and wanting more, but when Coillte, a body which has national standards applied universally, decides to try to be innovative in this space, the Opposition and many other people jump down its throat.

The reality of this investment is that it is being supported by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, a fund that we have set up with independent management to identify areas of investment where we need strategically, as a country, to leverage extra money into this, part of it State investment from ISIF, but part of it privately raised. The investor or the fund manager here is going to target Irish pension funds as one of the core investors in this. If we want to tackle the climate crisis and go from our lamentable performance in terms of both emissions reduction and planting, we need to be innovative. Coillte, far from being a monopoly, owns only half of all, but it is also completely debarred from any State subsidy, so, unlike private investors, it cannot attract moneys to support its activity.

The supposition that because there is a fund raising money, that this is undermining the future of farming is totally misplaced. As I have said, this is only 1% of our overall ambition and the reality is that we are not anything like achieving what we need to do. I am fully behind the Government’s approach of supporting farmers. Indeed, this approach ensures that the farmers, and those who are investing, invest in a mixed forest plantation, not conifers alone, and that it promotes with higher subsidies those who are more supportive of biodiversity. Indeed, the forestry strategy outlines a multiple of goals, seven different ones in fact, including climate biodiversity, but also forestry and getting wood products and displacing in our construction industry the excessive use of concrete. Scotland uses three times more wood than we do and we want to see that changed.

Forestry is a business and it needs to provide an adequate return both to family farms which invest in it and to anyone else who invests in it. That is the reality. If we want to support a more mixed approach, which we do, it is public policy which must drive that. That is what the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has been doing in designing her strategy. It is designed to promote multiple approaches.

The other reason why Coillte’s activity is to be welcomed is that a reliable State investor like Coillte can ensure that the carbon sequestration standards are achieved by these forestry undertakings. This will be forestry managed to the highest possible standards and able to guarantee the type of carbon sequestration which will become a source of income to family farmers, and the sooner it becomes so, the better.

Finally, the farmers that I hear from are reluctant to invest in forestry because it means an immediate devaluation of their land and an obligation to replant at the end. They feel that they are locked into forestry for a lifetime. The arrival of new investors in the scheme will make the sector more liquid and people will be able to move in and out of it. That will create an environment where it is more attractive to farmers to make that investment on part of their farms.

I welcome, in particular, the approach of allowing small 1 ha investments in the strategy. Because this company which will be managing the fund is based in Britain, I believe that we have had something of a jingoistic reaction to what is happening here. This is a State enterprise which manages forestry to a high standard and which is completely compliant with all of the new approaches the Minister of State has articulated and is finding innovative ways to deliver in an area where we are totally off the targets we have set for ourselves. We need to look at this in a more balanced way than we have seen here in the House heretofore.

3:34 pm

Photo of Christopher O'SullivanChristopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Bruton is correct in that this represents 1% of the overall ambition. When one hears terms like this is a sell-out and a land-grab, perhaps some of that commentary is overplayed.

He is also correct in his assertion that, at the moment, land use in general is an emitter as opposed to a sequester of carbon. For years we have been getting it wrong.

I know the Minister of State’s passion for and interest in this whole area and that really comes through but in respect of Coillte and how it has conducted its operations over the past number of years I have very significant concerns. That is because I have seen it on the ground in my own constituency in west Cork. I am one of the very first persons to praise Coillte when it does things right and when it creates amenity parks and walkways through a piece of woodland so that the community can enjoy it. It has done that in my constituency around Castlefreke, where it has created amazing walks and amenities. It has done it in Avondale in Wicklow and in Curraghchase, which is a fantastic forest park in Limerick. When it gets it right, it gets it right, but from a commercial point of view it seems to be hell-bent for the past number of years in selling off bits of land to private entities where the sale will benefit one rather than the community and the many.

We have seen that replicated right throughout Ireland and I can give two real examples. In my constituency in west Cork in Castlefreke, in Rathbarry, which I mentioned earlier, Coillte owns a fantastic amenity. There is woodland there and commercial forestry which was previously owned by Coillte which is mixed with old deciduous forestry and native woodland. There was a proposal in 2018 to sell off a large swathe of this amenity. It is only by pure luck that the community picked up on it, we became active and prevented the sale.

In 2018, it harked back to the political meetings of old when we would gather at the crossroads. I remember that we met at the crossroads at Rathbarry and we were joined by hundreds of community individuals who wanted to keep this amenity for the community. We did, we fought and we met at Rathbarry. Later there were thousands who met together at a meeting in Rosscarbery where we mobilised and prevented the sale. No community should have to go through that battle to prevent the sale of an amenity owned by Coillte, which is funded by the State.

We thought that battle was over, the amenity is there and it is still very much a community amenity but then we moved to Ballymartle, which is an area which has been discussed in this Chamber quite often. The community in Ballymartle are facing the exact same battle where, again, Coillte seem hell-bent on selling off an amenity enjoyed by the community to benefit a single individual or a private company. Again, it is the benefit of the few against the very significant benefits that woodland amenities have for the many. Again, so far we have prevented it and it has been stalled, but the community are having to fight tooth and nail to keep this extraordinary pristine piece of woodland for the community and for the public.

