22nd September

Time for Ireland Inc to take responsibility for its own shortcomings

Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party
It is so easy to blame Europe. When something unpopular has to be done, it’s so easy to say: ‘It’s not us, I wouldn't do it myself, but Brussels is forcing me to do it.’

In that tradition, it would be very easy to disregard the analysis that Liam Cashman presented in the article carried in Inshore Ireland (August/September) in which he outlined his views on our historic failure to introduce and enforce proper environmental legislation. 

Eamon Ryan, Green Party leader

Eamon Ryan, Green Party leader

We could respond by pitching the Commission as the bad guys who don’t understand the real world, are picking on us and letting everyone else off.   But if we’re to be honest, we would take his analysis at face value and perhaps, just for once, admit that the problem lies with us and not with Brussels.

I know my colleague John Gormley spent a lot of his time in office fire-fighting to repair the damage done by years of long fingering of European environmental legislation. 

Thirty-five cases and counting
Whatever else happened, he didn’t want to see an Irish Government fined for an environmental breach under his watch. He had some thirty-five live cases where that prospect was very real: where we had gone to the European Court of Justice and lost; where we waited to the very last minute before applying sticking plaster legal solutions that only stored up further problems and further infringements.   

Our biggest difficulties came from any European legislation that might require us to carry out any form of designation about land.  It is as if John B Keane’s play The Field has been carved into our national psychology. 

No one is going to tell a single landowner that their land is of special interest, that they can’t cut it or drain it or plant it in whatever way they want. In fear of that powerful force in Irish life, we’ve always retreated to generic solutions that in the end suited no-one well. 

Ineffective solutions
Rather than tackling the nitrates issue in the worst problem areas, we designated the whole country and came up with solutions that make less sense for everyone.  Rather than targeting environmental support payments where they were most needed, we developed REPS on the basis that there should be something for everyone in the audience.   

And please don’t take this as a rural versus urban argument.  Who in their right mind would think that the pollution of our water supplies that has come from the housing sprawl we’ve allowed across our countryside is anything but an issue for the people of rural Ireland?

Years of avoiding any potential conflict means that when it comes to the point that a problem can no longer be ignored, we all go into extreme battle mode – as is currently happening regarding turf cutting on our raised bogs.

Conflict mentality
A battle mode exists in equal measure in the environmental community due to
the second strategic mistake we made by not opening up our planning and development system to proper engagement with civil society.

Finally we’re ready to sign the Arhaus Convention which should allow greater transparency and openness in the legal systems we use to protect our environment.

Nonetheless, I think we need to go further.  We should start using the sort of participative democratic tools that the recent ‘We the citizens’ initiative set up across the country.  This could help local communities assess the impacts and possible benefits of developments affecting their area before the official planning process begins, thus avoiding the expensive court cases that are only in the lawyers’ interest.

Short-term viewpoint
The third great failing has been our tendency to put short-term profits ahead of the longer term environmental and economic gain.   As a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on marine issues for five years, I could never understand how our aquaculture licensing system could continue approving projects that appeared to be in flagrant breach of their licence conditions in relation to sea lice infestation. 

Even when we pointed out that the economic return from local angling tourism was often of greater value in jobs and wealth creation, it seemed that the certainty of the cash sale won out every time.  It was this type of short-term thinking that got us into the economic crisis that has engulfed the country.   

It is now time for us to reconsider our economic model – not just in our banks and construction industry but right across every area of wealth creation in our society.

Liam Cashman details all the forms in which we have turned a blind eye; dragged our heels on legal positions and swept our failings under whatever nearby carpet was handy.

It would be so easy to shoot and blame the messenger, especially when it is one of our own sons ‘gone native’ in the Brussels bureaucracy, where we might expect him to bend the rules a little bit for the auld sod. 

But that would be a mistake.  His analysis forces us to consider some wider truths that we need to confront: That short-term profit over proper long-term planning does not pay; that prevention is always better than a cure and that you are always better engaging with people rather than hoping that their problem will go away of its own accord.

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