Miriam Lord: What’s the beef with taking a lead on climate change?

James Reilly insists the Oireachtas takes (electric) charge amid inaction on the issue

Michael and Danny Healy-Rae suggested the Taoiseach had done a grave disservice to the struggling Irish beef sector.

Beef farmers were very annoyed with the Taoiseach recently for daring to remark that he is trying to cut down on the amount of red meat he eats. Such was the backlash from Opposition Deputies outraged on their behalf that Leo was forced to tell the Dáil that he still enjoyed a good steak, and his comments were personal and not in any way encouraging people to give up beef.

Fianna Fáil TDs Charlie McConalogue and Jackie Cahill, backed up by two highly indignant Healy-Rae brothers, suggested he had done a grave disservice to the struggling Irish beef sector.

“I said that I was trying to eat less red meat for two reasons: namely health and climate change. My comment was not flippant. It is a fact that red meat increases the risk of cancer and contributes more to climate change,” the Taoiseach explained.

“You’re making a bad situation worse,” growled Danny Healy-Rae.


"I can assure Deputies that I haven't become a vegan or anything like that," protested Leo, adding he was very happy "to eat fish landed in Donegal and poultry, turkey, pork and all of the wonderful products that Irish farmers produce".

Of course, there were no vegetarians in Leinster House until 1992. Not many people know this.

However, chef Julie Lyons, one of the longest serving members of the Oireachtas staff and custodian of all the catering secrets, does.

She recalls when the Green Party's Trevor Sargent first entered Dáil Éireann in 1992, causing a minor panic in the kitchens as he was a committed vegetarian who grew his own organic produce.

“Oh yes, Trevor brought in the vegetarianism. He wanted proper meals – something like a bought-in spring roll wouldn’t do him. Back in those days we didn’t know very much about it because people never asked for a vegetarian option.

"Mr Rice [then catering manager] sent me down to Temple Bar because there was a restaurant down there," says Julie. "I went into the Hare Krishnas and got some lovely recipes from them. I remember one of them to this day – a courgette and carrot nut loaf done with all the Indian spices and a lovely red tomato sauce. It was one of Trevor's favourites."

The slim pickings menu changed when the Greens did well in the 2007 election and went into coalition with Fianna Fáil and the PDs. Trevor (who is now a Church of Ireland priest in Waterford) stepped down as leader, although he accepted a junior ministry and the party also bagged two cabinet seats along with a brace of Senators.

“When the Greens got into power all of a sudden we had 30 vegetarian meals every day. Every year they held their Christmas parties in here on a Monday night, and we used to be nearly crying because we had to do 120 vegetarian meals and the kitchens would be coming down with turkey and ham.”

Today there is always a decent choice in Leinster House for the growing numbers of non-meat eaters. Although TDs and Senators, particularly from the bigger parties, are big meat-eaters, the breakfast or teatime fry is still a winner with lots of them.

Down through the years, Julie has noticed a few things about the eating habits of politicians. Take party leaders and government ministers who tend to eat lightly and on the run.

“They tend to be a bit depressed if they’re having the fry.”

Reilly on a charge

Climate change. One of the reasons the Taoiseach wants to cut down on red meat. (Flatulent cattle producing methane contributing to global warming.) It's being constantly discussed by our politicians.

So much talk. So much concern. So much hot air.

Anybody who passes the gates of Leinster House on a sitting day will notice that the car parks, front and back, are always jammed.

That’s a lot of cars parked up all day and often into the night, although you won’t see many electric or hybrid vehicles charging away as their drivers go about their nation’s business inside.

In fact you wouldn’t ever have seen a car getting a top-up at Leinster House because until yesterday afternoon there wasn’t any charging facility available.

If it hadn't been for FG Senator and former health minister James Reilly it probably wouldn't have appeared at all.

Because for all the parliamentary emissions about climate change from our TDs and Senators down the years, not one of them ever suggested the Oireachtas might set an example by installing charging points in their busy car park.

