Some 200 protesters took to the gates of Leinster House on Thursday to call for Coillte’s deal with UK investment fund Gresham House to be scrapped.
The protesters, grouped as the ‘Save Our Forests Alliance’, were led by People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Richard Boyd-Barret and included a small number of farmers, landowners, foresters and climate activists.
The group, joined by Sinn Féin, Labour, Social Democrat, Aontú and Independent TDs, called for Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and his department colleague Minister of State Pippa Hackett to resign over the now controversial forestry issue.
1) Foresters & some farmers at ‘Save Our Forests Alliance’ protest outside Dáil this lunchtime.— Barry Murphy (@BarryMurphyIFJ) January 26, 2023
Protesters call for resignation of @McConalogue & @pippa_hackett over Coillte-Gresham House deal -supported by @SocDems @sinnfeinireland @pb4p @AontuIE & Independents @farmersjournal pic.twitter.com/9hD7MkHOHJ
Protesters termed the Coillte-Gresham House deal – which involves plans to invest €200m in the purchase of 12,000ha of standing forests or bare land for planting woodlands over the next five years – a “disgrace”.
They chanted “Minister McConalogue hear us say, vulture funds go away” and held placards stating “stop the Coillte sell out”, “Coillte not fit for purpose” and “stop Coillte’s fake forests”.
The Irish Farmers Journal spoke to some of the politicians present.
Marian Harkin TD
Sligo-Leitrim TD Marian Harkin said that the Coillte-Gresham House deal was a “quick fix without thinking of the impact on communities”.
“While we all agree that we need to plant more trees, what I believe here we saw was an approach that got handed to them, that they didn’t look carefully enough at because we can see the back tracking since.
“And it was box ticked, job done, move on and all this talk about farmers and working with local communities, you go back and look at what Coillte said last December – two funds, €2bn, 100,000ha – that’s all they were talking about. So, it’s no wonder that I and others use words like land grab.
“Now, since then, there’s been huge backtracking because obviously, they’ve only signed a deal for the first 12,000 which is a good thing. It’s bad that it’s signed but it’s good that it’s not more,” she said.
The former MEP warned that “confidence in forestry is on the floor” but acknowledged that Minister Hackett, responsible for forestry at Ag House, “walked into a Department where she faced a lot of trouble and it took time to sort it”.
“The ministers have a massive job of work to do on how they re-engage farmers in forestry for farmers to see that this is a good option for them.”
Matt Carthy TD
Sinn Féin agriculture spokesperson Matt Carthy TD said: “Part of the problem is that the ministers haven’t been up front in terms of how we got to the point where Coillte were agreeing such an arrangement with Gresham House.
“[It’s] a deal which has been rightly universally condemned across the spectrum, from environmental, to farm organisations, to local communities [and] to the vast majority of elected representatives.
“I’m still of the belief that this deal can be scuppered. I think if the minister took a robust position on it, he could ensure that the deal didn’t move forward. For example, the minister could send out a message to investors that he didn’t want them to invest in this Gresham House initiative.
“He could also ensure that Coillte don’t put €10m of public money into this deal and instead use that money themselves to embark on a tree planting programme in consultation with local communities.”
On the State aid rules which rule out Coillte, as a semi-state body, from accessing state grants and premia for tree planting, Carthy said it his view that “it may be possible for Coillte to actually draw down funding under the forestry programme”.
He said this would “beg the question, why were they signing off on a commercial contract, a contract which is very dangerous in terms of the future of afforestation in the country”.