Meeting Minister Naughten

On Tuesday May 2nd 2017 at 2pm I sat in my car at the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon, linked into Leinster House for a meeting with Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment via mobile phone. If you know how the Irish system works you will appreciate the achievement in this. Thank you to my colleagues in An Taisces Climate Change committee who supplied the hardware and persevered to ensure that I could participate. It’s fair to say communications technology has been revolutionised since the first Dail so it’s such a pity that it is not used more often to facilitate greater rural participation in our decision making arena.

So to the meeting proper. The fact that the Minister did most of the talking for the department was refreshing. He obviously has a handle on things and has become well acquainted with his brief. He repeated his position when it comes to climate action making it clear that he is committed to Irelands 2020 targets and accepted that the more we do now the easier our 2030 targets will be to achieve. While it is important to start where we are and not dwell too much on what hasn’t been done we shouldn’t ignore the inaction or the attempts at action that have failed or been blocked.

I mentioned the fact that we had great work done on public participation while Alex White was minister however as soon as he left it all became a casualty of the five year political system. Great strides were made in public engagement while compiling the Energy White Paper but that process ended over 16 months ago. Nothing has changed. The national energy forum was subsumed into the climate dialogue which is only now being considered seriously. Climate action was lumped on to the end of the citizens assembly agenda pushing public participation in energy policy further down the road. In the meantime numerous important consultations have been run under the exclusionary practice of putting a link on a website and hoping the public don’t see it.

I seized an opportunity to mention that by not engaging in comprehensive public participation during the recent National Climate Mitigation Plan consultation we’re merely wasting the diminishing time we have. I emphasised the point that the NMP is possibly the most important plan we will prepare over the coming decades and to exclude people at this stage is a fools game. The civil service, industries, NGOs, other “stakeholders” and politicians can compile the plan and have lots of great intentions that are then wide open to legal challenges from the public who were excluded from the planning. ALL climate action plans must be written based on comprehensive public participation that must include awareness raising and facilitated engagement. Again I called for a national awareness raising campaign which is what formed the basis of the Transition Ireland and Northern Ireland TINI submission to the NMP.

From a rural perspective, I mentioned the fact that from what I could ascertain there weren’t many councillors or even council staff who knew there was a mitigation plan being developed. The regional energy agencies would have prepared a submission on their behalf. However they did no consultation that I am aware of.  Surely this is something the councils strategic policy committees should be feeding into? What about the Public Participation Networks?

On the subject of the PPNs the Minister did mention them in relation to the climate dialogue. I had to address it and state my concerns because only 9 of the 31 PPNs are actually independent of the local authority. I can not be confident that running a climate dialogue through the PPNs is going to be different to a regular local authority run “consultation”. They definitely have to be involved but I would not hand the facilitation of the dialogue over to the PPNs. Which brings me back to my proposal on how to run the climate dialogue in conjunction with the PPNs which I wrote in the context of the Eirgrid debacle – blog post here.

We also discussed the Green Schools programme from An Taisces Education Unit which is something that Ireland should be very proud of and a programme that the minister is keen to expand upon. He launched the Green Schools National Climate Change Action & Awareness programme in March of this year. However I always squirm when I hear people express the view that the young people will change everything. Too much is already crammed into a full school curriculum and given that only 10% of their lives before the age of 21 is spent in official education what they do learn in school is not necessarily the greatest influence on them. This information is not being validated outside of those few school hours. If they go home to parents who think climate change is a hoax the chances are they will too.

I did point out that when you are the young person talking about climate change after secondary school you are either in 3rd level geography or in the minority, despite the green schools programme.  There is no societal validation that what you are talking about is right. You don’t have much back up in any climate argument with your friends or family! This is based on my own experience with 5 children between the ages of 8 and 24 all involved in the green schools programme with one now teaching geography. Also based on my experience of running sustainable community courses with climate denying parents. Don’t put too much on young shoulders. Reminds me of a letter I wrote to the Irish Times in April 2015 called “What are we Teaching our Children

As I often say we need a national campaign along the lines of those to stop people from smoking and drink driving. These campaigns validate the non smoker and non drinker. Climate ambassadors are wide open to ridicule in the absence of leadership to corroborate their stance. At least for the non drinkers there have been numerous national campaigns to explain why not drinking is a good idea. There hasn’t been anything like that for the person advocating climate action or environmental protection. In fact environmentalists have been branded anti progress and generally depicted in a negative light.

As for my lasting impressions. Denis Naughten is committed to climate action. He is eager to ensure that what happens is inclusive of as many people as possible. He mentioned bringing people along in the process. I would go further and say allow the people to lead – collaborate with the people before consulting them as per my blog on public participation in the national transition. Naughten has learned from the industry led midlands wind energy proposals (although I forgot to mention that the new ESB and Bond na Mona solar proposals are heading in the same direction as the wind projects because they were announced long before anyone spoke to the public) It is good that Minister Naughten realises the massive challenges of his ministerial portfolio and is not naively walking into a pollyanna approach to saving the world. I wish him the very best and success in his quest.

However for the bigger picture, there is no continuity in the Irish system. Ministers come and go bringing with them all of their great legacy actions which are shelved as soon as the new minister comes into power. I can almost feel the eye rolls of the civil servants when the new recruit voices their great ideas. Almost as much as I can feel their sigh of relief when said recruit has left office so they can get back to what they want and plan to do regardless.  Public participation is the one sure way to make sure that plans are long term, transparent, accountable and monitored beyond the 5 year political cycle. The watchful eye of the public may be exactly what the system doesn’t want, having maintained its autonomy for so long. I left the civil service so I have insight from a variety of angles and I still feel I can achieve more on the outside as it stands.

Theresa O’Donohoe

May 3rd 2017

Published by Theresa OD

Change maker and mother of 5 living in the west of Ireland

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