In an interview with TheJournal.ie, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said he has made a number of Budget demands to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe as part of their confidence and supply arrangement. These include setting up of a special fund for non-governmental environmental organisations such as Birdwatch Ireland and the Irish Wildlife Trust. In addition, Martin said he is calling for an additional €10 million for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
While there has been some speculation that the contentious carbon tax, which is due to increase this October, could rise by €10, Martin said an increase of €5 or €6 is more workable. He stated that it is his view that Donohoe is “in the same space on that one”.
At the Fine Gael think-in in Cork this week, Donohoe said the figure would be discussed with Fianna Fáil as part of the Budget negotiations. “For a change in the price of carbon, which is something that is very sensitive to families and to businesses all over the country we are better off having clarity regarding a set of gradual increases, than making a very big change and finding out that the argument cannot be won in relation to it,” said the finance minister.
“As opposed to giving the money back to people in a form of a cheque in the post, we are saying there needs to be a legislated ring-fenced fund that would be devoted and allocated only for climate change protection measures,” Martin said.
Martin said the public needs to see concrete results that the tax is being spent on initiatives to help protect our climate. “If that doesn’t happen, you could lose public support,” said the Fianna Fáil leader, adding that the government needs to be very careful about how it rolls out the increase and delivers change through the extra money collected.
A carbon tax is needed as the plans to tackle climate change cannot come solely from the regular tax take, he added. “Let’s be honest, we are not going to be able to pay for all that out of normal Exchequer funding. If the public see a direct link between the tax, which is about changing behaviour, and the revenue from it going to enhance initiatives that is real and concrete, people will respond to that.”
Martin also wants to see the government set out clear targets for when Ireland will be a fossil-free country. “I’d like it to be like the Danes did it. They have a State agency dedicated to this area. So since the 1970s, they’ve been planning how to no longer be reliant on exports or imported fuel, and then how to wean themselves off their own domestically produced fossil fuels. I think we must do something similar.”
Over the summer, Minister Richard Bruton, who is tasked with dealing with climate change, said that fossil fuels will always play a role in Ireland’s energy needs. He made those comments in relation to Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Bill on ending the awarding of new licences for fossil fuel exploration. When asked about the Keep it in the Ground Bill, Martin said the practicalities of the proposed legislation “could be very difficult” in terms of any geopolitical shock where Ireland would “need oil to switch on the lights”.
“I do think we do have to grasp the nettle on it though,” he added, stating:
The idea of the bill, the philosophy behind it is correct. We do have to phase out our reliance on fossil fuels and develop alternative energy sources.
The Fianna Fáil leader was witness to the first Green wave in Irish politics, when his party was in government with the Green Party in 2007. At the time, there was a rebirth in environmental concerns, but the last recession saw climate issues fall down the agenda again. Twelve years on and Martin is looking to the smaller party again, if the numbers fall in his favour following next year’s general election.
Against the backdrop of West Cork where Martin took TheJournal.ie on a nature walk along the Timoleague – Courtmacsherry estuary (rated the 15th-most important tidal habitat in Ireland for wintering birds) as part of our leaders’ interviews series, the Fianna Fáil leader outlined some of his party’s other green agenda ideas. He believes the government should establish a senior subcommittee on climate change.
He hit out against the Fine Gael, saying that since the publication of the government’s Climate Action Plan, he has become concerned about the lack of practical initiatives. In particular, he said he was taken aback that there was no chapter on biodiversity in the plan.
Trendy green wave
At last week’s Fine Gael think-in, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that his party should not be ashamed of appropriating some of the Green Party’s policies into their own playbook. “To a certain extent they see it through political and electoral politics – they see the trends and are therefore trying to get on the bus. This has to be a far more sustained effort, it has to go beyond electoral cycles,” said Martin, on whether Fine Gael were just trying to hijack the cause for political gain.
There have been lots of calls, even from some ministers, for Cabinet to give up their diesel fuel cars and move to electric vehicles (EVs). If after the next general election, he becomes Taoiseach, would he encourage his ministers to switch to electric? “I think I would be if I was Taoiseach, I think we have to set an example, he said. But to be fair, electric vehicles are still out of reach to a lot of people. The hybrid is perhaps more of an option.”
Grants to incentivise people to switch to electric must also be maintained, according to Martin, who added that he would be in favour of the rollout of a car scrappage scheme. “You can’t reduce the incentives now, you have to frontload the incentives, there is no question about that. I don’t think you will get there otherwise,” he said, adding that at the current rate of take-up, he doesn’t envisage the government reaching its target of having one million EVs on the roads by 2030. “I don’t think one million cars on the road is going to happen at the current rate,” he said.
