Peat fire in Irish politics

In Ireland, the sale of turf may be restricted because of environmental and health concerns. But the matter divides politicians who want to defend rural communities even inside the ruling coalition.

Turf burning in an open fire in Ireland
Turf burning in Ireland | © Andrew Ridley

During a vote at 10 pm on April 27 in Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house, a motion to stop the ban of selling turf was shortly defeated by 72 votes to 64. The motion was voted twice as the result had less than a ten-vote difference.

The vote followed several days of intense discussions inside the coalition majority as the commercial sale of turf is supposed to be banned from September 2022, as mentioned by Environment Minister Eamon Ryan earlier in April, answering to a question in parliament.

Last September, the minister announced that new standards for domestic solid fuels would be introduced across Ireland within a year.

But while the matter resurfaced, it deeply divided the coalition government made up of the Fianna Fáil, the Fine Gael and the Green parties, and raised broad opposition from Ireland representatives of rural communities.

Meanwhile, Minister Ryan has been trying to appease critics. Prime Minister Micheál Martin also helped reduce tensions on the issue. A series of meetings took place in the days before the vote of the motion as it was said the ban of selling turf could collapse the government. Yet, the proposal has not been issued and is still in draft stage.

Moreover, peat is only 3% of the energy consumed in Ireland, far behind 45% of Ireland’s primary energy needs fulfilled with oil products and 34% with natural gas, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Its use is also on a declining trend.

Peat is not only used to produce whiskey or for industrial use. Sod peat, rectangular-shaped and air-dried peat sometimes compressed in briquettes and more commonly known as turf, is typically burned in open fires at home.

Peat blocks drying in Ireland
Peat blocks in Ireland

Turf is rooted in Ireland’s traditions and was for years the smelly and main household heating. In rural areas, especially in the west and in the Midland region, many individuals own a parcel of bog, sometimes shared with their neighbors, to extract peat, let blocks dry for a year and use them as their main and sometimes only heating during winter. While extracting peat is an industry, some individuals sell them to make extra money.

Opponents to the plan in the coalition, along with the Rural Independent Group and Sinn Féin consider a ban on turf sale would be detrimental to rural communities. Parliament member Michael Healy-Rae from the Independents said that the government “lost rural Ireland” because of its environmental policies.

On Sunday, Mr. Ryan proposed that communities of less than 500 people would be exempt from the regulations.

We had no problem with banning its sale in retail outlets and petrol stations but you could not go in and bring the guillotine down on people who rely on turf, even selling it in their own communities,” said Barry Cowen from the Fianna Fáil party and vocal opponent to the proposal on Tuesday.

Minister Ryan said the proposals would not include a ban on the burning of turf and that those with extraction rights (turbary rights) would still be permitted to cut turf for their own home heating. He also said that draft regulations are designed to focus on the commercial sale of turf, not on banning sharing turf with family members or neighbors.

There will be no proposals which affect traditional turf practices or the sharing of turf in rural Ireland. The rights people currently have will be protected in rural areas,” reassured the prime minister in a meeting with coalition parties on Wednesday, the day of the parliament vote, according to the Irish Times.

There is no ban on the use of turf in rural Ireland and there will be no ban for the remainder of the year,” he also said at the parliament the same day, seemingly making the timeline less certain.

The motion was raised by Sinn Féin, an Irish republican party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland, arguing the upcoming ban didn’t provide any alternative to peat. Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald said that “older people and people on lower incomes with no alternative will struggle and struggle badly“.

You want to ban people in rural communities, my neighbors, from being able to purchase a load of turf come September and they don’t have any other source of heating,” Pearse Doherty from the Sinn Féin argued in the Dáil to Minister Ryan, also Green Party leader, on Thursday after the vote.

But Mr Ryan replied that the government will not walk away from a plan to restrict turf sales in Ireland.

Turf, along with smoky coal, is a fossil fuel. It emits greenhouse gas and is known to be an air pollutant and aggravating factor for the high rates of childhood asthma in Ireland. For the environment minister, 1,300 people die each year in Ireland due to air pollution from solid fuel burning – smoky coal, turf, wet wood – according to the European Environment Agency’s 2020 report on Air Quality in Europe, and needs to come to an end.

The government argues that banning smoky coal from being used in households, which is more consensual among lawmakers, would only be possible by restricting other smoky fuels like wet wood and peat. Prime Minister Martin said on Tuesday that “ultimately smoky coal is the villain, the real enemy,” pointing out that “turf is dying out as a basic fuel”. Coal companies could challenge the legislation if it only targeted smoky coal and not peat products.

In the context of an energy price increase, the motion issued by Sinn Féin also wanted to cancel the carbon tax increase scheduled on May 1 and to temporarily remove excise duty on home heating oil, a move that Martin said was “full of duplicity”. A motion from rural Independents to remove the carbon tax was also rejected.

The Carbon Tax, which applies to peat as well as coal, oil and natural gas, is set to increase from 33.50 euros ($35) to 41.00 euros ($43) per tonne of carbon.

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