There’s been plenty of huffing and puffing about Eamon Ryan’s turf ban but none of it will blow the House down.
When Government TDs vote on the Sinn Féin private members tonight will any turn to the right at the top of the Dáil chambers stairs and go into the opposition lobby? The answer to that is No.
There has been a huge deal of unhappiness among rural TDs about Ryan’s proposals but nobody in any of the Coalition parties is under any illusion that it’s a dealbreaker.
The Minster for the Environment and Climate Action spoke to parliamentarians from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael yesterday and heard a lot of passionate (and angry) arguments in defence of turf-cutting, mostly from politicians who live in the Midlands or along the western seaboard.
But any talk of this downing the Government is completely disproportionate. There will be compromise. Ryan has already accepted that the way the ban was announced (through a parliamentary reply to Brendan Griffin) was suboptimal. He has also conceded that it lacked context and detail. For example, he is actually not proposing complete regulations, rather draft regulations (to be debated and finessed, in other words). He’s also compromised by saying that not only those with turbary rights are exempt, those who live in communities of 500 people or less will also be exempt.
Barry Cowen, who has been the effective spokesperson for Fianna Fáil backbenchers, put it best yesterday when he told Ryan he had come a few rungs down the ladder, but needed to come down a few more.
Politically, that is what will happen. The regulations will be introduced but most domestic turf-cutting in rural Ireland will be allowed to continue. And that will include some commercial turf-cutting too as long as it is relatively small scale.
That’s the difficulty. It’s very hard to measure these things. It’s very easy to calculate how much oil, gas, and coal is being used in the State and to get a picture of the shape of the market. It’s harder with turf. It’s not centralised in the same way. Nobody knows exactly how much turf is extracted on Irish bogs every year and where it goes. What we do know is that a lot of households rely on it in certain counties: Almost 40 per cent of households in Offaly use peat: it’s 27 per cent in Roscommon; 23 per cent in Galway and 20 per cent in Longford.
A turbary right is the right to cut turf (but not to sell it). The right has been in existence for hundreds of years. It is hard to know how many people in the entire State enjoy such rights but it’s clear they number thousands (there are 1,600 people with rights on bogs controlled by Bord na Móna). It also has some constitutional protection.
There are commercial operators there but there seems to be a paucity of data on how much turf they cut and how much they sell. Certainly, Departmental sources say there’s a ‘grey market’ where some commercial operators are selling turf in larger towns. But the extent of that is difficult to quantify.
Turf evokes a visceral response from rural TDs. There is an emotional aspect to it because of a connection that goes back generations. But it must be noted that Ryan’s regulations did not stop people saving their own turf. It just banned sales.
There has to be honesty in it. If it’s happening at a relatively micro level, some form of leeway must be given. The difficulty is when it is being sold in larger quantities. That has to be dealt with - there is no going away from it.
Cowen said he would support a ban on roadside sales or in service stations. So some kind of formula will need to be found to distinguish between community sale and commercial operations.
Many TDs and Senators from the larger coalition parties used the argument yesterday that it was a dying tradition and it will be gone in a decade’s time. They argued that what was needed was a carrot, not a stick, incentives to get people to transition from solid fuel to less harmful ways of heating their homes. That may be true but it’s not altogether sure that turf cutting is on its last legs. There could be a miraculous revival of the tradition if global energy prices continue on their current upward trajectory.
Even though the Greens are central in this, the principal argument here is - for once - not about climate change. It’s about air quality. Data shows that between 1,100 and 1,300 people in Ireland suffer premature deaths because of respiratory disease caused by air pollution. Most of that is attributed to smoky fuels. It’s not just a do-gooder thing. Smoke from solid fuels is actually killing people in towns through the State.
Turf is a smoky fuel and is as harmful as bituminous coal or damp wood. If a technology could be found to dry the sods before use, it would put it in the same category as smokeless coal. But nothing has been found as yet.
The big picture here is really smoky coal. Three years ago, a number of coal distributors threatened to take legal action against the State if the ban on smoky coal was extended nationwide. Their argument was that it would be unfair and discriminatory for the State to impose a ban on smoky coal while giving an exemption to other equally polluting solid fuel like turf and wet wood.
So to bring in a ban on smoky coal, the Government feels it has no choice but to bring in some limitations on the sale of turf, otherwise it will be exposed to legal challenge.
The regulations - when they finally arrive - can’t be too broad in terms of exempting turf, otherwise the door will be open for legal actions.
That said, when you talk to TDs and Senators from all Government parties, they all say they think a workable compromise can be found.