As a result of the restrictions on peat harvesting, “we are seeing what can be only described as ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem'”.

Speaking in the Seanad this week, Fine Gael senator John Cummins said that the horticulture sector, which is a “critical sector”, is “on its knees due to the unintended consequences of the restrictions on peat harvesting”.

“We are hiving off to another country – that is, Latvia – responsibility for the essential peat supplies to keep our horticulture sector ticking,” the senator said.

“One has to question the environmental impact of importing peat into this country. It is, after all, the same planet we are collectively trying to protect. I would go as far as to describe this as ‘eco-vandalism’.

“We are all the time striving to be self-sustaining. It seems the particular policy and principle of self-sustainment applies only in certain circumstances, not in regard to peat harvesting.

“There is simply no justification in my book for preventing the harvesting of one-tenth of 1% of Ireland’s total area of peatlands, which is a fraction of the peatlands previously harvested, all in the name of climate action.”

Minister of State at the Department of Housing Peter Burke noted in the Seanad that in his role of having responsibility for the planning system, he has “no responsibility for policy on peat extraction”.

“I have no issue with supporting the exemption of peat extraction from the planning process. However, clear policy is needed to provide an alternative regime to be put forward to ensure that EU environmental standards are met,” he said.

‘Does it not want to make you scream?’

Senator Cummins added that if emergency planning legislation was to be introduced “in the morning to allow for peat extraction, it is likely, first, that it would be challenged in the courts and, second, that licensing would be a further hurdle to be overcome”.

Senator Rónán Mullen described the importation of peat as a “bizarre, crazy and irrational situation”.

“Does it not want to make you scream?” he asked Minister Burke.

“The old phrases about selling ice to Eskimos, sand to Arabs or bringing coal to Newcastle spring to mind,” he said.

“Importing peat to store it next to a bog would be laughable were it not so serious an issue. One might say it is ‘no Latvian matter’.”

Peat travelling ‘thousands of miles’

Fianna Fáil Senator Mary Fitzpatrick said that “there is no ban on peat extraction but, clearly, a dysfunctional system is in place and it is threatening the horticultural industry”.

“At a time when we are all keen to do all we can not just to promote but to progress climate action, it is a low point for us to be talking about the state undermining one of the more sustainable parts of our agricultural sector,” she said.

She said that the “farcical situation” of importing peat from eastern Europe, “which travels thousands of miles in hundreds of trucks using fossil fuels to a bog” is “reminiscent of something one would come up with in ‘Ballymagash'”.

“One would struggle to come up with that scenario. If one was told that by somebody, one would say the person was joking,” the senator said.

“While the Minister of State does not have full and sole responsibility for this, I urge him to bring together the Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and for the Environment, Climate and Communications and put their heads together.

“This is a case in which there is a requirement for an emergency intervention, that is, some form of emergency short-term licensing that will allow the horticultural sector to survive and our producers to continue to produce for us at home and for wider consumption.

“We need someone to take this by the scruff of the neck and add a bit of common sense into what is not working and is a dysfunctional system and to ensure there is a just transition that serves the horticultural sector and all of our economic and environmental objectives.”

‘Not a government-related problem’

Green Party Senator Róisín Garvey said that “with regard to turf, peat and bogs, this is not a government-created problem”.

“EU regulations had to be implemented in Ireland.

“Bogs were being cut on a huge scale. It was not only the 0.1% of the bogs used for horticulture. They were being cut on a huge scale all over Ireland without planning or environmental impact statements. 

“The government’s plan was for Bord na Móna to continue harvesting peat at a reduced level until 2025.

“This would give the horticulture sector time to do research and come up with alternatives.

“People have said there are no alternatives but that is not the case. We do not yet have alternatives because the work has not been completed to facilitate the transition we have been landed with.”

She added that the problem with peat for the horticultural industry “did not land a few weeks or months ago”.

“It was foreseen when the EU regulations were introduced in 2013,” she said.