Tuesday 23 July 2019

Midlanders turn to the 'posh boys' as their peat hopes go up in smoke

Nostalgia: John Hinde postcard of collecting turf on a bog in Connemara
Nostalgia: John Hinde postcard of collecting turf on a bog in Connemara

Anne-Marie Walsh

Midlanders suffered a devastating blow this week with the announcement of 430 job losses.

Now it's up to the so-called "posh boys" in Leinster House to make sure it's not a death knell.

What was unthinkable not so long ago is happening. Bord na Móna is not only phasing out the peat-for-energy business it was set up to do - it's fast-tracking it.

The tradition of extracting peat for fuel is going up in smoke and by 2030 it will have been turfed out altogether.

We've grown up with nostalgic John Hinde postcards of the bogs and there's nothing like the welcoming smell of a turf fire, but the writing's on the wall because of its detrimental impact on our climate.

It's not just those who mill the peat who will be hit as the voluntary redundancies are being sought in management and admin roles as well.

There may be some consolation in the fact that there is a high average age profile at Bord na Móna.

Many of the machine operators, mechanics and managers are in their late 50s - but that doesn't mean they'll all jump at whatever package their unions manage to broker.

Many have children in college and mortgages, and didn't plan to retire for another six or seven years. If they want to stay, what will they do?

These job losses are bad enough, but the outlook could be even bleaker if the company doesn't get a decent business plan in place right away.

Otherwise, the decommissioned bogs could soon become a barren wasteland.

There was a striking statement buried within the barrage of press releases sent out on the day of the sad announcement on Wednesday.

"Standing still is not an option for Bord na Móna," warned chief executive Tom Donnellan. He describes this as a "transition phase".

The company's ambition is to become a leading renewable energy provider by 2026.

He promised 500 jobs in other avenues but some of them may not be created for up to 10 years when many of those who are leaving now will be in their late 60s.

No one seems able to sum up the commercial semi-State's mission in one sentence.

At the moment it seems to be dabbling in a bit of this and a bit of that, and we'll see how it goes. There are plans - some already up and running - for wind farms, domestic waste collection, recycling tyres into playground surfaces, letting bogs to business park tenants, and even fisheries.

There's a vague promise to upskill the exiting workers - but little detail on that.

A proposal to cultivate herbs on the bog for the pharma and cosmetics industry seems more suitable for a science grad than a 57-year-old fitter.

Many new ideas could work. It's made a success of the Lough Boora Discovery Park, less than two hours from Dublin.

With Dubliner Leo Varadkar at the helm in Government, there are many among the communities of Westmeath and Offaly who doubt his entourage's commitment to help them rise from the ashes.

They've already seen how hard-nosed business decisions are sealing their fate rather than the lofty promises of development plans such as Project Ireland 2040.

But some local TDs such as Barry Cowen are taking a keen interest. Fine Gael's Peter Burke yesterday said the Government plans to apply to the EU Globalisation Fund to help the workers and called for an exit package on a par with recent RTÉ and An Post ones.

Chief executive of lobby group Irish Rural Link, Seamus Boland, compares the jobs announcement with the impact of Ford pulling out of Cork in the 1980s.

The lobby group has been calling for a forum involving job creation agencies such as the IDA since former chief executive Michael Quinn announced the plan to get out of peat.

"It's the old adage," he said. "If you don't plan, you plan to fail. Taking 430 mainly male jobs of reasonable value out of the Midlands has a massive impact," he said. "And you can add nearly two or three times that in terms of indirect jobs."

He said Kilcormac in Offaly was effectively built by Bord na Móna, including housing.

"But I don't think Bord na Móna is obliged to solve their problem. They're solving their own problem. I welcome the statement from Richard Bruton and Heather Humphreys, but I'd prefer to hear the department talk of new jobs.

"Then I'd know there was a political commitment as well as a financial one.

"I was looking at the Paddy Power website earlier today. It looks like Peter Casey might come second. If he does, there will be a massive conversation about the posh boys.

"The real question that people in rural Ireland have been asking for some time is what happens to people when they get into Leinster House. They seem to forget there is a rural Ireland. If there's a strong vote for Casey, it might be a protest - like voting for Trump."

Irish Independent

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