There seems to be this strategy, which has existed within Coillte for quite a while, to look at the commercial benefits of a few versus the community and the biodiversity benefits from hanging on to these extraordinary pieces of woodland. Now, the way I look at this is almost a similar approach but on a much larger scale. This is a real shame, as far as I am concerned, and a lost opportunity. As party spokesman on biodiversity and climate action, I know how difficult sometimes it can be to marry agriculture and biodiversity and, equally, to marry agriculture and climate action.

There are opportunities and we are seeing a sea change from within the agricultural community. It wants to do more, is buying into these agri-environment schemes, buying into the idea of mixed species swards, and is really going for solar in a big way from an energy point of view. Sustainable forestry was going to be a key method, and still will be, of the farming sector getting involved in improving and reducing emissions, sequestering carbon but also in pursuing biodiversity through sustainable, continuous and mixed woodland forestry.

If we go down the route of international investors in a larger scale - I appreciate the fact that it is only 1% of the overall targets but still it is there now in principle - I have very significant concerns because there are small forestry owners out there who are represented by forestry co-ops who have gone through a very stressful number of years in trying to get felling licences, planting licenses and in trying to get involved in forestry. I have been there, met them and I have walked woodlands with them where I have seen the obstacles they have come up against, including the red tape and bureaucracy they have faced. The Minister of State and her Department have done a great deal to remove much of that bureaucracy but I genuinely feel that this is the wrong approach.

I cannot stand over or defend it and we are going to see on a much greater scale nationally those community meetings we had in Rathbarry and Ballymartle, which were attended by hundreds of people, unless we get this right.

3:44 pm

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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There was a lot of anger from many people from various sections of society outside Leinster House today. I will cut straight to the chase. Investment funds or vulture funds, whatever they are called, are again making profit from taxpayers' money. It is as simple as that. Here we go again. Our natural resources for use by the Irish people are being given away or are being chipped away by privatisation for profit. This will affect a number of rural community groups and farmers. The Minister of State referenced depopulation of communities. This will add to it. We need investment in our own stock.

I have dealt with Coillte. There is absolutely no oversight of it. It is a quango created by the quango specialists; we know who they are. Coillte is not working. We closed the sugar beet industry a number of years ago because we were told we did not need it. We were then told we did not need fertiliser and we shut down the fertiliser industry. We gave away most of our fishing rights. We have given away oil and are now going to give away another natural resource. It is absolutely bonkers.

What is more worrying, however, is the Minister was asked during the recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine whether international investment funds involved in the new forestry initiative will also be able to draw direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy if they hold a herd number. The assistant secretary general of the Department replied that the herd number defines you as a farmer, and that there are farmers that incorporate as companies, so farmers can draw a single payment as long as they were claiming a single payment since 2008. Asked whether the looming forestry investment companies, both foreign and domestic, will be able to draw from the Department's grants and premiums annually, plus the newly established grants under the forestry programme for 2023 to 2027, the Minister said yes, for 15 years. It is absolutely bonkers. I could find other words for it.

We never learn from our mistakes. Our natural resources are the biggest gift this country has. I heard some previous speakers state that Europe is putting us under pressure. I can remember 30 years ago, when we were going on about climate action and spreading manure. What did we do about it? Nothing. It only suits the Government when Europe says X or Y so it can pick and choose. The Government will meet major resistance to this. I urge the Minister of State to go back to reconfigure or get rid of Coillte. The Government should not sell, or even rent, our natural resources for profit because it is killing our people by starving them of all the resources and what we can do with them. I am just so angry, as are the people outside Leinster House. I ask the Government seriously to reconsider this.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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This issue is very serious for a lot of people in many parts of the country. Where I live in County Leitrim has one of the highest rates of afforestation in the country. Sitka spruce trees are everywhere. When I look outside, where the sky meets the land, it is Sitka spruce forestry on all sides. Forestry is painted as this great thing that will do an awful lot of good for people, but for the communities I live in and represent, it has been a very negative thing because it has starved those communities of people. I will tell the Minister of State why. When farmland is planted, farmers never need to buy a gate or fertiliser again, or cut hedges, or get the vet in when an animal is sick. They never need anything again. Machinery does not need repairing again. All those auxiliary parts of the local economy that require people to do the work to keep farming going are gone. The only thing that happens is that, after about 12 years, some big company comes in with major machinery for about three weeks, thins the forest and activity is then finished for another seven or eight years. In another seven or eight years, there is a big burst of activity for another three weeks but then nothing until the land is clear-felled and then replanted. That is what we see happening in all our areas.

