The gap between what Ireland is practising and preaching when it comes to our climate policy has become glaring obviously over the last year. As the warnings become more dire, and the effects of extreme weather events become more apparent, there is a growing level of disillusionment and resentment from quarters of the Irish populace over the grand empty gestures being made by Fine Gael.
Some might recall the week of the 20th August 2018, the alleged ‘Green Week’ led by Fine Gael. Our social media feeds were flooded with pictures of Richard Bruton and Leo Varadkar firmly gripping reusable cup in their hands. This week, they also produced the ‘Green Tips’ part of their website. This features the schemes run by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), in a veiled attempt to convey the positives of Fine Gael’s environmental policy. However, the SEAI was in fact set up in 2002, while Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats were in power. Seeking to steal credit or just lack of research on their part? Furthermore, the rest of the site boasts particularly flaccid advice on individual actions to reduce the impact on the environment.
This approach at least corresponds to Fine Gael’s current trend on excusing environmental damage produced as a result of industry and agriculture, and instead focusing on the individual consumer’s contribution to the climate disaster. This, of course, was poorly received, particularly on Twitter. A prime example of Fine Gael’s ability to discount industry as a major contributor to environmental damage can be seen in Junior Minister Sean Canney’s firm commitment to offshore oil and gas exploration on the Irish coast. Furthermore, the company Providence has officially been granted approval by the Government to begin drilling of the Cork coast in the second half of 2019. But of course, having a KeepCup completely reduces your environmental impact in Fine Gael’s eyes.
Then came the release of a Climate Action Network Europe’s report on low ranking EU states in terms of Climate Action. This placed Ireland as second worst in Europe for progress on implementation of 2020 targets, progress on domestic targets, support in revisiting legislation, and promotions of more ambitious EU targets. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was quick to respond, attempting to discredit the assessment by saying, ‘We need to make a distinction between report cards, claims and assertions made by campaign organisations as opposed to those made by official bodies such as the CSO, the UN or the EPA’. Fine Gael attempted to assert that the claims of the NGO must have been highly inflated in order to rank Ireland under their leadership so low, effectively a ‘We’re not THAT bad’. However, less than a week later, the politician could be seen on Twitter, celebrating Amnesty International’s positive ranking of Ireland for Human rights following the referendum on the eighth amendment. Furthermore, by the end of December 2018, Varadkar made a statement admitting Ireland’s shortcomings on climate action, saying ‘we’re falling way behind’. This episode highlights the intense inconsistency in Fine Gael’s climate message, as well as their opinion of NGO’s.
If we read the multitude of statements claiming that Fine Gael is firmly committed to Climate Action, we may expect this to be reflected in their policy decisions. For example Minister Richard Bruton’s addition to their website in November 2018, can be quoted ‘Every person, every community, every business, every home and every school will have to make changes in the way we live and work and learn. Nothing less will do if we are to make the changes that are needed to create a sustainable future for everyone.’ However, Fine Gael’s response to bills designed to reduce climate and environmental damage has been less than positive.
Fine Gael’s response to the Climate Emergency Bill, first proposed by BríId Smith TD has shown more resistance to change than this quote would suggest. The bill has still not been allowed to pass to committee stage, with Minister of State Sean Canney; chairwoman Fine Gael Hildegarde Naughton TD, along with three Senators, voting to stop the Bill. Furthermore, the Waste Reduction Bill, proposed by Catherine Martin TD has also been delayed by Fine Gael, who abstained from voting to move the bill to committee stage. Taoiseach Varadkar commented ‘That legislation is being developed at a European level, and we very much support it and want to be part of it. The legislation is already passing through these Houses to prohibit microbeads,’ thus pushing the responsibility of action to a European level, and causing further delays in action. This is an amusing statement for those that remember the Micro-Plastic and Micro-Bead Bill proposed in the Senate by Grace O’Sullivan in 2016. Then, 15 Fine Gael Senators voted for an amendment that ultimately rendered the Bill ineffective and resulted in the proposing Green Party voting down their own Bill. Furthermore, if we observe Fine Gael’s response to Sinn Fein’s Microgeneration bill, we can see a familiar pattern where Fine Gael had shown no support for the bill, which could potentially lead to the reduction of fossil fuel usage in Ireland.
So here we have a Government, repeatedly pledging radical change for climate action, and asserting that their efforts could hardly warrant a poor international rating. Meanwhile, they can be seen repeatedly delaying progress on bills involving actual action, actively promoting offshore oil exploration on the coast of Ireland, leaving new regulation to be entirely decided by the EU, and generally refusing to address the concerns of climate activists. As Minister Richard Bruton refused to approach the activists who had occupied his office, we can see a more realistic representation of Fine Gael’s feelings on Climate Action. They enjoy talking about the prospect of doing things, however, when it comes to actual action they’d rather not have anything to do with it. It appears they haven’t fully made up their mind on what they actually want, other than to avoid scathing reports from the Irish media.
Sadly the shortsightedness of this approach is only becoming more evident. Over the last year, we’ve seen storms, snow and drought in Ireland as the effects of climate change become more apparent. Surely now more than ever, with the effects of climate change impacting our lives more than ever before, it is important that our Government moves beyond simple rhetoric and actually begins to tackle the biggest challenge of our generation.
By Lisa Murnane – Politics Writer