Seanad debates

Monday, 1 March 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Environment Fund

10:30 am

Micheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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It is important to acknowledge the huge impact the closure of the power stations in Lanesboro and Shannonbridge, and the end of peat production, has had on communities and families which have worked in them for more than 50 years. The jobs at Mountdillon and Lough Ree power plant provided the communities of Keenagh, Killashee, Newtowncashel, Lanesboro and beyond will be difficult to replace. However, I welcome the substantial funding which was announced last year for a number of projects under the just transition fund. Some examples of these are the Lough Ree distillery, Lough Ree access-for-all boat trips and the food hub. I sincerely hope the issues which surfaced recently regarding EU state aid rules are dealt with positively to allow these much-needed projects to continue and provide much-needed employment in south Longford.

We must not allow the midlands to become a Rust Belt like the American mid west. Infrastructure and investment must be put in place to make sure it returns to a thriving economic area. Many areas are watching the midlands to see how the transition to a more sustainable future for the peat industry will be handled.It is important people in rural areas do not carry an unfair share of the financial burdens stemming from proposed climate action.

The restoration and rehabilitation of Ireland's peatlands is a critically important aspect of our response to the climate and biodiversity emergency. When healthy, these unique and precious habitats are home to some of the most threatened species and are among our best lines of defence against climate change, sequestering and storing carbon, reducing the impact of floods and filtering water. Ireland's bogs, occurring as raised bogs, blanket bogs or fens are special and unique places and play an important role in contributing to our biodiversity, economy, well-being and natural and cultural heritage. Ireland holds approximately 50% of all raised bogs remaining in the Atlantic region of north-west Europe.

I welcome the Government's announcement of funding of €108 million for Bord na Móna's large scale peatlands restoration project. The scheme will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of CO2emissions, enhance biodiversity, create 310 jobs and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon neutral by 2050. Many of those employed in this project will be former peat harvesters who have an intimate knowledge and long history of working on our bogs.

I welcome the EU LIFE grant support. The significant funding from the European Commission for this project will contribute towards the implementation of Ireland's climate action plan. The three strands of the projects are the establishment of a peatlands centre of excellence that will explore and carry out best practices in peatland restoration and rehabilitation; an immersive people's discovery attraction in the midlands that will reinforce the importance of climate action and peatlands rehabilitation and the introduction of a range of supports for sustainable businesses.

The boglands of south Longford are a perfect location to situate such a centre. The Corlea trackway Office of Public Works centre would be an ideal base at which to develop these plans in conjunction with the mid-channel wilderness plan park plan which forms part of the County Longford development plan. Longford must not be forgotten.

I also wish to raise the issue of peat harvesting for the horticultural industry. In the absence of peat from Irish sources, the industry will have to import it. Until an alternative growth medium has been identified, I ask that we allow the industry to produce sufficient peat for domestic use, at least.

I received a letter from a 12 year old called Michael Gacquin who spent the initial lockdown period walking and cycling along the boglands in south Longford. He made a couple of points to me. His letter read:

Why don't we put our industrial heritage museum in the power station? You could put the old tractors and machines that were specially made for the bog into it.

He said we could have "small train rides on the peat trains" and that "it would be a great much needed tourist attraction for Longford". He said also: "I think because the culture surrounding peat harvesting in the midlands is so much part of our history, that it is vitally important that we preserve it." Those are the words of 12 year old Michael Gacquin. I want to see his words brought to reality.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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Well done to Michael for sending that to the Senator. I completely agree with Senator Carrigy, in particular in regard to horticultural peat. The Minister of State has four minutes to respond.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Senator Carrigy for raising this issue. I apologise that my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, cannot be here to take the Commencement matter. Senator Carrigy highlighted many of the points in his address. Ireland's peatlands are part of Europe's oldest surviving near natural ecosystems. Due to their conservation value, more than 26,000 ha of raised bogs are protected under the EU habitats directive and national legislation. Some 50 blanket bogs are designated as special areas of conservation.

In their natural state, peatlands provide multiple ecosystems services such as water and air quality improvements, flood attenuation, reduction in biodiversity losses and socioeconomic benefits to local communities. A significant percentage of Ireland's protected bogs, however, have been lost and degraded over the last 30 years due to various pressures and threats, including burning and drainage. Government-supported measures are now under way to halt and reverse this loss of peatlands through sustainable management, rehabilitation and restoration.

The national peatlands strategy, the National Raised Bogs Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan 2017-2022, and Ireland's climate action plan set out measures to support the revitalisation of Ireland's peatlands. Several peatland restoration and rehabilitation initiatives are under way. Funding of €5 million from the carbon tax fund in 2020 enabled the commencement of peatland restoration measures by the National Parks and Wildlife Service on almost 1,900 ha of protected raised bogs in the midland region.

An allocation of funding of €14 million in budget 2021 will assist with the management, conservation and restoration of Ireland's raised bogs and protected peatlands, including restoration measures on a further 2,500 ha of protected raised bog.In addition, the Government through its various Departments and agencies is supporting peatlands rehabilitation and restoration projects in Ireland and across borders. The €5.4 million project, the Living Bog, is co-funded under the EU LIFE programme with €1.35 million provided by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This will enable restoration works over an area of 2,649 ha.

In 2020, Ireland was awarded more than €10 million in grant funding for a new EU LIFE programme funded under the peatlands and people project which aims to engage people with the benefits of peatlands restoration and to realise the power of peatlands to effect positive climate action. Improving the conservation status in the special areas of conservation network of blanket bog and associated habitats is the focus of the EU LIFE programme, funded under the integrated wild Atlantic nature project, currently in the start-up phase. That project area encompasses 35 of the 50 blanket bog special areas of conservation. In November 2020 the Government announced support of up to €108 million for the Bord na Móna scheme on 33,000 ha of decommissioned Bord na Móna peatlands.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine announced funding in February for two projects which will focus on finding better ways to manage on-farm drained peat soils in the midlands. The two projects, which secured €2.2 million between them, were selected following an open call under the European innovation partnership initiative. They will be funded under Ireland's rural development programme 2014 to 2021. Coillte Nature also has a project to restore more than 2,000 ha of Atlantic bog.

On the Senator's query on horticultural peat, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, has set up a working group in his Department to examine what alternatives can be used. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has also funded research into this area. It is a huge issue and something we have to get right to secure the future of the horticulture sector.

I thank 12-year-old Michael for his letter. This sort of innovation and thinking outside the box on tourism and heritage is very important for the future for the midlands.

Micheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive list of funding that is available. My priority is my local area of Longford. We have a unique centre in Corlea which is right on the 3,000-year-old bog trackway. It is the ideal location to centre this proposed project. I spoke with 12-year-old Michael yesterday. He is a very enthusiastic young lad with a great vision for our area and for what the boglands can be turned into. I was a member of Longford County Council which has been promoting the Mid Shannon Wilderness Park. My vision is to bring schools from all over Ireland to our boglands, using the rail network that is there, to show them an integral part of our history. We have the infrastructure and the funding has been put in place by the EU. I want to see this project put in place in south Longford.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. He is right to raise this issue, whether it relates to Longford, Offaly, Kildare or any area with such a wealth of potential in their peatlands. We have to look at them all. I completely agree with the idea of encouraging schools and communities to visit such sites, not only for their cultural and historical significance but for their future biodiversity and ecosystem value for schools and children. We should do everything we can to encourage that. The knock-on effects in terms of tourism and in securing local jobs in managing those sites and venues will be very important. I fully agree with the Senator that it is something we need to look into. The €10 million in peatlands and people funding is around that subject area. If we can expand that, we should do it as best we can.