Reilly, who has taken the plunge and will soon be driving an all-electric chariot, raised the issue in the Seanad over a week ago during yet another round of “Statements on Climate Change”.

"The Minister spoke earlier about walking the walk instead of talking the talk. I am taking delivery of an all-electric vehicle, a Hyundai Kona," he announced at the end of his contribution.

James said he noticed the absence of charging points, and asked the Oireachtas authorities why there were none.

“I am told there will be one next week. I am also told, and I am surprised about this, that I’m the first person to ask for one.

“Does that mean there is not anyone else in these Houses who has an electric car? I would find that surprising.”

He isn’t, and he will join a small group of owners when he finally gets his Kona, which has a battery range of 449km.

This, Dr Reilly tells us, has cured his “range anxiety” – a common complaint among electric car drivers and one of the main reasons people stick with fossil fuel.

In the Cabinet there is just one non-petrol head – Minister for Communications and Climate Change Richard Bruton is now driving a hybrid, while Dublin-based Róisín Shortall and Noel Rock are among the TDs who have joined the ranks.

Reilly returned to the subject in the Seanad on Thursday.

“As I stand here today there is still no charging point for electric cars . . . If we are to show leadership in this country and ask people to be mindful of the environment, make life changes and consider going electric or hybrid, we must lead by example.

“The fact that the Oireachtas doesn’t even have charging points for people who work or might be visiting here sends such a poor message.”

His pressure finally paid off yesterday, when workers arrived to put in a point in the rear car park on Merrion Street. People may be talking about the threat posed by Brexit, Reilly told the Upper House, but climate change is far more serious.

“I would say that this is the challenge that will define our generation, not Brexit. We will survive Brexit, but we may not survive ongoing climate change if we do not take action.”

Dr Reilly hopes the new charging point will be the first of many in Leinster House. “Because here we were in Oireachtas Éireann without even one while the Fingal council offices already have six of them. If we are going to give leadership we should be showing a lead.”

No pun intended.

Burton wants end to legal uncertainty

Joan Burton introduced a Bill in the Dáil on Tuesday to provide legal certainty for people whose adoptive parents were illegally registered on their birth certificates as their birth parents. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone revealed at a press conference last year that 126 such cases had come to light as a result of an analysis of files from the St Patrick's Guild agency, from where Joan herself was adopted.

Yet since that announcement nothing has been done to help the people caught in this unusual situation. The former Labour leader says that the actual number of people who are in this "legal limbo" is far greater. A further 748 adoption cases are of concern, and they all relate to St Patrick's Guild, which is only one of many such societies.

The problem affects a generation of children who are now adults in their 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s.

Barrister Anne O’Meara, who discovered she is one of the 126 with a false birth cert, is the driving force behind the Bill. She had a happy childhood in a loving family, always aware she was adopted. When the information emerged about the false registrations, she assumed Zappone would move quickly to help restore legal status to those people who were illegally registered in the years following the 1952 Adoption Act. When nothing happened after a number of months she decided to come up with the legislation herself.

“I can’t wait. I need something now to tell me that I am my parents’ daughter, that I was properly adopted. I am entitled to this,” she said at the launch of the Bill, which is so legally uncomplicated she drafted it in one afternoon with the help of colleagues.

Burton wonders if wariness of the legalities involved might be the reason for the delay in introducing what would be a relatively simple court process. So this week O'Meara came up with a legal example which might spur on the Government – The Lourdes Marriages.

The 1972 Marriage Act was passed to regularise the marriages of 33 couples who had weddings in Lourdes but in church ceremonies. They didn’t realise they also needed to take part in a civil ceremony to have their marriage recognised in French law. This meant their marriages were technically invalid under Irish law too. The Oireachtas niftily solved the problem with some retroactive legislation.

Burton says that a similar simple course of action by today’s Oireachtas would do the same for O’Meara and all the others who now find themselves caught in this legal bind.