Territory wars thwart Ireland’s green agenda

After Ireland’s hottest day in over 130 years, small family groups made their way through the Allen Swamp in the central part of the country this week, harvesting sun-dried turf.

The peat briquettes, black as licorice when dug wet from the ground, turned brown in the high temperatures of July and were ready to be stored as winter fuel. But the swamp, like other marshes across Ireland, has become frontline in the fight to reduce carbon emissions and preserve peatlands, pitting rural communities against urban politicians.

“There is a very deep anger and resentment that the likes of the Greens and the urban Greens think… that they can riot against the rural people of Ireland,” said John Dore of the Kildare Lawn Cutters Association.

According to the Irish Environment Agency, fourteen percent of the Irish population uses peat, a smoke-fuelled fuel, to heat their homes. For those who rely on a traditional source of energy that has been cut down and burned in the country for centuries, the lawn is a birthright.

“This is a very cultural and social event,” Dore said. “We are not dependent on fuel. It’s also about independence.”

On Tuesday, Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said his government needed to focus on emissions as it hoped to set legally binding targets by the end of the month.

“What the heatwaves are showing is making people realize the enormity of the effects of climate change,” he said. “It’s here now.”

Territory wars thwart Ireland's green agenda
The peat briquettes, black as licorice when dug wet from the ground, turned brown in the high temperatures of July and were ready to be stored and burned as winter fuel. (Photo by Paul Feith/AFP)

EPA data released Thursday showed 2021 greenhouse gas emissions rising 4.7% from 2020 and 1.1% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Martin’s three-party governing coalition, which includes the Greens of Ireland, has been licking its wounds after it tried to curb turf sales earlier this year.

A series of heated debates over the restrictions sparked a riot among rural government deputies. One independent MP for Tipperary, Matty McGrath, said ministers need to “go back into the swamp” to understand the impact of the proposed restrictions on low-income families in rural areas.

When he unveiled revised plans last week to limit turf retail sales, Green Party Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said the controversial measures restricting turf sales to communities of less than 500 people had been lifted.

Under the new rules, lawn sales to family, friends and neighbors will continue as before. But sales in retail outlets and online will be banned, as will advertising for the sale of the lawn in traditional media.

For Patsy Power, a lawnmower whose family has the right to cut and remove turf in the Allen Swamp, the changes will make little difference to how he works.

“All my life we’ve been turfing here,” said Power, 60, who has seven siblings who harvest turf from the same lot. “We won’t be selling it anyway, it’s for home use only and will be just family friendly,” he added, taking a break from throwing clods into the back of his truck.

Doré called the government’s retreat a “small victory”. But he said the compromise was also driven by factors such as rising energy prices and fuel insecurity due to the war in Ukraine, rather than concern for rural communities.

A spokesman, who also cuts and stores the lawn at his home nearby, said he understands Ireland has international obligations to fight climate change, but described targeting lawn farmers with borders as “starting with the little guys “.

Conservationists have urged the government to pay attention to peat-cutting nettles for the damage they cause to swamps, which are natural carbon sinks and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Lawn mowers have no obligation to restore habitat or manage emissions when they drain a swamp,” said Tristram White, a politician with the Irish Peat Conservation Council.

“At the same time, all peat sludge ends up in water bodies, and biodiversity is lost with emissions. This is the most releasing fuel source you can use.

“The effects of burning peat are not worth the heat.”