Coillte deal with UK pension fund alarms Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss

Final report to be submitted to the Oireachtas in coming weeks

The final session of the Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss was dominated by the controversial Coillte deal with a UK pension fund, with members expressing concerns it will lead to a sell-off of State woodlands – and undermine biodiversity.

The assembly, which met in Malahide, Co Dublin, on Saturday, is set to forward 100 additional recommendations in coming days, which, if adopted by the Government and the Oireachtas, will have far-reaching implications for many sectors, notably forestry and agriculture.

After a long debate on forest ownership issues including the role of the semi-State firm Coillte, agreement was reached on the recommendation that “State-own woodlands should be recognised and managed as a strategic long-term national asset for the benefit of the common good”.

A call for the State to fundamentally reassess the Constitution and forestry legislation with a view to “ensuring biodiversity and positive ecosystem services are core objectives for Coillte” was also adopted.


The assembly has concluded its deliberations, other than to vote online in the coming days on the recommendations it finalised this weekend. Their final report will be submitted to the Oireachtas in the coming weeks.

It is clear from Saturday’s proceedings, however, there is strong backing for the vast majority of its latest recommendations, and there has been no weakening on the clarity on its sense of urgency in framing many of their recommendations on a range of areas to improve environmental protection and address biodiversity loss.

There was strong backing for the recommendation that “the National Parks & Wildlife Service, as well as bodies prescribed in legislation with regard to biodiversity and planning, including An Taisce, should be properly funded to carry out their planning and development roles”.

The same went for a call for “all penalties for any breach of pollution or environmental legislation/regulations should be increased to meaningful economic levels reflecting the damage caused, plus enforcement or restoration costs, with criminal sanction where necessary”.

The assembly had strong support for a call to set up a new Oireachtas committee to oversee implementation and evaluation of measures to address Ireland’s biodiversity crisis.

Assembly members expressed support for a move to ensure “biodiverse positive areas and projects should be considered as an additional tool within the overall promotion of Ireland’s tourism industry”.

The assembly supported “urgent increases in investment by Irish Water to build new, and improve existing, water treatment plants to prevent the unacceptable discharge of raw or partially-treated sewage into any fresh or marine waters”, adding that current timelines and targets were inadequate.

The assembly endorsed the view that current State policy on the management of biodiversity on agricultural lands “is not sufficient and requires fundamental review and change to support and incentivise farmers and landowners to protect and restore biodiversity”.

However, a call for “new sector-specific levies/charges on harmful imports, agricultural exports and retailers” to be introduced and ring-fenced for biodiversity was among the more divisive issues. The members, none the less, agreed to table these options for consideration in their online vote.

What is the first national citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss in the world called in November for a referendum to amend the Constitution with a view to protecting biodiversity, including “a range of protections for substantive and procedural environmental rights for both people and nature”.

It also recommended a radical overhaul of the national approach to managing biodiversity loss among its initial tranche of 100 recommendations.

It reconvened to finalise its recommendations on agriculture; freshwaters, marine and coastal environments, peatlands, forestry/woodlands/hedgerows, protected sites and species, invasive species, and urban and built environments.

The assembly, which has been deliberating since last May under chair Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin with 99 randomly-selected members of the public, heard from more than 80 different speakers and received 650 submissions.

Ms Ní Shúilleabháin said she believed the assembly could stand over all its recommendations, which were well-informed and “representative of the country”.

In a video message, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar congratulated the participants, particularly for their commitment which included undertaking field trips and consulting with stakeholders.

He said he strongly backed “a societal response to biodiversity loss” and it was incumbent on the Government and the Oireachtas to provide a comprehensive response to their report, which he believed would lead to transformational changes to policy.

The Assembly has endorsed a finding that the State has comprehensively failed in relation to biodiversity, and made recommendations for fundamental change to the funding, implementation, and enforcement of national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and relevant directives.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times