In most of the parishes around where I live, the population is less than 30 people per square kilometre, which means that community is in terminal decline. That is what we see happening across much of County Leitrim. When we see very low levels of population, there are very high levels of afforestation. That is the problem we have. In theory, none of us has a problem with trees being grown. They are absolutely brilliant. They do so much for our biodiversity and have such potential, but they kill communities. That is the problem. We need to find a way of dealing with that.

I will make a final point. There has been much talk of the corporate sector coming to Coillte to access State money to line the pockets of foreign multinational corporations. That is what we see happening. This is not new. This is already happening. Half the forests that have already been planted have been planted by pension and foreign funds that are coming in, buying up land and planting it under the noses of farmers. Farmers cannot compete with them. This is not a new venture. It is more of the same bad policies of this Government.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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The land grab and shameful deal between Gresham House holdings and Coillte is an insult to people the length and breadth of this island. It is yet again another attack on our sovereignty as a republic. A halt should be called to this deal without delay. I ask the Minister of State to do the right thing. People have expressed serious concern right across the party spectrum. The Minister of State's job should be to listen and engage. The Minister said this is not the preferred deal. If it is not the preferred deal, why in the name of God would the Government sell us out? Why would it cause a land grab? Why would it turn its back on farming families and communities the length and breadth of this State who are vehemently opposed to such a deal? It is an absolute sell-out and needs to be stopped.

I will give a flavour of some of the forestry and farming organisations that are opposed to the Coillte deal. They include the Irish Farmers' Association, Macra na Feirme, Western Forestry Co-op, Irish Forest Owners, the Social, Economic Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, the Forest Owners Co-operative Society, the Association of Irish Forestry Consultants, the Agricultural Consultants Association, and Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners. That is just a flavour of some of the organisations against this deal. I ask the Minister of State to please listen to them. Does any of this opposition, given its scale and breadth right across farming and forestry, give the Minister or this Government any pause? Does it raise any doubts at all? Does it not signal that the approach being taken by Coillte is not just inappropriate but almost amounts to a breach of the social contract and is most certainly a betrayal of the people?

Last Thursday, all the organisations I mentioned issued a statement. It states quite clearly that, "The recent announcement by Coillte that it has joined forces with a major foreign investment house to establish a fund to acquire 12,000ha [of] forests and bare land is strongly opposed by the majority of the main organisations in the agriculture and forest sector." They go on to say it is their view that, "This is the first step in Coillte’s strategic vision to act as an agent on behalf of foreign and national investment funds to transition 100,000 ha of Irish farmland out of local farm ownership for afforestation by funds [and funds for profit]." Of course, the taxpayer is used in all that to the tune of €2.1 billion. The statement continues, "The most saddening part is that this venture is being enabled by the Irish taxpayer to the tune of €2.1 billion of Irish taxpayers’ money". Most of them are opposed to this deal.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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Where are you getting this from?

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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The Minister of State need not put her hands in the air. I expect her to come back with a good answer as to why she is treating people this way, along with the Minister, who is an absolute disgrace and could not answer any of the questions I asked him during last night's meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The statement goes on to say that Irish taxpayers' money will be:

paid in forestry grants and premiums to investment funds to purchase 100,000ha of our sovereign Irish farmland to establish forests. The Irish taxpayer will be paying for the sale of rural Ireland to investment funds. [Is that not betrayal?] This will not add to the local community or the local economy, and furthermore this will have a negative social impact through rural depopulation by encouraging investment funds to compete for land thus disadvantaging existing local, new entrant and young farmers. While any income (forestry premiums, carbon value, profit) will not be spent in the local community or local economy as it would be if farm families or local people afforested these lands [and if they were assisted in that]. We believe this is Government policy to meet afforestation targets at any cost. It is likely to be counterproductive. We do not support it. And it is a bad deal for Ireland.

That comes directly from the organisations of whom the Government needs to take heed at this stage. Macra na Feirme has expressed serious concerns about young farmers being outbid and about their not having access to land, even though generational renewal is a real issue that comes up in the EU. Those concerns are all being ignored. It is high time the Minister of State listened to people and called off this deal now.

3:54 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár. My goodness, we are back again. Mention was made today of our visionaries and leaders who fought to free this country. We will commemorate one of them, Liam Lynch, on 10 April of this year. He lost his life, unfortunately, in the Civil War. He was leader of the IRA forces at the time. What ideals they had. A film called "The Dying Days" is being made at the moment and the crew is walking through forestry and trees, or what is left of it by the British. The IRA forces ran the British out of here through guerilla warfare. They could not deal with them. Are we now going to bring the British back in under the names of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party? They are green all right, but they think the people are very green. The people are not green and they are wide awake to the Green Party. It has caused the devastation in Coillte. The delay in licences was there when the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, arrived in the Department. The ordinary farmers cannot get licences. They are being penalised and blackguarded every which way they turn. After applying for three or four different licences, if they wanted to cut a cipín, the Government would not let them. It blamed the staff and everybody else. This is its fundamental policy. The Government did not want this. Those policies are disastrous for this country.

