Nov 13th – Irish Times
Why is it so hard to mobilise people to lobby the Government on environmental issues of national importance, asks Iva Pocock.
When former minister for finance, Charlie McCreevy, announced shortly before he headed off to Brussels this autumn that the Government's plan to introduce a carbon tax was being axed, he was widely condemned. Opposition parties decried his decision - failing to tackle escalating greenhouse gas emissions would ultimately cost Irish taxpayers hundreds of millions of euro by way of a massive penalty for not meeting Kyoto targets, they said. Academics expressed disappointment - ESRI economist John Fitzgerald said abandoning the tax left Ireland with "no other instrument" for meeting these targets - and environmentalists threw up their hands in despair saying the about-turn effectively consigned our National Climate Change Strategy to the dustbin.
But nobody took to the streets.
Not a single protester marched up Merrion Street to the Department of Finance and nobody stood outside the Custom House, then home to Martin Cullen, then minister for the environment, co-responsible for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
So why couldn't Ireland's environmental organisations muster a protest against such a major U-turn in public policy? What's going on with the environmental movement?
It's debatable whether there is a such a movement at all, says Sadhbh O'Neill, a former Green Party councillor and co-ordinator for An Taisce.
"There's a definite sector in terms of there being some 20 or 30 groups, some local, some national. They speak out for the environment, but is it a movement?" The lack of protest over McCreevy's axing of the carbon tax wouldn't have happened if "there was a strong environmental sector", she says. "They'd have hounded him. The general inertia over Kyoto and the fact that the public are happy to be ripped off is a symptom of the malaise in the sector."
Former editor of Earthwatch magazine Lothar
Luken, who has been involved in environmental campaigning for over
30 years - first in anti-nuclear work in his native Germany, then
in Bantry, Co Cork, where he has lived for 25 years - believes there
is no such movement in Ireland.
Other environmentalists, such as An Taisce
president Éanna Ní Lamhna, say there is a movement but
that it "does not have the same clout about it" as, say,
the environmental movement in Germany.
"There's always a lag in terms of environmental effects becoming visible and then there's a lag again until you have the sort of public appreciation of those effects. Those are the two stages you need before you get the public behind the environmental agenda." O'Neill reckons our environmental malaise is due to the fact that we didn't go through the kind of heavy industrial development found in other northern European countries.
THE STRONG COMMUNITY-based response to issues such as building roads through archaeologically-unique landscapes and much larger than predicted traffic levels, and to incinerators and super-dumps is "a strength of the environmental movement here compared to other countries," says David Healy, Green Party councillor for Fingal and a member of Friends of the Irish Environment, the group that tracks implementation of EU environmental directives here.
The difficulty is in getting such campaigners to protect the national interest, says O'Neill. "People will all be up in arms and an action group will get set up in 30 minutes, expecting environmental organisations to get involved but the solidarity will be one-way." In other words, local campaigners often don't seem to channel their concerns - although they may not be mere not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) concerns - into support for organisations that lobby on national policy.
"The difficulty is in gaining membership in order to gather a critical mass," she says.
One organisation that hopes to build a
mutually constructive relationship between the many local environmental
action groups and itself, is the newly relaunched Friends of the Earth
The absence in the Republic over the last few years of one of the so-called "big three" international organisations - Friends of the Earth (FoE, whose former Irish association, Earthwatch, had little clout prior to its closure through bankruptcy last year), Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund - "is a large part of why we are having so many environmental problems," says Finnegan. "If Friends of the Earth can come along and get the respect the issues require, that'll be good."
Although Mary Kelly, director-general of the Environmental Protection Agency, does not agree with FoE's declaration of Ireland as the "dirty man of Europe", she welcomes its establishment. "Friends of the Earth have a good reputation internationally and . . . are known for producing good policy papers so I think it'll be a good resource for Ireland."
One obstacle the new organisation faces is its close ties to the Green Party - two directors, Mark Deary and Malcolm Noonan, are Green Party councillors.
"I think it has been one of the weaknesses of the environmental movement in Ireland that it has tended to identify itself too closely with just one party," said Eamon Gilmore TD, Labour's environment spokesman, at the FoE launch. "If any movement is to be successful it has to be able to appeal to a wider spectrum of political opinion than one political party."
CIARAN CUFFE TD, the Green Party's environment spokesman, agrees.
"I think it's really important for an NGO to be as ecumenical as possible. In every political party there are people who are committed to the environment, and I hope that that broad political spread is represented in the board this_is_a_left_sq_bracketof FoE] in the future."
Given the uphill struggle other environmental organisations have experienced, FoE has its work cut out. However, there are signs that the environmental message is beginning to be heard.
"I think the policy makers are becoming more aware that they are facing real problems and that we are not talking nonsense," says Healy. This may be partly because the NGOs are now working more closely together than ever before - in 2001, Irish NGOs formed a joint secretariat in order to administer core funding from the Department of the Environment, albeit nine years after such a move in Germany.
In 2004, the 20 or so member groups received 245,000 to cover their core costs from the department because it "acknowledges the positive and pro-active approach NGOs make to policy-making and to public debate," says a spokesman. Some 20,000 of this is to support submissions on "consultation calls" on policy development by the department and the EPA. Last year, environmental NGOs responded to 45 consultation calls, from the Department of the Environment, the EPA and other departments and authorities.
"We're doing amazing things with
very little resources. All the submissions NGOs made to policy last
year are substantial," says Healy. "Compared to consultancy
rates this is very, very good value."
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment