WORKERS in the midlands were left “in shock” by the sudden end to the peat industry, the Just Transition Commissioner has said.
Kieran Mulvey was appointed commissioner late last year to see how communities in midland counties could be helped to find new employment after the loss of their livelihoods as the country turns away from fossil fuels.
In his first progress report to the Government, Mr Mulvey said: “In my engagement with workers in both the Bord Na Móna sites and the ESB plants, the abiding impression is of a combined workforce, though well aware of the environmental and climate-related need to bring to an end the use of fossil fuels and peat for energy purposes, in shock from the immediacy of the closure decision and the real and current impact upon their livelihoods.
“This is compounded by a perception that no account was taken of the long-term impact on the workers, their families and their communities and the reasonable and legitimate expectation they had that the use of peat as a fuel in these plants would be phased out by 2030."
He said what was expected to be a ten-year move away from peat had been reduced to 12 months or less.
“Management and unions primarily in Bord Na Móna have now less than twelve months to adjust rapidly to this new economic and social reality and to scale, map and insofar as possible present a clear pathway for continued employment, re-skilling, redeployment, retirement and/or voluntary redundancy.
“These are formidable challenges for management and unions given the short period involved and the limited potential for alternative locally based enterprises based on the peatlands or in the region.”
Hundreds of workers have lost their jobs as Bord na Mona accelerates its movement away from peat extraction and two ESB peat-burning power plans at Lanesboro and Shannonbridge close.
Mr Mulvey said it would be unfair to expect Offaly and Longford county councils to bear the burden of the sudden loss of substantial business rates from the companies and central Government should make up the shortfall.
He also said doubts hung over €240m worth of horticultural business that was dependent on peat harvesting this summer as a court challenge led to unresolved issues over the permission process for extraction.
Mr Mulvey made a number of recommendations, including the creation of a Centre for Climate Change and Just Transition in one of the Bord na Mona facilities.
“A centre to record and document this change would be an important addition to the story of the just transition in the midlands and the movement towards the non-use of fossil fuels in Ireland. Now is the time to record this transition and the contemporary memory around the peatlands rehabilitation,” he said.
He said the midlands should be developed as a hub for renewable energy and also position itself as an alternative to Dublin for the location of industry.
Plans to employ workers in extensive peatland restoration projects should also be progressed he said.
A €30 million fund was created last year to kickstart recovery in the region. Mr Mulvey said: “I am of the view that whatever recommendations are made in this report, they cannot succeed unless they have Government support and the buy-in from central government departments, local government and the key personnel among the stakeholders. I hope they receive that support.”
Climate Action Minister Richard Bruton welcomed the report.
“I am acutely aware of the impact an early exit from peat is having on workers and their families and on the Midlands more broadly,” he said.
“Like many other businesses, Bord na Móna has also been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic which is compounding this impact.
“Securing sustainable employment opportunities for the region and a just transition for those most severely affected must be at the heart of our response.”