I thank the forestry officials, the Coillte officials, who have worked with me and my daughter, Councillor Máirín McGrath, Knockmealdown Active and the Glen of Aherlow Fáilte Society on beautiful forest walks and amenities. I salute those volunteering groups that have created wonderful amenities for people to visit. Are we going to be certain now that the gates will not be locked, with padlocks across those walks? We are not because we will not have control of this. It is as simple as that.

The Constitution is there on the desk and the Proclamation is read out at so many commemorations. What of unfettered access to our land and property from sea to sea? Where are we now? We are being sold out to vulture funds. It is easy for Deputy Bruton to say we are getting excited or are overreacting. The next time he is down in Clonmel with his bean chéile, I would ask him to go out to Kilcash and to the Knockmealdown Mountains and see what is happening out there and see the beauty and the enhancement of what is there. We have been sold out. The Minister of State did not do that but her predecessors did. Fianna Fáil sold the sugar industry, a wonderful industry. The current Government has sold out the fishing industry. The Green Party is certainly part of that Government. Now it wants to kill off the beef, dairy and cereal crop industries and allow land to be sold off to vulture funds. We have seen the horrible vulture funds. We heard former Minister Michael Noonan describe them as a necessary evil. Vultures are horrible creatures by nature. We know what vultures, great crows etc. do to young lambs. The very thought of that is anathema to me and the people who elect me.

I intend convening a meeting this Sunday at the Knockmealdown Mountains, at the monument to the site where Liam Lynch was fatally wounded. He died in Clonmel hospital afterwards. I invite all and sundry who want to come to enjoy the mountain air and the freedom they have at the moment because of Coillte. I also thank Coillte for providing a loop walk car park this year, and I thank Tipperary County Council and Councillor McGrath for getting the funding to develop that. We want to keep that for future generations. Today was grandparents' day in my local school, which I missed to be here to try to protect our forests and to get the Government to reverse its decision on Gresham House for those grandchildren and our future generations not to have a country craven to big business, craven to vulture funds and craven to the banks. We saw the bailout. We saw how Deputy Donohoe, in his last act as Minister for Finance, gave back the bonuses to the banks. I say "Halt, "Stall the horses" and "Reverse this deal". If we cannot reverse the deal, Coillte should be disbanded, which we have the power in this Oireachtas to do, and a new organisation set up to serve our country and our people. We will not have a bit of carbon sequestration or anything else in this deal. It is rotten from every point of view, and I cannot believe the Green Party is part of it when it talks so much about carbon tax and so on.

Again, I salute the men - it was mainly men - who worked in the forest service and their families. They were dedicated and drained the land by hand, planted those trees, made the ridges and harvested them back in the 1940s and 1950s. They made lovely entrances and painted gates with ornate timber and signage. They had respect and love for their work. That is all being wiped away - our heritage, our culture - by a Government that is craven to vulture funds and big business. Members of the Government go over to World Economic Forum, WEF, conferences all the time and speak to people who want to sell out our Constitution. Those Members then have the cheek to go to Arbour Hill and similar places and read out and salute the Proclamation. They should be totally ashamed of themselves and ashamed of every breath in their bodies. They do not represent the people who gave us the freedom of this country. They should not be able to speak their names. They are not fit to do so. It is disgraceful. This must be stopped. If it means disbanding Coillte, we will stop it.

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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I intend to provide some balance to some of the commentary we have just heard and to tone down the rhetoric and incitement, which is not appropriate in this House, notwithstanding people's strong views on this issue or any other issue. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, whom I know personally, who is one of the most dedicated public officials we have in this country and who is passionate about resolving the challenges we have in this country in climate and forestry. I pay tribute to her and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who are both incredibly serious about their roles. They are performing those roles diligently.

I congratulate the Ministers on securing €1.3 billion in investment for forestry. What they are aiming to do is change for the better how we use land in this country such that we will secure our environment for future generations. I congratulate them on resolving the licensing issue that has plagued the system for the past number of years. That was no easy feat. Despite all the noise, cynicism and nonsense we hear in this Chamber, I firmly believe this Government is improving the forestry model. The forestry strategy sets out how forestry for the coming decades will go. It will be better. It will be better for commercial forestry, better for biodiversity, better for construction and better for our environment.

I am somewhat bemused by the characterisation of private capital as some kind of mendacious, foreign, malicious way of achieving our aims. For decades the environmental movement dreamed of leveraging private capital such that we could achieve our aims. Of course, these investment funds are not vulture funds by any definition; they are investment funds. They are Irish investors, not British investors. Of course, the Members opposite do not care about biodiversity, or not necessarily, no more than if they were to invest in a rail project they would care about trains. We are using private capital to get what we want. The State is putting guidelines on this money such that we have overall a net positive benefit.

We have huge challenges in this country in how we use land. There are and will be trade-offs. The reform agenda is so great we will have many debates like this for many years ahead. The trade-offs are between agriculture, forestry, construction, the rewetting of land where necessary, and restoration of biodiversity as much as possible. However, none of these decisions are easy, and when one makes decisions one creates the space for people to disagree, to shout and to weaponise politics, and that is what is happening here.

