Scene 1: The Journey, 7.00-9.00am
I’m on the road to Athlone, to attend my first Green Party conference. It’s the first in-person conference the party has had since entering Government in mid-2020, when the country was in COVID-19 lockdown.
It seems to be a morning of firsts, as I’m listening to Countrywide for the first time since Philip Boucher-Hayes succeeded Damien O’Reilly. The Castleknock-Cavan man had become such a fixture on Saturday mornings that it seems a little strange to hear a different voice anchoring the programme.
Philip Boucher-Hayes is an accomplished broadcaster, and is both informed and opinionated on food production. As was Damien. So Countrywide (full disclosure - the programme is sponsored by the Irish Farmers Journal) is in safe hands.
It’s a busy programme, with the main focus on the Citizen’s Assembly on Biodiversity, which is meeting this weekend to consider a raft of proposals. Two-hundred-and-fifty, according to chair Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, which she says is more than the previous two Citizen’s Assemblies combined.
She adds that the five main farming organisations attended and made presentations. “I travelled to the National Ploughing Championships to personally invite them,” she says. It is proposed to give legal status to the environment, she says. There are rumours that an Environmental Court will be proposed by the assembly. What that will mean I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain that farmers will be opposed to it.
Perhaps not all farmers. Pat Joyce is one of the 99 voting members of the assembly, and a farmer.
Philip spent time on the farm with him in Galway on a pretty shocking morning earlier in the week. It was interesting to listen to Pat talk about how he engaged with his fellow citizens over the six weeks that the assembly has met.
He seemed confident that he had been heard in the round-table groups. Pat felt he would be able to live with whatever the assembly would adopt at the end of their deliberations.
Scene 2: Radisson Hotel, 10.30-11.00am
I’m in a press conference being hosted by Eamon Ryan. The Green Party leader is joined by a number of his party colleagues. There are as many politicians and handlers as there are journalists.
I’m sitting among political correspondents who spend most of their working life around ministers and TDs. I always feel a little like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill at these things, a little bit of a bolt-on.
The trick is never to jump in at the start with a farming question. I wait about 20 minutes before asking about the Sustainable Use Directive. It’s a month since our front-page story where Andy Doyle broke the news that the draft of the next Sustainable Use Directive would see Ireland face a total ban on all pesticides, potentially by as soon as 2024.
And last week, during a meeting of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee, a Department of Agriculture official confirmed that this could indeed be on the cards. This is because the proposal is for an outright ban on all pesticides in nitrates-vulnerable zones, and Ireland, in its entirety, is classified as nitrates-vulnerable.
Minister Ryan’s response to my question is comprehensive, if not direct.
He speaks at length about the scale of change we are facing in food production. “We’ve 20 major pieces of legislation coming through Europe on this whole green agenda,” he says. “It’s centre stage in the whole European economic strategy - in transport, in energy, in agriculture, in materials in industrial use.”
And food producers are up for the challenge, he adds.
“Food companies, in Egypt [at COP 27] and here at home are saying the same thing to me. They are committing to making the changes we need to make to reduce the use of fossil fuels; in fertiliser, in pesticides, that are all fossil-based, and yes to switch to a more organic, less intense system.”
Minister of State Pippa Hackett was present, and Minister Ryan invites her to more directly address my question. Here is her comment in full: “The change is coming, the direction is clear, and we do have to move away from a business as usual model of agriculture. We see the damage it’s doing, but we also see within that, farmers who are doing things differently, who are moving away.
“To have an agricultural model based on fossil-fuel fertiliser; fossil fuels are finite, we will hit a stage where we will run out of it, so the sooner we take a step in that direction [the better], and I think we are doing it in Ireland, there’s a real need for this.
“We cannot continue to rely on chemical pesticides, because we end up having to increase or change or it’s always another manifestation of another pesticide because one becomes obsolete, either for health concerns or because it’s ineffective, as plants change and they don’t respond to them anymore.
“We see that across the board. I don’t believe we can continue along that line, so if we can make the step forwards now to change how we farm far more in tune with nature, and use those natural processes that exist.
“Use the soil, we know an awful lot about soil, we know pesticides damage soil, fertiliser damages soil. Our soil is our biggest carbon store in the world, it’s going to be the biggest carbon store in Ireland. It’s going to grow crops for us, it’s going to grow grass, it’s going to produce food.”
At that point I intervene, to clarify if she is saying that she, a minister of state in the Department of Agriculture, is supportive of the complete ban of pesticide usage by as soon as 2024.
“2024 is a little bit too soon. We’re in 2022 now. We’d have to phase some sort of process in, we’d have to look at that,” she replied.
The proposal under the EU’s Green Deal is for a 50% reduction in pesticide usage by 2030 across the EU27 as a whole.
