A potentially serious rift between the Government parties over the sale of turf has been partially allayed after a robust meeting between Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan and Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators on Tuesday.
The Green Party leader’s proposed regulations to ban the commercial sale of turf from September caused furore within ranks of coalition partners Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with Ministers and backbenchers expressing anger at the decision.
At the meeting, Fianna Fáil parliamentarians told Mr Ryan he could not proceed with the regulations as planned, and even the compromise of allowing existing practices to continue in communities of 500 people or less would not be practicable.
Offaly TD Barry Cowen said Mr Ryan had already come “several rungs down the ladder” and needed to come several more. Mr Cowen said that after the meeting he could see potential for compromise.
The row over turf cutting also spilled over into Cabinet, with Minister for Education Norma Foley telling her colleagues that the Government was failing to bring their parties with them.
Sources said that the Kerry TD told the Cabinet that the issue had not been communicated well and that was a real issue for backbenchers who are coming under increasing pressure and are not being brought with the Government on the issue. Several prominent Fine Gael TDs including Charlie Flanagan and Michael Ring have also publicly voiced outrage at the proposal.
Mr Cowen and his Tipperary colleague Jackie Cahill have led opposition to the proposals within Fianna Fáil. Under the plan Mr Ryan would allow those with turbary rights (the right to cut turf on their own bank but not to sell it) to continue but would ban the commercial sale of turf.
The meeting on Tuesday was attended by 15 Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators. Mr Cowen said the meeting was “frank and it needed to be frank”.
“It was best that we met and looked him [Mr Ryan] in the white of his eyes rather than debating across the airwaves,” he said.
“We relayed to him our absolute opposition to the original regulations and secondly to the compromise he spoke about on Sunday [which referred to exemptions for small communities].
“We had no problem with banning its sale in retail outlets and petrol stations but you could not go in and bring the guillotine down on people who rely on turf, even selling it in their own communities.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Mr Cahill and Senator Eugene Murphy. Clare TD Cathal Crowe was outspoken in his criticism of the regulations, telling Mr Ryan it was not in the programme for government and he would not have supported it in a vote. However, he said the counter motion tabled by the Government to respond to a Sinn Féin motion on turf recognised the status quo and he would support it.
Mr Ryan outlined the importance of introducing the regulations on smoky fuels such as coal, turf and wet wood in order to help reduce the 1,300 deaths and associated illnesses caused every year by air pollution. He also outlined how the draft regulations are being prepared on foot of a public consultation, an ongoing process that has taken place over the last year and a quarter.
The Minister told the meeting that the primary intention of the draft Solid Fuel Regulations was to focus on the large-scale and commercial sale of smoky fuels. The draft regulations will not impact on small rural communities’ traditional use of turf, he argued.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government would try to achieve balance in the proposals.
Speaking during Leader’s Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, Mr Martin said it was important to protect people’s rights in rural Ireland when it came to turf.
Mr Martin said that people cutting peat in their own bogs and the sharing of turf between neighbours would not be banned and that what was being proposed would have no impact this winter.
The Taoiseach was responding to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who said the Government’s proposed ban on the sale of turf had caused “real distress and frustration for rural communities”.