Opinion: What’s going on with the ‘Just Transition’ strategy?

By Carol Nolan, independent TD (for Laois-Offaly)

The Government’s ‘Just Transition’ strategy, with its clear priority on achieving the greatest levels of decarbonisation possible, is going to have a profound impact on Irish agriculture. We can take that as read.

If implemented, it will also entirely reshape Ireland’s industrial landscape and, in particular, the traditional industrial model that has revolved around Bord na Móna and the ESB and which has dominated the midlands for the last number of decades.

These facts are not seriously contested by anyone.

‘Train has left the station’

The Just Transition train has well and truly left the station, with the regional transition team for the midlands set to be based in Offaly County Council.

However, where concerns arise is in the assessment of how ‘just’ the Just Transition is set to become.

We got a glimpse of this when the Government-appointed Just Transition commissioner – Kieran Mulvey – appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications in December 2019. At that time he used a striking analogy to highlight what was at stake.

Referring to the huge industrial coal lands of Eastern Europe, he said that part of the ‘justice argument’ is about ensuring that those who are affected by Just Transition “should not get thrown on the same slag heap as the product they were producing”.

We might say the same observation applies here.

Workers in the midlands – like those in Bord na Móna and indeed the ESB, as well and traditional turf cutters – must not end up on the turf heap at any point in this process.

The likelihood of such an outcome occurring, however, is brought into sharp focus if we look at an ongoing debacle surrounding An Bord Pleanála’s move to extend its timeline for a planning decision [on peat extraction operations over 30ha, specifically on Bord na Móna bogs] until May 12.

The original planning decision, as reported by AgriLand’s Claire Mc Cormack, was due on March 18.

This has created considerable financial uncertainty in the peat sector, at a time when it needs it least. It has thrown a spotlight on the coherence, or otherwise, of the Government’s Just Transition strategy.

It has done this by uncomfortably reminding Government about the glaring absence of an emergency legislative provision, that might otherwise over-ride this apparently arbitrary decision.

As things stand, the livelihoods of some turf cutters and the peat extraction capacity of Bord na Móna is being held up by An Bord Pleanála.

What’s most alarming is that An Bord Pleanála appears to be in no real hurry to change this situation. This speaks to an uneasy disconnect between the state’s planning appeals body and the ‘bread and butter’ issues of survival in the midlands and beyond.

‘High on promise, but…’

During his December appearance before the aforementioned Oireachtas Committee, Kieran Mulvey also clearly indicated that Minister Richard Bruton wanted him to provide a report on how the Just Transition strategy was taking effect – on the ground.

The preferred deadline for that report was the end of the month of March [2020].

We urgently need to see that report; Kieran Mulvey is the person who is going to play a key role in determining the scale and scope of the Just Transition, as well as the measures that will be needed to ensure that fair play is embedded into the process.

Speaking at the start of March, Mulvey expressed concerns that initiatives undertaken under a Just Transition programme in the midlands could be hampered “by lengthy planning processes”.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have seen happen with An Bord Pleanála and its enforced imposition of inaction on Bord na Móna and some individual turf cutters.

These are factors that commissioner Mulvey is going to have to work to resolve in partnership with the Government.

Until we know that some pathway around these difficulties has been found, it is likely that the roll of the Just Transition strategy will be high on promise but poor on delivery…for workers on the ground.