It is generally felt that Ireland, as a lower-than-average user of pesticides, may face a lower reduction target than that.
To say that the Government is going to have to look at the timescale of a complete ban on pesticide usage is putting it mildly, I would suggest. Watch this space.
Scene 3: Protest outside the conference, 11.30am
It’s a bitterly cold morning in Athlone. The smattering of protesters outside the Radisson Blu Hotel stay on the move, and you couldn’t blame them.
As they march across the hotel entrance, pausing only to let the odd car in or out, they are getting a lot of reaction from the constant flow of traffic. Horns are constantly honking, and it’s being taken as support by the protesters. It’s hard to put any other connotation on it.
Jackie Flannery is the spokesperson for the Irish Rural Association (you’ll have to come up with your own acronym). She intends to still be out in the cold when Eamon Ryan makes his keynote speech at 6.30.
It’s an appropriate image, for the people gathered feel like the Government have turned a cold shoulder to what they hold is a way of life, farming and cutting turf from the bogs.
“A load of coal is €1,100,” says one man, “but the same load of turf is less than €200. How do the Government expect us to afford that?”
Eamon Ryan wants us all to carpool, but he can hop on the LUAS, or the DART, or a bus, or hail a taxi. What choice do we have, 20 miles from a town?
The Green Party, and particularly Eamon Ryan, are being blamed by the protesters for the thrust of Government policy towards rural Ireland.
“The Greens are mostly in the Pale,” said one, “and they can make rules for Dublin if they want. Eamon Ryan wants us all to carpool, but he can hop on the LUAS, or the DART, or a bus, or hail a taxi. What choice do we have, 20 miles from a town?”
Another said: “We’ve been footing turf from the bogs for thousands of years. It’s a State company, Bord na Móna that has ruined the bogs of Ireland, and has been selling peat abroad.
“Now they want to ban us from selling it in the local shop? And meanwhile we’re importing peat from other EU countries for horticulture. What happened to parity of esteem in the EU?”
Another protester points out that two peat-burning power plants in the midlands - Shannonbridge and Lanesborough - have been closed down, but the Government has just signed up to import French nuclear power when the interconnector is completed.
“Meanwhile, Eamon Ryan has gone off and signed a €350m contract for emergency generation, which will be burning gas oil, which is effectively diesel. It’s way more expensive to generate from diesel than turf.”
Seamus Shannon says: “Eamon Ryan’s policies are ill-conceived. There is no listening to rural Ireland, he is ploughing on regardless.
“We’re here to defend rural Ireland in every aspect of it. Farming is where it’s most acute, where farmers are being pushed out and denied the opportunity to earn a living from their farms.
“We’re equally annoyed with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, whose rural TDs have gone along with the Green agenda and have turned their backs on the people that elected them, but we will have our say ultimately.”
The Irish Rural Association is a new group, currently with a very small membership, but their view is one that is expressed a lot across social media.
Scene 4: Keynote speech, 6.30pm
Eamon Ryan is at the podium. He takes an early shot at unnamed politicians: “You don’t solve difficult issues with populist rhetoric, you do it with hard work, and honest negotiation. You do it by putting the country’s long-term interest first even if you might have to take a short-term hit.”
He pays tribute to Pippa Hackett, particularly for how she has "turned things around" in forestry, "fixing a broken licensing system and launching a new programme for forestry which will transform the Irish countryside for the better".
Pippa Hackett "has taken on the false narrative that farming and the environmental sector cannot work together" Ryan continued. "We Greens stand up for the Irish family farm. We want a whole new generation of farmers and foresters who will be paid well for managing our land, delivering high quality food and protecting nature".
He majors on renewable energy. “Last month, wind energy provided nearly half of all electricity in Ireland, driving down the cost of energy.”
He goes on to say that while offshore wind requires careful planning (is that code for “is way behind target?”), solar is moving ahead of schedule. “We can bring forward our solar power targets by five years so that we will have installed 5,000MW of capacity by the time this Government finishes its term. By 2025 there will be sunny afternoons when we are generating enough solar electricity to power the entire country.”
Ryan finishes by saying that the Government, which is now at the halfway point of its five-year term, is working well together. “We have learnt a lot over the last two years and are now ready to accelerate the changes that will set us on the right path,” he says.
Farmers may fear that this acceleration will create a pace of change in farming that will not allow a “just transition”.
The results of the Citizens Assembly’s deliberations are likely to chime with the mood of the Green Party conference. Farmers need to make sure they stay in the room when these decisions are being taken.
Being left out in the cold is not where farming needs to be.
Eamon Ryan wants to bring them in. "They (farmers and foresters) will be our heroes, who help save the world one field, one parish and one county at a time" he said.
His message of optimism and hope contrasts with the fear and anger visible among the protestors outside.
Which will be the prevailing mood across 2023?