In terms of leading by example, Martin said he was pleased to hear that the Leinster House lawn is to appear “more like a meadow” from now on. “I think government must set an example and if you pass by Leinster House you should see the wildflowers and the wild garden effect.”
Like similar calls made by well-known gardener Dermot Gavin, Martin said he believes the typical well-maintained garden will fall out of fashion soon. (His, he says, is “meadow-like by default”.) “I think the manicured lawn will become quite unattractive in time, I actually see that coming and people will be more relaxed with a more wild look.”
If he were Taoiseach, what other plans would he be rolling out?
Martin said that at a recent presentation by Gas Networks Ireland he attended, the organisation said biomethane could be developed much more in Ireland. “If we offer incentives to farmers to develop anaerobic digestion facilities it would reduce pollution and create another energy resource,” he added.
Income streams for farmers
Forestation is another issue Martin believes the government has failed dismally on. “I think we should incentivise farmers to grow native trees across their ditches and their farms. That was done in the 1900s. There is an orchard nearby here where crabapple trees were incentivised because they were good pollinators of other native crops. So I think we have to incentivise other income streams [for farmers]. We need to dramatically increase the number of trees in the country, but in an intelligent way. Let’s put a parcel of money aside that will enable alternative enterprises to be developed on farms that would be eco-friendly and encourage biodiversity,” he added.
In that respect, Martin added that he wants to change the mandate of semi-State bodies such as Coillte and Bord na Móna. “I would fundamentally change their mandate and say ‘your role is to drive forward the country’s approach to the challenge of climate change’.”
When asked about Varadkar’s comments about reducing his carbon footprint by cutting down on his meat intake, Martin said meat-eating is part of some Fianna Fáiler’s DNA, having come from farming backgrounds. Culturally, it has always been like that in Ireland, argued Martin, stating that having fish on a Friday when he was growing up was seen as a sacrifice. “It’s difficult to comprehend all that. But that’s the way it was in the 60s, 70s, 80s. And to a certain extent that’s changed. My own view on meat, I don’t hector, or lecture, anybody in terms of their behaviour.” While Martin appears to have some ideas to shake-up the climate action plan, in his view, this can only be achieved if he gets into power.
No grand coalition on the cards
The latest opinion poll shows that Fianna Fáil is just one point behind Fine Gael. He ruled out a grand coalition with Fine Gael this week, though he said he is not closed off to another confidence and supply (if the roles are reversed). Martin admits the next election ”will be challenging”. “We want to increase the number of seats we have, we did very well in the last election, we believe we will increase the number of seats, this time out and we have some very well placed candidates in different constituencies. We did well in the local elections. But you know, we’re not underestimating the challenge that lie ahead. We’re not taking anything for granted. And I think we at times we get impatient with all this talk about elections and post election. That should be about policy. Our immediate focus now is the budget. We’ve had limited discussions with Paschal Donohoe. It will be a tight budget. We have three main areas health, housing and and climate change. Health will be the challenging and also targets on affordable housing. We’re annoyed that some commitments have not been followed through on.”
Dubbing Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy “ineffective”, Martin accuses him of not even delivering on the “basic things”, while on Brexit he tries a more nuanced criticism.
The government “were too lazy in developing effective back channels to unionism and to the north”, he told TheJournal.ie. “I think over the eight years they’ve let the north slide and British-Irish government relations are poor and have been for long before Boris Johnson arrived,” he added.
While Martin said he wants to be the Taoiseach to deliver the Good Friday Agreement in full, he believes the talk of a united Ireland now, in the context of Brexit, is “dangerous”. “It just creates a tension. You see in loyalism and in unionism, all that talk just generates a hardening attitude that actually puts off the day of a united Ireland way down, because it gets their backs up and people are not talking in the right space. I think we need to calm it, and cool the jets and just let’s get over Brexit, and try and manage Brexit, because if we don’t manage Brexit properly, you can forget about all the talk about harmony, because it could create disharmony on the island.”
Martin has his sights set on becoming the next Taoiseach. But what if he is the only Fianna Fail leader not to lead government? “I’m not contemplating that. I think it will come to pass. It’s a challenge. That’s the target. And I’m confident we can do this. But it’s not just about me,” he said, pointing out that after “a very poor election outcome to say the least” many people questioned whether the party would survive at all. The fact that we’ve been on the journey of renewal excites me. I find it very rewarding that we have new people in politics. But I’m hungry, impatient with the lack of action on a number of fronts, so I want to be Taoiseach.”
Source – thejournal.ie