Saturday 18 January 2020

Alarm at lack of action  over midlands rescue fund

Burning issue: A Bord na Móna bog train ferrying peat destined for Lanesborough power station
Burning issue: A Bord na Móna bog train ferrying peat destined for Lanesborough power station
Lanesborough power station. Picture: Mark Condren

Caroline O'Doherty

The 'Just Transition' commissioner appointed to help workers in the Midlands cope with the closure of the peat industries still has no contract, no office, no secretariat, no agreed budget and no agreement on his pay.

Kieran Mulvey, who was asked to take on the role in early November, said more details would have been teased out if there had not been such urgency around his appointment.

But Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the appointment looked less like a government's response to a climate and jobs crisis than a reaction to a public-relations emergency.

Mr Mulvey's appointment was made public the same day the ESB announced the closure of two peat-burning power stations at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough.

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He will be carrying out the role of commissioner part-time because he also has responsibilities as a board member of An Post, University College Dublin and the Sports Council.

Mr Mulvey said he would be charging a fee of €297 a day, but a formal agreement had not been finalised. He also said a rough timeline for his engagement was two years.

In the days after his appointment, he began a series of meetings and has so far met Environment Minister Richard Bruton, officials from a number of Government departments, the National Economic and Social Council, the chief executive and senior management team of Bord na Móna and the CEO of ESB.

He said he had also been in contact with the group of unions representing workers, although industrial relations fell outside his remit.

That restriction has been heavily criticised by Siptu and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, but Mr Mulvey said he needed to avoid creating another layer over the existing industrial relations processes.

"There has to be engagement with the workers but it's not getting into pay issues because you'd never get out of it," he said.

Mr Mulvey has three main demands to date, beginning with his insistence that the Just Transition office, whenever it is set up, is based in the midlands, most likely in Tullamore.

"I see this posting as very much on the ground, reflecting the importance of meeting people in their own locality in their own circumstances," he said.

He also wants control of funds for the transition to be held locally. So far the Government has pledged €6m and the ESB is to provide €5m.

He said the fund should be held in escrow under the auspices of local authorities to be made available as seed money for enterprises aimed at assisting the workers.

Migration

Mr Mulvey said he was very keen it be managed locally "instead of having multi-level bureaucratic approval procedures".

He also wants State agencies such as the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to up their game to counteract what he described as the "constant and continuous migration" of jobs to the Dublin region.

Another idea he has floated is developing the tourism potential of the bogs, the Just Transition story and the planned peatland rehabilitation projects.

"There is extraordinary interest in climate change," he said, adding Bord na Móna had facilities that could be converted to visitor centres.

He said his meeting with the peat company went well but he indicated he was less impressed with the ESB: "I found Bord na Móna proactive. I think I am going to have to get more engagement from the ESB."

Mr Mulvey said he expected a lot of activity from all involved from January to March, although he was not yet working to a defined programme.

His remarks were met with concern by members of the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee who fear the Government's promise of new jobs in peatland restoration and retrofitting of homes in the midlands will not go to newly redundant peat workers, many of whom are in their 50s and unskilled in areas other than peat work.

Mr Mulvey also acknowledged difficulties with the retrofitting idea, pointing out that if it was carried out on a large scale, procurement rules meant it would have to go to tender and the contract could go elsewhere.

"We need to measure this well and plan it well," he said.

The midlands Just Transition project is expected to serve as a model for other parts of the country and other sectors of the economy where traditional employment is affected by climate change policy.

But Fianna Fáil's Jack Chambers said the commissioner was a "one-man band" trying to do everything.

Mr Mulvey believes the project would have been better thought out if there had been more time: "The ESB made a decision and that had a massive domino effect."

Irish Independent

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