'Offaly thrown under green bus' - councillors clash on county's jobs future
The end of peat production and the future of Offaly's employment market once again caused sparks to fly at the December meeting of Offaly County Council on Monday, December 16.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail councillors particularly expressed differing opinions on the response of Bord na Mona and the Government to rapid decarbonisation and a loss of jobs in the country. Offaly is the worst-affected county by the move away from peat production with thousands of jobs set to be lost.
Addressing the council on an update from the Regional Transition Team, Offaly County Council Chief Executive, Anna Marie Delaney, said the recently appointed Just Transition Commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, will be meeting the group in the coming months. It is becoming increasingly likely that Mr Mulvey's office will be based in Offaly as he oversees the rollout of Government measures aimed at tackling the unemployment issue left behind by Bord na Mona's decarbonisation plan.
The Chief Executive said the parametres of the budgetary measures announced by the Government, including a €20m home retrofitting plan aimed at redeploying Bord na Mona workers were being cleared up.
Cllr John Leahy asked for clarity on the funding, including the €6m economic investment, asking if it would be possible to redirect departing Bord na Mona workers in river dredging projects in the county. He also made reference to a report, possibly internal in Bord na Mona, that makes reference to the potential impact of decarbonisation on individual towns and areas in the region. Cllr Leahy asked: "Can we try and get our hands on that report?"
Cllr Owens suggested the council should be focusing more attention to the €100bn coal regions transition fund announced in Europe recently. "We should be working hard in that regard and I would ask the council to draw up a map of where we are and where we're going."
Cllr Neil Feighery thanked the Regional Transition Team for their work to date and said the €20m home retrofit project "will make an impact." He went on to say "huge work is being done and while this transition is challenging, it's not insurmountable."
Cllr Ken Smollen suggested Offaly was getting "thrown under the green bus" and suggested the council and public representatives should be demanding an extension to peat licences in power plants facing closure in the county.
"Offaly is the second poorest county in Ireland and the single most reliant on peat and fossil fuels. An extension needs to be sought. Plants are being built all over the world and yet we in Ireland are yet again taking one for the team with two plants closing. We seem to be just accepting it. Our three TDs are doing nothing to demand these plants are kept open for an extended period," Cllr Smollen added.
Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick said: "I have seen the impact first hand when the plant in Portarlington closed. The jobs were gone, simple as that. Things were done in terms of the development centre but the jobs at that level were never fully replaced and that's my fear here."
Cllr Sean O'Brien said: "Jobs is the big one. We need to do the best we can for the workers seeking new jobs but also for the future generation who won't be getting jobs in this industry. We need to replace jobs with new industry and upskill workers to fill jobs in those industries."
Cllr Noel Cribbin claimed Bord na Mona is doing "everything it can" towards the redeployment of jobs. "They are borrowing €1.6bn and are doing their best to hold on to what they have," he added, while also mentioning the €100bn fund announced in Europe.
Cllr Leahy took issue with this narrative and said: "Some of the countries getting a slice of that €100bn are getting a 10 to 20-year transition; we're not getting 20 months. The lads in front of me [Fine Gael councillors] need to fight the same fight we are. I know they have to dish out the same spin we are hearing nationally but that's no good to someone on the ground in these communities losing their jobs."
Cllr Neil Feighery reacted by saying: "If you were to rely on some of the other councillors here, you'd be in a fairly depressed state leaving the chamber. We have a big task on decarbonisation, not by Government design but through necessity. We can scoff at the €100bn all we want but we people like Phil Hogan fighting for Ireland in Europe so we have to give it time. I would say that to the lads shouting and roaring here. It's election season and we can see what's going on with Fianna Fail in this chamber."
Green councillor, Mark Hackett, said: "Climate denial has no place here. We should see this as an opportunity and move on. Ireland has already signed up to Paris Agreement; that's the reality."
Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney responded: "We're trying to put supports and initiatives in place to help workers. We are still working with the transition team and commissioner to work out the funds available. The details need to be worked out. Kieran Mulvey will be meeting with the team shortly."