It's not easy being green: 5 problems for the new government

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jul 08 2020 Posted: 15:06 IST

Authors: Pádraic Ó hUiginn and Dr Brendan Flynn, Ryan Institute

Opinion: here are some of the more serious fault-lines that will shape the new government's plan to follow a green agenda

To borrow RTÉ sports’ commentator George Hamilton’s immortal words from the same week 30 years ago, the nation held its breath last Friday. Members of the new coalition government’s three parties had voted on the draft Programme for Government. One by one, culminating with the Green Party’s announcement, large majorities emerged in favour. All past enemies of each other, how many members of each party held their noses when voting, hoping that it was for the good of the country and for good policies?

Leaders of each party have made the case that their fingerprints are on the new government’s policy roadmap. For the Green Party, the smallest of the three and the party almost wiped from the electoral landscape after the 2011 election, it’s seen as critical that the new government is a "green" government. Government at any time is at the mercy of events, but the new government faces a number of problems when it comes to being green. Based on findings from the Environmental Policy Integration: Innovation and Change (EPIIC) project, here are some of the more serious fault-lines that will shape the new government 

(1) What happened to the environment?

In any coalition government, particularly a three-party government, the lay-out and allocation of government departments and appointment of ministers is a tricky assignment. This is especially so when dealing with environment. Environmental policies cut across most departments, but there is usually one with the word "environment" in its title.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan’s new department, Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport, sounds like a really good effort at joining the dots on Ireland’s climate change agenda. After all, transport is one of our largest sources of greenhouse gases emissions, and good broadband can reduce commuting through home/remote working, as we’ve all learned during lockdown. Yet whatever happened to the word ‘environment’? It’s gone missing!

Environmental policy is much broader than climate action. Measures taken to reduce fossil fuels usage, like promoting the burning of renewable wood and biomass, can be welcome from a climate change viewpoint, but perversely in some situations they can increase airborne pollution. We need a climate and environmental policy. 

Obviously the new minister's green credentials are impeccable and the omission is likely unintentional. However, we’ve been here before. 2016 saw controversy when the Department of Communications and Climate Action had to have "environment" retro-fitted into its title after environmental groups complained. Will we see the same this time?

Moreover, Ryan’s new mega department does not re-unite climate with the planning functions that stayed with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in 2016. How can you tackle climate change if you can’t reform the planning system? Shouldn’t planning come home to a department that will inevitably have responsibility for the most strategic environmental issues?

(2) Ministerial inexperience

Will the new ministers have immediate impact? Shadowing government ministers in the Dáil (or Seanad) as opposition spokespersons is not the same as being inside the cockpit of a government department. It can take even the best and the brightest a few weeks, or months, to get to grips with the internal dynamics and mix of personalities at play within their new department. That’s before they engage with government colleagues and other departments’ agendas. Add in the pressure when doing it in front of relentless media (and social media) scrutiny.

Apart from Fine Gael’s ministers, only Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Eamon Ryan, and ironically, new Government Chief Whip Dara Calleary (who was omitted from a senior cabinet role), have previous experience of being either in cabinet or a junior minister role. This is a disadvantage when you need to tackle diverse environmental problems immediately.

On the other hand, the permanent government of the senior civil service has been in place for years. Some readers will remember fondly senior civil servant Sir Humphrey from British TV comedy (or was it a documentary?) Yes Minister. For the most part, Sir Humphrey and co have experience and know-how. This is part of the value of the permanent government, these career civil servants who support business continuity, and on whom rookie ministers can lean when one administration hands over office to another. It’s also central to the democratic functioning of our state.

(3) Existential crises and wicked problems

The "urgent" risks crowding out the "important" for this new government. Covid-19 is a perfect and extreme example of this because much of the work of every government department will be tied up in knots just dealing with the pandemic.

Existential crises such as the pandemic, climate, biodiversity, and the new recession require immediate action. That’s a major challenge for inexperienced ministers who’ve never before had to (i) propose tough choices to tricky problems, (ii) bring them through their own department’s internal processes, and (iii) consult meaningfully with ministerial colleagues from three different parties, agreement on a Programme for Government or not.

The devil is in the detail and the Programme for Government is written in "couched" language. By its nature, environmental policy cuts across a number of different departments. Sooner rather than later, expect an issue such as the export of greyhounds, the status of a road project or aviation to become a lightning rod for controversy, or worse, decision paralysis.

(4) Agriculture, land use and biodiversity

Along with transport, agriculture is one of our biggest sources of emissions and also gets blamed for some water pollution. How far and how fast to go with some of the more ambitious greening of farming? What will make this interesting, and quite possibly a political dog-fight, is that Ireland will have two agriculture ministers at government meetings and they’re both from Offaly

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen will "share" the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with Green Party Senator (and farmer) Pippa Hackett, a so-called ‘super’ junior minister responsible for land use and biodiversity. The ‘super’ entitles her to attend cabinet meetings. Whether Cowen and Hackett will see eye to eye on the inevitable areas of overlap is one major unknown. For example, who will set the rules on the stocking densities for cattle - is that a land use question (Hackett) or a general farming issue (Cowen)?

There is also the strategic economic question around Ireland’s farming emissions being proportionally larger than those of other EU members who have a larger heavy industry base, and its associated greenhouse gases emissions. Do we risk excess focus on agricultural emissions, that ultimately hampers our capacity for recovery and leads to carbon leakage etc, through food imports from countries with less sustainable production?

Interestingly, Offaly could turn out to be the crucible for environmental measures in this government. Ministers Cowen and Hackett’s Laois-Offaly constituency is also on the frontline of climate action, with the accelerated closures of Bord na Móna peat-processing plants and associated job losses. Strangely, neither minister will get to steer that policy as that’s the remit of Ryan’s department. Is this key government department for environmental policy set up now for internal conflict and paralysis?

(5) The west’s awake or a wake for the west?

One of the loudest criticisms of the new government has been the absence of any decision-maker from the north-west and west at cabinet. That said, Fine Gael's Hildegarde Naughton will be a "super" junior minister for international transport and roads with a seat, but not a vote, at cabinet.

This could well become a hot potato very fast for Dublin-based minister Catherine Martin, whose wide-ranging department includes heritage, which covers special areas of conservation and bird protection laws. The counties with the largest number of protected sites are along the western seaboard. Understandably, Martin will want to make sure Irish protections are ambitious, and working to the highest standard. There is then a danger of a "rest versus the west" narrative taking hold. How will this government juggle commitments to balanced regional and rural development with its environmental and climate ones?

Roads could well turn out to be a key flash-point. Galway city-based Naughton may want to push ahead with Galway’s delayed and controversial ring road, and she may also want to progress the Limerick-Cork motorway too. The Taoiseach and the two Cork ministers Simon Coveney (Fine Gael) and Michael McGrath (Fianna Fáil) may also want this. How will the Green Party ministers in cabinet deal with this?

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