In construction we do not use timber nearly as much as we could. In Scotland, our near neighbour, 75% or perhaps closer to 80% of home constructions are timber framed. It is closer to 20% in this country. We need to change how we do construction in Ireland. Concrete construction has a huge climate impact on this country, and we simply will not meet our climate targets unless we move from concrete to timber.

The double whammy here is that we will displace the emissions from cement generation and sequester emissions by using timber. That is a positive step. It might mean a great deal of commercial forestry and trade-offs, but it is the right thing to do from a climate point of view.

I am looking forward to the publication in a few weeks' time of the land use review. It is a major piece of Government work that has taken two years. I believe phase 1 will be published in the next two weeks and will be of interest to every Deputy. Phase 2 will be published in the autumn. Phase 1 is the information gathering exercise and will show us how we use our land, where the economic benefit and emissions are etc. Phase 2 comprises the relevant decision-making.

I wish to mention a local woodland, namely, Cratloe Woods, County Clare. Deputy McNamara, who has just left the Chamber, would know it well. The old oaks of Cratloe Woods were used in the construction of the royal palace in Amsterdam. It is just 20 minutes outside Limerick city and is a wonderful amenity. It is where I first learned about biodiversity. I used to race the Clare and Limerick hurling teams around the hills of Cratloe. I wanted to make special mention of Cratloe because the potential to develop it further as an amenity is immense. The woods there are underutilised. I would encourage the Minister of State in this regard and will speak with her on the matter in the weeks and months ahead.

4:04 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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No one needs to be convinced of the merits of trees. Experts tell us that, if we plant 18,000 ha per year between now and 2050, we will be carbon neutral without taking any other action. That is not an improbability. Back in 1994, we were planting 24,000 ha per year. Of that, 18,000 ha were in the private sector. Farmers and other members of the public were more than happy and enthusiastic to plant trees, and they did so for all the right reasons.

Subsequently, we descended into a licensing quagmire. I appreciate that the Minister of State has taken major strides in resolving the licensing issue but the fact remains that confidence in the sector has been shattered. The new €1.3 billion forestry fund is welcome but that news was tinged with disappointment as the state aid rules have not been signed off on and it could take at least another eight months before we get the go-ahead from Europe. In some respects, this restricts new planting, but the real hammer blow was the news that Coillte was teaming up with Gresham House. This issue is a lightning rod for disappointment across rural Ireland. We are told that it is a done deal, but I do not accept that. It is unacceptable that another semi-State company can recklessly and intentionally embark upon a programme of radicalised commercialism to the detriment of national interests. Coillte already enjoys a dominant position in the Irish market and is responsible for as much as 70% of the logs produced here. It decides who can buy them and at what price. The Government and the Department earnestly reached out to Coillte and sought to encourage it to consider further forestry at scale across the country. However, Coillte took this as licence to ramp up its commercialisation plans with a covert plan to bring it to what is almost a position of monopoly in this country. This unholy alliance has the potential to give Coillte absolute control of the bulk of production of a rare natural resource.

Coillte needed a corporate ally to reach this position. It looked across the sea to Scotland and saw Gresham House, which now has as much as 25% of Scotland’s forestry market. Coillte, in its wisdom, decided that Gresham House was a perfect partner for it in getting to where it wanted to be. Gresham House does not plant virgin forestry. It only sources semi-mature forestry with the express aim of maximising profit to the detriment of all else. As a consequence, forestry prices in Scotland have careered northwards. An Irish producer active in the Scottish market recently sought to buy a large tract of forestry and was willing to go as high as €150 per cubic metre, double what the producer had paid previously for forestry land in Scotland, in the hope of outbidding Gresham House. However, one cannot outbid Gresham House. The investment house ultimately paid three times over the odds for the land. Its pockets are deep and it does not bother with idealism. Its motive is pure and simple – unadulterated profit.

Coillte is setting itself up for a near-dominant share of timber production in this country, which will have a significant knock-on effect on construction, house building specifically and house prices for many people seeking to get on the property ladder. Coillte knows that timber demand will treble over the next three years and that there is an infinite amount of money to be made from timber in the coming years.

This deal is dependent on €25 million from the ISIF. I do not accept the argument that the ISIF cannot be told to pull this funding. It is not an acceptable investment for the ISIF, it is not ethical and it will have detrimental consequences for rural Ireland at every level. The Government has it within its power to tell the ISIF to pull the funding. If it does so, the deal will fall apart.

