‘This entire area could die’: Bord na Móna workers react to job losses

Midlands is being made suffer for Ireland’s need to cut carbon footprint, some believe

Turf-cutting in Derrygreenagh, Co Offaly. Photograph: Pat Sammon

Turf-cutting in Derrygreenagh, Co Offaly. Photograph: Pat Sammon

 

For Finian O’Neill, it is the end of an era. His father worked on the Bord na Móna bogs in Offaly for 42 years. Now in his 50s, O’Neill fears for his own future.

The bog where he has worked for years will not be harvested next year: “So it’s a worry. I am in my 50s. It’s not that easy to find work out there at that age. Nobody wants you,” he said.

His family have been tied to Bord na Móna throughout its history. His uncle and, at one time, four of his in-laws were on its books: “It’s the end of an era, and what do we get to replace it? We have no Intels,” he remarked.

The wind and solar farms that Bord na Móna sees as crucial to its future will offer construction jobs, he feels, but there will be little that will offer the security that was given by “a job on the bog”.

Like others in Offaly, O’Neill feels that neither the Government nor the company has done enough to prepare communities across the midlands for what is to come.

Some 430jobs are to go. Half of those are in management and administrative grades in Newbridge, but the rest will begin to disappear from the bogs from late spring next year.

“The job on the bog is gone and it is a sad affair after such a length of time. So many people have done extremely well out of it,” O’Neill said.

In nearby Ferbane, Co Offaly, Danny Gleeson of Gleeson’s Bar said simply: “Bord na Móna and the ESB are the backbone of this community. Since the 1970s the town has relied on them completely.”

Towns such as Ferbane are bearing an unfair price for Ireland’s need to cut its carbon footprint, he believes. Now that the bogs are closing, the Government must fill the gap with investment.

However, Diarmuid Guinan, who runs Brosna Press in Ferbane, believes that investment was needed long before now: “What’s required is what has been required for the past 10 years,” he says.

Dying midlands

Ireland’s cities, particularly along the east coast, are growing, while the midlands are dying: “Today’s announcement has been coming down the tracks. Government know about this,” said Guinan.

Retired Bord na Móna worker and local councillor Eamon Dooley urged action: “It is never too late to do the right thing. If they don’t invest, then this whole area of Offaly and west Offaly is dead and gone,” he said.

Urging State help, and quickly, Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley feared the creation of an Irish rust belt, “similar to the US Midwest, where [the end of] coal resulted in severe economic stagnation”.

Responding, Minister for the Environment Richard Bruton and Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphreys promised “all relevant supports” for workers, but said the decisions taken were needed to prepare Bord na Móna for the future.

Despite assurances, workers are doubtful about promises to create 500 new jobs, but doubtful too about the future of the ESB’s peat-powered stations in Shannonbridge, Co Offaly, and Lanesborough, Co Longford.

A third plant at Edenderry, Co Offaly, can burn peat and more environmentally friendly biomass. However, Shannonbrige and Lanesborough have yet to be converted.

In February the ESB said it would convert them, but no planning application has been lodged. The applications are expected next month, but they are likely to face opposition, which could lead to delays.

Critical biomass

In the meantime, Bord na Móna has to source biomass for Edenderry. Locally grown eucalyptus and willow is being researched, but miscanthus – otherwise known as “elephant grass” – is not favoured by local farmers.

Massive quantities are needed, but looking abroad to import timber or vegetable husks, from as far away as Australia, is environmentally questionable.

Siptu’s Willie Noone displays little faith: “They don’t have the resources in this country to supply the quantity that’s required to keep those power stations going on biomass and biomass alone,” he said.

The local stations cannot burn everything. Locally harvested wood-chip is exported to Northern Ireland because it does not meet regulations south of the Border.

“We have people employed in this county at the moment drawing material that could be burned in our power stations, but it is all going up to the North to be burned in their power stations,” he said.

If it all has to be imported, he said, “they wouldn’t have the number of ships that’s required to bring in the amount of trees and timber that [will be needed]. It’s not viable.”