Gov’t dangerously late to just transition party, warns ICTU

Published by Niall Sargent on

November 20th, 2019

The Government is dangerously late to the party on just transition and is struggling to keep pace with events in the Midlands, the head of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) said today.

Speaking at a Committee on Climate Action hearing on just transition this afternoon, ICTU General Secretary Patricia King said that the issue is “crucial to the future of so many communities across this country”.

The use of coal and peat for electricity generation is lined up to stop in 2025 and 2028 respectively, bringing with it a major shift in the way of life for communities heavily reliant on the ESB and Bord na Mona for employment.

Those living in the Midlands are particularly concerned in light of the ESB’s recent decision to shut its two peat plants in Offaly and Longford when current planning permissions expire at the end of next year.

Over 80 ESB workers will be affected by the move, as well as the workforce at Bord na Móna that supply two million tonnes of peat to the ESB annually.

While welcoming of the national conversation that is now taking place on just transition, Ms King said that it is “a source of deep concern” that the debate is only now beginning to take shape in response to a crisis situation.

Trade unions and environmental groups the world over, Ireland included, have been discussing the carbon transition for years. Concrete plans for reskilling in renewable energy, retrofitting and eco-tourism, for example, are already well developed.

At the very least, Ms King said that the Government should have taken the lead upon signing the Paris Agreement in 2016 that obliges us to implement a just transition plan.

“Instead, it appears that official policy constantly struggles to keep pace with events and jobs are threatened or lost before any support is put in place. Inevitably this leads to fear, uncertainty, and distrust among the workers and their communities,” she warned.

Bord na Mona not playing ball

Bord na Mona is not blameless, however, she said, citing the consistent refusal of Bord na Mona management to engage with workers through the Workplace Relations Commission.

Bord na Mona has “shown no signs of any interest in rejobbing anybody” and engaging in a proper discussion on the matter to date, she said.

“There’s a big battle going on for the future [of the Midlands] and no one seems to have any wherewithal” about what’s going on with the just transition, Ms King added.

There are clear steps that will help to protect workers and prepare them for the green economy, such as training and reskilling of workers. Worryingly, Ms King said, these programmes are “not yet in place”.

She also outlined concern over the finer details, or lack thereof, in recent moves from the Government, such as the setting aside of €31 million in Budget 2020 for retraining, retrofitting and bog restoration work.

For example, she said, there is still no clarity over plans to repurpose the PSO levy, paid by all electricity users, to support job creation through a bog rehabilitation program.

ESB's West Offaly plant in Shannonbridge, County Offaly Photo: Sarah777
ESB’s West Offaly plant in Shannonbridge, County Offaly Photo: Sarah777

Just Transition Commissioner

Ms King also said that it is unfortunate that the newly appointed Just Transition Commissioner Kieran Mulvey will not have a direct role in matters concerning workers.

“Workers and communities across the energy generation sector are being asked to sacrifice their livelihoods for the greater good of future generations,” Ms King said.

“That creates a moral and social imperative for policymakers to ensure they do not become the collateral damage of decisions taken at a distant remove.”

The Commissioner will review best practices and existing State plans but will have no direct role in industrial relations matters in Bord na Mona.

Willie Noone of the Bord na Móna group of unions told the Committee that the Commissioner’s role means that there is no reason to talk to him “unless it is about the football” .

Mr Mulvey brings a wealth of labour relations experience to the position as the former head of the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Relations Commission.

Representatives from Bord Na Móna, the Department of Climate Action, and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government are set to appear before the Committee later this afternoon.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London