Coillte went into this deal with its eyes wide open. It believed it could ride out the subsequent public outcry and backlash. Our most senior politicians, including party leaders, are giving Coillte some cover by saying that this is a done deal, but people can welch on any deal. That has been done countless times down the years. Admittedly, to do so would come at some price, but Coillte went into the deal having researched it and found out the details for itself. It now needs to take stock of the room. It needs to listen to the people and realise that it has lost the room and the Irish people and that the Irish people have seen through the deal. This deal is wrong. It might have made eminent sense in a corporate boardroom in London or Edinburgh, but it should not have made sense for the directors of a semi-State company tasked with managing one of our finest natural resources. Coillte needs Ministers to back away from this deal. It needs to swallow its pride, and whatever losses come with that, and accept that this was a major miscalculation on its part.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Deputies McNamara and Joan Collins are sharing time.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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This deal has made people sit up and take a look at the role of investment funds in protecting or enhancing the environment, and at Coillte’s relationship with investment funds. Both are important matters to consider.

A number of questions arise. Why did Coillte select Gresham House? What procurement process was put in place? Gresham House came up with a great blurb but it is not unique in that. Many investment funds around the world are into greenwashing these days. Were all the other greenwashing investment funds allowed to bid? If not, why? Why did Gresham House choose Coillte?

In the short time available to me, I wish to posit some answers. The Minister of State might disagree with them. If she does, I would like to know why. Before I continue, though, I wish to thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for something I found on the People Before Profit website this morning. I read The Irish Times, RTÉ and the People Before Profit website. I am joking, but there was an interesting letter that-----

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Deputy McNamara will read it from now on.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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-----I am sure the Minister of State has seen, given that it is from the head of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Environment to the principal officer of the forestry division within the Minister of State's Department. The Commission’s letter talked about:

inappropriate afforestation of sensitive habitats such as peatlands and negative effects on areas of high ecological value including areas under high natural value farming, notably with regard to open landscapes important for Hen Harrier ... and ground-nesting birds such as the breeding Curlew ... It has also expressed concerns about proposed planting in river catchments that are critical for the Freshwater Pearl Mussel.

It is not the Minister of State's fault that all of those areas have been degraded over the years. It is not her fault that tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár and that Ireland’s wood cover was cut down centuries ago, but it is her fault if she does nothing about it. As a Minister of State with stated environmental credentials, if she goes into a Department and does absolutely nothing about it, then it is her fault.

Turning back to Coillte, the reason one would select Coillte is because State agencies look the other way when it is Coillte. The National Parks and Wildlife Service carries out a valuable function in Clare, as it does right across the country. When the transgressor is Coillte and when the transgression is on Coillte lands, however, the National Parks and Wildlife Service looks the other way because it will be bogged down in paperwork for months with Coillte, whereas if it tackles a small farmer or even a big farmer, it will ultimately be successful and it will see a return. It is easier to go after the small man than Coillte.

Forestry practice in general is undoubtedly responsible for a degradation in water standards across Ireland, in particular, in Clare. In east Clare, the Slieve Aughty mountains that I have mentioned to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on many occasions, is heavily afforested, much, but not all, of it by Coillte. The local authority waters and communities office, LAWCO, has carried out surveys into water quality. There is a marked degradation in the Bleach river, in the Lough Graney catchment all the way down into Scariff and the Lough Derg special protection area, SPA. There is also a degradation on the other side, in the Slievebernagh mountains, as well as in the Owenogarney river and the Anamullaghaun river. The Anamullaghaun river, I must declare, flows through a beautiful farm that I am fortunate enough to own. Freshwater pearl mussels, recorded there right up to the 1970s, are gone. Coillte recently commissioned an environmental study because of a project that it is planning to carry out there. It did not look at eels because eels are, of course, protected under European law. They did not look at it specifically because eels were found there as recently as a couple of years ago by Inland Fisheries Ireland. They look away.

Lastly, even down to the creation of special areas of conservation, SACs, for example, the Slieve Bernagh bog SAC, I invite the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to look at the map and see how carefully it is contoured to avoid the inclusion of Coillte land as part of that. If the Green Party wants an overall majority in the next Dáil, it should get whoever drew up that map to do the maps of the next constituencies because it is a work of art. Coillte is not treated equally to others in any way, shape or form. Of course, an investment would want to partner with it.

4:14 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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What we see here, despite what those in government have said, is a sell-out. We all know the dangers of climate change that we are facing. We all know that forestry is one of the best ways this country can help fight climate change. This deal shows the lack of seriousness of the Government towards climate change. This deal shows the Government's lack of an effective plan to deal with it.

Only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. This crisis was created by large corporations. Large corporations continue to make this crisis worse. They are not stopping any time soon. The Government wants to put the solutions to this back into the hands of businesses so that they can make money out of a crisis they have created.

Forestry is vital to combating climate change. It takes CO2 out of the air. It traps greenhouse gases in the soil. It helps reduce in our air and water. It develops ecosystems that speed up all these process. We need natural woodlands, not only to hit emissions targets but to make sure we have solutions to climate change. These forests need to be native and sustainable. They need to promote wildlife and help stop biodiversity loss. They need to benefit communities and farmers and improve people's lives, and they need to be owned and controlled by the public. The deal does none of those things.

