The political tensions over the Coillte-Gresham House tie-up flared in Leinster House this week, with opposition and Government backbench TDs uniting to condemn the deal.

Sinn Féin ratcheted up the pressure on Tuesday night with its Dáil motion calling on the Government to block the controversial agreement.

Serious tensions around the deal – which involves plans to invest €200m in the purchase of 12,000ha of standing forests and bare land for planting woodlands over the next five years – have also emerged within the ranks of Government back benchers.

In a move criticised as “farcical” by Independent TD Mattie McGrath, the coalition opted not to oppose the Sinn Féin motion in order to avoid bringing it to a vote. However, pressure from TDs meant the motion returned to the Dáil agenda on Wednesday night.

During Tuesday’s Dáil debate on the deal, Sinn Féin and others heavily criticised both Minister of Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and his colleague Minister of State Pippa Hackett for their approach to Ireland’s overall forestry strategy and specifically, Coillte’s plans with Gresham House.

Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett. \ Philip Doyle

‘Corporate profit’

Sinn Féin agriculture spokesperson Matt Carthy TD claimed “environmentalists, farmers, the forestry sector and local communities are all united in their calls for the deal to be stopped”.

He said the venture is not about climate, nor tree planting but simply “corporate profit” for the UK fund, and warned that the deal will drive up the cost of agricultural land.

Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy TD led the charge against the Gresham House deal in the Dáil on Tuesday. \ Don Moloney

Labour TD Seán Sherlock stoked debate by suggesting the Gresham House arrangement will expatriate “millions of euro from Irish taxpayers’ pockets into the hands of fund managers” while Social Democrat Holly Cairns TD termed it a “disgrace” that Government is letting it go ahead.

Ministers McConalogue and Hackett were steadfast in their defence of Coillte,with the latter highlighting that the Gresham deal represents less than 1% of the Government’s targets for new forests by 2050.

However, the politically sensitive issue for the Ag House duo goes on, with both appearing before the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on Wednesday evening and a further Dáil debate scheduled for Thursday.

Party politics

The agriculture committee’s chair, Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill also demanded that the deal be discussed by his full parliamentary party, leaving Minister McConalogue to defend it to his closest political peers.

In a letter sent to his fellow Fianna Fáil TDs and senators, Cahill expressed “serious concern” regarding the forestry initiative.

“It is hard to comprehend how Coillte, with a landbank of 450,000ha and who are making an average of €100m per year, can’t finance the purchase of land for forestry without resorting to an unpalatable relationship with an investment company.

“We cannot allow an investment company, whether it’s based in London, Singapore, New York, or elsewhere, to avail of exchequer funding to purchase Irish land,” he said.

In another move set to turn the political screw, there is a protest scheduled outside Leinster House for 12.30pm Thursday involving the ‘Save our Forests Alliance’ and the ‘Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT)’. Part of the alliance, People Before Profit–Solidarity TD Paul Murphy says the protest will be the “first of many until this is stopped”.

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