Loss of peat-based activity in midlands: ‘Employment is gone and there is no replacement’

It has been the end of an era for the midlands in the last number of weeks, with the closures of the West Offaly Power Station at Shannonbridge and Lough Ree Power Station at Lanesborough.

As much as people have looked back on times gone by, with many having spent years working in the peat-powered electricity production industry in the area, others are looking forward to seeing how a just transition may be achieved.

One such person is Seamus Boland, CEO of Irish Rural Link, chair of the Peatlands Council and, most recently, with the start of the 2020 to 2025 term of office of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), is the new president of its Diversity Europe Group.

He tells AgriLand that in definition, a just transition for the midlands means that there is a change from peat-based activities, “somehow replacing this very lucrative economy either linked with peatlands or something else”.

He feels there are opportunities available for employment for communities in the areas of research, biodiversity, tourism and renewable energy developments.

“The real thing that just transition needs to address is how we replace a lucrative Bord na Móna origination of jobs with something else,” Boland says.

Work can come from the peatlands themselves but there needs to be more innovation – people’s jobs, lives and communities are relying on this. Peatlands also can’t be the answer for the environment, restoring them won’t do all that needs to be done.

“Areas like the midlands need innovation centres, all these areas are not really serviced by anything. The previously enjoyed Bord na Móna employment is gone and there is currently no replacement…so people of the midlands are in limbo.

“Peatlands and associated environmental jobs will be useful, but we should look for a digital innovation centre as well.” 

Ambition for an Irish climate change conference

Boland says he would like to see the government bring together a national climate change conference in Ireland, to examine the challenges that exist, especially those facing agriculture and farming. 

“With the demands being made of farmers, I would love to see an announcement where farmers, other agriculture industry stakeholders, environmentalists and community activists would work with government on what needs to be done to ensure that climate change happens and happens in a just transition way,” he continues.

There is a lot to change in traditional farming. So, maybe we need to do research into bringing new types of farming to the country, for what is now a very changed era. I would love to see the government look at how food chains can be shortened so that agriculture can be locally brought into the markets. 

“We need to be conscious of the pandemic and the impacts of it being long-lasting. We need a serious examination of how farmers are being affected and how them being affected affects us, the general population.

“We don’t know the future of rural Ireland, of farming, villages and pubs, we don’t know the future of services in areas and we’re fearful that because of the economic reality afterwards, that these could be threatened, and things may never be the same.” 

About Boland

Boland is a farmer and has worked in the civil society for over 40 years. This has included young people, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and rural people living in rural isolation. He is a trained speech and drama educator.

At present, he holds a number of roles. He is a board member of Inland Fisheries Ireland and chair of the Peatlands Council, and the CEO of Irish Rural Link.

As a member of the EESC since 2011, Boland has held different roles, and has chaired study groups on topics such as minimum wages, migration and sustainable development and was rapporteur for various EESC opinions related to agriculture, rural development, energy, social affairs and Brexit.