What this deal does is use public money to hand over lands and profits to a private company. It takes land out of the hands of rural communities. It reduces farmers' ability to plant trees by raising the cost of land on which to plant them. It encourages and worsens the problems of Sitka spruce and monocultural plantations in Ireland. It is handing €2.1 billion of taxpayers' money into corporate hands - more, by the way, than it would cost the State itself to buy the land and plant trees.

The Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss has said that this could lead to the sell-off of public lands and agreed that State-owned woodlands should be recognised and managed as a strategic long-term national asset for the benefit of the common good. This should also be reflected by keeping land and money in rural communities for their common good. This deal is a clear step away from either of these. We have seen from the Government shareholder's letter of expectation to Coillte that it has no problem with this at all, even though the Minister is now saying it is not the Government's preferred option.

We can fight climate change. We have the time and we have the resources. Rather than using that fight to grow our country and society, to put this country's lands and resources in the hands of its people, and to grow and benefit local communities and people's lives, this Government has, once again, gone back to its old playbook to make the cost public and privatise the profits.

These companies caused climate change but rather than hold them to account, this Government will not let them walk away scot-free, but with their pockets filled as well. There has been a lot of hay made about how no land will be privatised in this deal, but the money will, the grants will and ordinary people will not see any of it. This has been the line of Government parties for decades that if one cannot privatise assets, they will privatise the profits. It is the reverse of what we did with the banks where we nationalised the debt and taxpayers had to pay. This is not good enough any more.

Today, we see, as has been said, that the European Commission has criticised Ireland's forestry policy in a scathing letter. In a leaked document, the Commission's Directorate-General for Environment stated a strategic environmental assessment report submitted as part of the draft national forestry plan does not sufficiently address concerns. In October, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine published a screening note for the forestry strategy from 2023 to 2030, which says that the plan will be 100% Exchequer funded, with state aid approval expected from the European Commission. We now know that letter has not even been submitted. This Gresham deal with exacerbate this and the aforementioned letter confirms that the deal should be shelved. We need to tear up the entire strategy. This is the price we pay for Coillte having a misguided mandate.

We do not only need a just transition; we need a just transformation. We need climate justice. We need to make sure that those who have contributed the most to climate change contribute the most to fixing it. This does not happen by handing over billions of euro to big corporations. It happens through taking back power from these corporations and putting the power and benefits back in ordinary people's hands.

This deal and its policy only make the rich richer while everyone else struggles. I oppose the deal. The solution to climate change cannot be in the hands of big corporations. The money to fix it cannot be either. It needs to be in the hands of the people in our communities.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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Genuine concerns in relation to forestry have been raised in recent weeks, in particular, in relation to the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund. We had Private Members' business on Tuesday and we spent over three hours in committee last night talking about some of the issues that have arisen. I am aware it also has come up in Leaders' Questions. I am happy to have a chance to speak about the future direction of Irish forestry policy and, in particular, to urge farmers across the country to look at the new €1.3 billion forestry programme.

We have a massive challenge ahead to meet our climate action targets and forestry has a significant role to play in that. That is why we have designed this programme in order that the vast majority of that €1.3 billion will go to farmers to plant on their land and to draw down premia for the next 20 years.

I believe it is right that Coillte, as the State foresters, should play a role in our afforestation targets. There has been a lot of talk about Coillte and Gresham House and that Coillte has partnered with private investment, as it is fully entitled to do. As part of that, and Deputy McNamara raised the issue, I understand from Coillte that Gresham was appointed after an independent procurement process; something that a Minister should not interfere with.

As we have said, this partnership is only one of the options Coillte has come up with to enable afforestation. Our preferred model of delivering on our forestry targets is for farmers to plant on their own land.

I would like to call out the fearmongering and inaccurate nonsense from Deputy Nolan that we are selling 100,000 acres to private interests. We are not. Nor are we putting €2.1 billion of taxpayers' money into the fund. The Deputy certainly needs to check her facts.

Government policy is to increase our forest estate from 11.6% to 18% by 2050. This will require 450,000 ha of new forests by 2050 and the vast majority of this will come from our farmers.

4:24 pm


Our new forest strategy to 2030 will be published shortly. It has been informed by extensive engagement with the public and with stakeholders and has climate, nature, people, wood and economy as its five core values. We will implement this strategy in the immediate term by way of the forestry programme.

Under the new forestry programme, farmers will receive 20 years of premium payments, compared with 15 years of premium payments for non-farmers. Furthermore, in addition to receiving 33% more premium payments, farmers who plant new forests will receive the single farm payment on land converted to forestry, whereas other private landowners will not receive that payment.

There has been some discussion today based on media reports on the level of environmental ambition under the new programme. There is a certain amount of muddying of waters between what went on in the mid-1990s compared to what we are doing in forestry now and into the future. What we are doing in forestry under this new programme is delivering for biodiversity, water quality and carbon sequestration in a way that no Irish forestry programme has done before. For example, under the new programme we are not planting on unenclosed areas. On those peaty upland areas, in some years during the 1990s we did almost 40% of our afforestation. In special protection areas for hen harriers, afforestation has not been permitted since 2013. As for annex 1 habitats, planting in these areas is expressly prohibited.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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What about reforestation?

