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Pat McCormack
Ex-president, ICMSA

Minister Ryan is bogging down midlands rewetting project

The Irish Independent’s rewetting-related editorial of Monday, June 29, titled ‘Both climate and farming needs must be considered when it comes to EU demands’ should be required reading for anyone who doubts the wisdom of the old maxim that it is the first step of any journey – or any process – that is most important.

If the first step you take is in the wrong direction, then every step afterwards takes you further from where you wanted to go. One wonders whether Ministers Ryan and McConalogue read it? If they haven’t then they should.

Rewetting commences

The background to this rapidly worsening ‘jam’ is easily disposed of. In 2021, various State and semi-State agencies began the process of rewetting state land. The ICMSA noted the commencement of this process and acknowledged the State’s right to do as it wanted with its own land. We acknowledged the vital role that carbon sequestration will play as we strive to meet our national targets and we never once objected to, or even quibbled with, the decision itself. All we asked for at that time – and all we are asking for still – is a commitment from those State agencies to make good any damage or loss of productivity that their rewetting might cause to our adjoining farms and community infrastructure: roads, septic tanks, etc. We didn’t then – and we don’t now – think that this was an unreasonable ask. It’s the kind of assurance and arrangement that two neighbours would come to in five minutes over a cup of tea.
But Bord na Móna wouldn’t give us the commitment. They wouldn’t give us any guarantee to make good any damage that their project might cause. Instead, they expressed confidence in their hydrologists and engineers and, effectively, told the neighbouring farming communities not to worry their little heads about data and engineering stats that they wouldn’t understand anyway. The ICMSA countered by pointing out the obvious contradiction to that position: if Bord na Móna is so supremely confident that its rewetting won’t damage adjoining localities, then what was the problem about giving a legal guarantee to those neighbouring localities?

The problem, still

That was the problem two years ago – and it’s still the problem today. The farming communities around the 88,000 acres that are being rewet are told that (A) the engineers say that rewetting will stop at the boundary hedges and (B) if it doesn’t, then Bord na Móna or whoever will not be responsible, even where the problems emanate from their project on their land.
Very understandably, the neighbouring farmers and the ICMSA did not feel like being fobbed off in this fashion. In the simple fairness and modesty of our request, we wrote to Minister Ryan on January 5 inviting him – as the minister with direct political responsibility – to attend a public meeting to be held in Tullamore on a date of his choosing and for which he could be accompanied by whatever selection of semi-State executives, engineers and hydrologists he felt might be required to explain to the local community the why, where, when and what of this absolutely massive project. Minister Ryan declined our invitation. We urged him to reconsider and stressed the danger of panic and speculation replacing reasoned exchange. He declined again.
It is ironic that as the State busily fills in excavated bogs, backs up dykes, and blocks drains to rewet their 88,000 acres, there’s at least one Cabinet minister who is busy digging an electoral hole for every Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party representative in the midlands. Whatever about the water seeping into neighbouring sites, Minister Ryan’s inexplicable reluctance to recognise and accept and articulate what everyone else can see clearly, is spilling over from his own department into others. On the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law, Minister McConalogue first announced that it would be voluntary. When we reasonably pointed out that adherence to a law is, by definition , not voluntary, that line was quickly dropped, and we started hearing that the State’s land holdings would be sufficient to meet all the requirements of the proposed law until 2030. What happens on January 1, 2031 must remain a mystery for now. But there’s nothing to worry about. In the same way that the water will stop at Bord na Móna’s boundary ditch, it’ll all be fine and there’s no need to ask any hard questions now. 

We don’t accept that

This is our families’ lands, and it was our forefathers and foremothers who broke their backs for generations making that land productive. We are not inclined to have that legacy and heritage – and our livelihoods – just waved away and dismissed in this, frankly, almost contemptuous fashion. The midlands rewetting project and the EU Nature Restoration Law are the first of these enormous environmental infrastructure projects that Ireland will be rolling-out all over the land in the coming decades. If what we have seen so far is any guide to what we can expect, then we might as well give up now. Alternatively, Minister Ryan could actually try to squeeze in a visit to faraway Offaly at some stage and we can start to move forward on the basis of real information and the kind of accountability to which the people of Offaly, the wider midlands, and the whole of Ireland, are entitled.