By David Young, PA
The Government will not walk away from a plan to restrict turf sales in Ireland, Eamon Ryan has insisted.
The Environment minister said there was an urgent need to tackle the health damage caused by the burning of smoky fuels as he warned TDs that 1,300 lives were lost in the state every year as a result of air pollution.
Green Party leader Mr Ryan’s comments came amid robust Dáil exchanges with Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty.
Mr Doherty accused politicians from the two other government parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, of “cowardice” for failing to support Sinn Féin’s proposal to axe the planned restrictions on turf, scrap the imminent increase in carbon tax and remove excise duty on home heating oil.
The Sinn Féin motion was defeated in a Dáil vote on Wednesday.
Several Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs had expressed concern about Mr Ryan’s move to clamp down on turf burning at a time when fuel bills are rising sharply, but when it came to the vote the coalition parties rejected the opposition proposal.
The Government has been accused of mixed messaging over the planned turf restrictions, which had been earmarked to come into force in September.
On Wednesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there would be no ban on turf sales “for the remainder of the year”.
In the Dáil on Thursday, Mr Ryan said what was being proposed was “not an outright ban”, indicating it would relate to larger scale commercial sales rather than small scale cutting and sharing of turf among neighbours within rural communities.
Mr Doherty said the Government’s approach on the issue had been marked by “chaos, confusion and contradiction”.
On Wednesday, the Rural Independent group of TDs proposed a separate motion that would have axed the current carbon tax.
It was also defeated.
Noting that Sinn Féin had voted for that motion as well, Mr Ryan accused the party of a sudden policy change as he said its position up until that point was to retain the tax at its current rate, just not increase it.
The carbon tax increase is due to come into effect on May 1st.
Defending the planned restrictions on turf, the minister added: “It would be so easy to walk away and say ‘no, we won’t do that because it is difficult’.
“But what number of deaths should we tolerate?
“What should we do in ignoring reality across the country?
“I don’t believe we should ignore it and we won’t, this government will act and will deliver practical measures that are not there to punish anyone, that are part of a way of actually managing this so that we can protect people from fuel poverty and protect lives at the same time.
“And I’m very confident we can and will do that.”
He added: “What we will do is we will start saving those 1,300 lives we will not walk away as two previous governments have done, as a series of ministers have done.
“We will do what needs to be done while maintaining and helping our people through fuel poverty, but not ignoring the health issue, not ignoring the loss of life, that would be reckless and disregard of our duty.”
Referencing the minister’s remarks about 1,300 excess deaths, Mr Doherty responded by saying there were 2,800 deaths every year due to fuel poverty in Ireland.
Mr Ryan disputed that figure, claiming it was 25 years old, an assertion Mr Doherty rejected.
“Turf has been one of the only forms of heating not to see prices spiral in the last number of months, yet you still plan to punish individuals, to punish communities who rely on turf from September,” Mr Doherty told the minister.
“We know that the days of fossil fuels are coming to an end.
“We all recognise in this House the need for climate action, but the way that you’re doing it is causing deep anger and deep upset and deep resentment in communities right across the state.
“You should not naively believe that a ban on turf is a solution because it is not.”
Mr Doherty said, in some rural counties in Ireland, 30% of homes relied on turf as their sole source of heat.
“These communities need to be supported instead of facing the punishment that you’re dishing out when there is no realistic alternative for them to heat their homes to keep their families warm and safe.
“So where minister is the just transition in telling these households who rely on burning turf as their main source of heating their homes that it is to be banned from September of this year?”