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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Let me be crystal clear. This new forestry programme will absolutely deliver on the right tree in the right place for the right reasons under the right management. Under the new programme, the incentives for native broadleaf forests, agroforestry and continuous cover forestry will be significantly increased, and there will also be support for a new forest type, emergent woodland. This is supporting for the first time naturally regenerated woodlands. A further example of our farmer and biodiversity-friendly approach is that organic farmers will be able to receive organic farming payments and agroforestry premiums on the same area of land.

Roughly two thirds of our landmass is farmland. Therefore, the reality is that if we are to meet our 2050 forestry targets, we will need to count on a massive effort from our farmers. Our farmers will be the primary drivers of our afforestation efforts and they will be the primary beneficiaries of the €1.3 billion programme.

Nothing Coillte has signed up to do changes any of this. The opportunity for farmers remains as it was before the deal. They will benefit most from the new forestry programme. I want to be absolutely clear that any new forests that are focused on timber production will not be monoculture forests. In fact, under the new programme they cannot be monoculture. The days of State-funded monoculture forests with inappropriate setback distances on the wrong soil types are over. This has been something I have been against long before I took office and something I have acted upon in government.

Any forests planted under the new forestry programme for timber production will have a minimum 20% broadleaf content and a minimum 15% area for biodiversity enhancement. But it is not reasonable to ban conifer timber production, as some have suggested we should do. We would be left with the prospect of the unsustainable importation of large volumes of wood and the decimation of our own timber production, which will become increasingly important for sustainable construction in the years ahead and for sustaining rural economies. Coillte has committed to an even balance of trees between conifers and broadleafs and the Government is committed to an even balance. The Tánaiste has said it, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said it and I am saying it clearly here today.

The financial incentives are clear for everyone to see. All the feedback we are getting from the proposed rates under the new forestry programme is that the demand for native broadleaf trees is far outstripping the demand for conifers. To deliver on this future - and in response to Deputy Carthy, it is an exciting time for forestry - we will need to engage with the people of the future, the jobs of the future and the skills needs of the future as we invest in forestry education and training to manage our vastly expanded and diverse woodlands. It is clear the Government is serious about making progress in forestry. We have spoken a lot this week about Coillte's further direction. I think it is important to mention a key constraint on Coillte's ability to engage in afforestation without private involvement, which is EU state aid rules. A 2003 EU state aid decision ruled that Coillte as a public authority could not receive state aid in the form of annual forestry premium payments. As mentioned by many in government this week, we also are committed to exploring how we might be able to fund Coillte's afforestation efforts directly, either through capital funding or through grant and premium payment under the new forestry programme without breaching new state aid guidelines adopted on 1 January 2023.

Aside from state aid constraints Coillte under its current mandate simply does not have the capital it needs to deliver the scale of this ambition. A huge amount of its profit is re-invested into maintaining and improving its existing forest estate, for example. Coillte's dividend currently goes back to the Exchequer. To take the average dividend over the past five years, to the end of 2021, that is around €30 million per year. Even if the full amount of this average dividend was utilised for afforestation, it would take Coillte in the region of 200 years to do that 100,000 ha of afforestation it has committed to doing. Yes, we do need to look at whether the Government can fund Coillte directly.

To be clear again, however, this fund is not the Government's preferred model to reach its afforestation targets. The preferred model of afforestation is for farmers to plant trees on their land, which is why we have designed the new forestry programme in a way that will pay farmers 33% more in annual premium payments than any other landowner, on top of the single farm payment, which non-farmers do not receive. There is enormous potential for Coillte to establish new native woodlands for biodiversity on lands already in public ownership and suitable for forestry. Coillte is already working closely with local authorities and State bodies to identify such lands. Coillte and Bord na Móna are planting native woodlands on former industrial cutaway peatlands is a great example of this approach. Coillte is also planting new native woodlands through the not-for-profit Nature Trust, and I know the Tánaiste has said we should examine the possibility of the State purchasing land for Coillte to plant further native woodlands and this is something I am happy to explore with the Tánaiste and my Cabinet colleagues.

This debate over the last couple of weeks has however raised the larger question of what we as a State want from Coillte and where its focus should lie. As a Green Party Minister of State, it has always been my belief that Coillte should have less of a focus on delivering a dividend for the State coffers and more of a focus on nature, regeneration and afforestation. Perhaps now is the time to look at Coillte's mandate again. My own party was certainly clear in its general election manifesto in 2020 that we should look at a broader mandate for Coillte, which would deliver multiple benefits including environmental and community objectives as well as the production of high-quality timber. This remains our position. I will continue to pursue this with my Government colleagues. I have always wanted a broader mandate for Coillte and if this debate can bring that forward, it will be a very positive result.