To put it mildly, the coalition of Ireland's leading environmental organisations is not happy with the way the new government is treating nature and our environment. Their banner headline expresses: "Disbelief as Green ministers hand nature protection to Housing Department".
In the past, probably as an accident of history, responsibility for environmental issues was fragmented across several government departments. That fragmentation has long hindered the successful restoration and protection of our natural environment as different departments had different priorities and were often driven by conflicting agendas.
As a result, the environment suffered. Before the last election, environmental campaigners called for responsibility for everything to do with the environment - nature, water, waste and climate change - to be brought together in a rejigged, revamped and strengthened Department of the Environment.
The thinking was that if a senior minister had responsibility for all environmental matters that meaningful progress might be achieved. However, when the new cabinet was announced it came as a surprise that, rather than being strengthened, the name 'Department of the Environment' was done away with.
So, fragmentation continues, and nature conservation has moved to the Department of Housing. Housing was a huge issue at election time so a massive challenge faces Darragh O'Brien, the new Fianna Fáil minister. As he struggles for support at the cabinet table with tackling the national housing crisis and the scandal of homelessness, the focus on biodiversity issues is, obviously, likely to be a somewhat lesser priority.
On 1 July 2020, Malcolm Noonan, Green Party, was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Housing with responsibility for Heritage and Electoral Reform. He didn't have much time to celebrate his appointment as the following day the European Commission referred Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union over its failure to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).
There are 423 SACs in Ireland. 154 of them have not yet been designated although the deadline for doing so expired in December 2014. Site-specific conservation objectives have not been established for 87 sites, and the conservation measures necessary to give effect to these site-specific conservation objectives have not been established at any of the 423 sites.
Hopefully, the pending court action will focus minds in the corridors of power on our poor record to date in protecting our natural heritage, will strengthen Malcolm Noonan's hand in addressing past failures, and that increased resources will be put into the government's beleaguered National Parks and Wildlife Service.