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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Nov 2021

Vol. 280 No. 10

Horticultural Peat (Temporary Measures) Bill 2021: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I will be sharing time with Senator Lombard.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Horticultural Peat (Temporary Measures) Bill is an attempt to find a just solution to provide for a just transition. I wish to put on the record of the House that drafting this Bill for the 35 members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was a last resort to solving this problem, which, I believe, has been kicked down the road for far too long. What is in this Bill is a workable solution for an industry in crisis. The horticultural sector is facing an enormous crisis caused by a shortage of supply. By no choice of their own, those in the sector have been forced to import a degraded quality of peat at a much higher price, which, ultimately, will put some of them out of business. Some 17,000 livelihoods depend on this industry. Hundreds of thousands of households depend on the produce created and grown by the industry. The growers and nurseries up and down the country need a solution or else they will simply go out of business and thousands of jobs will be lost.

This Bill was described the other day by colleagues as giving false hope to growers. It was described as disingenuous. Using horticultural growers as collateral damage while taking an opportunity to have a go at big industry is disingenuous. That will offer little or no hope. The horticultural industry does not have time for political games; it needs solutions. It needed them months ago. We are introducing this Bill in an attempt to give the Government, which has now been in situ for almost 18 months, an opportunity to do what should have been done two or three years ago by the previous Government. This Government has an opportunity to do what is right for the horticultural industry and to recognise that it needs a medium in which to grow its products.

It needs that medium to come from Ireland. We need a derogation and a just transition but, more importantly, what we need is to put our money where our mouth is to resource the replacement for peat that is needed. Assigning a young PhD student to that project certainly does not show serious intent.

As politicians we need to supply people with solutions. Sitting on the working group report, as has happened for the last couple of months, is not sustainable. For this reason, I genuinely welcome the commitment given to the House yesterday that the Minister will bring to Cabinet next Tuesday the working group report and its recommendations, as well as the resolutions provided by the nine Ministers from all parties in this coalition Government, which relate to the three Departments responsible for fixing this problem. We are adjourning the debate after 90 minutes as otherwise we would otherwise have to put the legislation to a vote. The outcome could have been very different today with regard to the 35 Government Senators who brought this issue to a head because we did not feel it was being dealt with.

I will address what is in the programme for Government with regard to horticulture. We agreed in the joint programme for Government that we would review the supports available to the horticultural sector, grow and expand the businesses in this sector supplying our domestic and international markets, invest in the promotion of Irish horticultural products and enhance the capital investment available to horticulture producers. What I want to know is what it is that is giving false hope to this industry. Is it the lack of action by the Government over the past 18 months on the commitments in the programme for Government? This Bill genuinely seeks to find a solution for an industry in crisis, one on which 17,000 livelihoods depend.

Since the introduction of this Bill last Tuesday, the people who are against it have sought to make it something completely other than what it is. It is not about exporting peat, nor is it about using peat for anything other than horticultural practices. The main argument, which is made without explanation and which the Government is apparently making today also, is that the Bill contravenes EU legislation. I hope the Minister of State will be able to give us an explanation. EU law requires assessment before consent to be given for certain projects involving peat extraction for horticulture under both the environment impact assessment directive and the habitats directive. European law is not, as some people suggested over the weekend, prescriptive about whether the necessary assessment is completed under the Planning and Development Act or the Licensing Act. In 2019 the State considered licensing more appropriate. The Planning and Development Act, the statutory instrument setting out the executive development regulations and the European Union statutory instrument were introduced by the then Minister. We are all well aware that those statutory instruments have been overturned by the High Court and the Supreme Court on the basis that they are not suitable instruments for doing what we want to do in Ireland, namely, have a just transition for the people who produce our food. European law, which has been stood up by the Supreme Court, prescribes that we must do what was attempted in the two statutory instruments in primary legislation. That primary legislation is this Bill. Unless really viable information is brought to us by the Government on behalf of the Attorney General as to why this Bill contravenes EU law, I will find it very difficult to see it as anything other than another obstruction to finding a solution for this problem.

Over the weekend, our arguments were conflated with the issue of exports, and peat has left this country in the past nine or ten months. This is not about exports for reasons other than horticulture. There is no escaping the fact that we started importing for horticulture in September of this year. Unless we do something to produce Irish peat for Irish producers, we will have to continue importing peat from Sri Lanka, Latvia and wherever else we can get our hands on it. Having large shipments with hundreds of trucks bringing these products to different places in the country is not sustainable.

Despite the argument that seems to have been created over the past week, this is not about fuel or exporting. It is about taking a very small amount of the peat that could be produced in this country to provide for an Irish market that produces food for Irish consumers.

The fact that we have ignored this issue, or not found a resolution to it since the SIs were overturned in 2019, which is effectively nearly three years ago, tells us that the Government and, probably, the previous Government did not see this as the crisis that the 17,000 workers who rely on their income week in and week out off the back of this industry tell us that it is.

I am happy to pull in my horns today. It is a pity that we on the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil benches had to show our horns in the first instance to try to get this issue resolved. We are happy to stall the Bill today on the basis that the Government will commit to doing what it said yesterday it would do, that is, bring the working group report to Cabinet next week, publish it and, more important, publish the recommendations and make available the resources that will fix this supply issue and fix it in the very short term. Otherwise, we will find ourselves back here in a short number of weeks having a vote on this Bill that might not end in a way that will keep us all happy.

The people that I want to keep happy are the people who elect all of us to this House and the other House. For a long time, we have forgotten that we are supposed to be on the side of the people we represent. These people need us to provide a solution for them so they can continue to provide product for the Irish market. I hope that the Minister of State, in his response with regard to the plans for the next couple of weeks, will also provide a just solution and Irish peat for Irish producers so that they an continue to provide us with the best quality food, as they have been doing for generations.

I am happy to second the Leader's proposal with regard to this important legislation. We have brought forward legislation that we believe will play an important part in trying to fix a problem that needs to be addressed. Within the horticulture industry, 17,000 people are affected by this issue. We need to have movement and to make sure that these people have a viable income and that their families can survive.

Last night, I spoke at an IFA meeting close to my home town, which was attended by over 100 people. Rarely in my entire life have I seen such despondency in a room. Never has the farming community been so berated in so many ways. There were young farmers talking about walking away from farming and having no more to do with the land because of what is happening in agriculture. This stuck with me today on my way here from Cork. There are major changes here in terms of CAP reform and nitrates action plans. This debate is about the licensing of peat in order that we can have a horticulture industry that will be viable going forward. We need a more plugged-in approach to what is happening on the ground when it comes to the agricultural community. It is important to acknowledge that this flux in the horticultural community has been there since 2019.

In many ways we have failed to grasp the nettle and bring forward appropriate primary legislation that would resolve this issue. Appropriate primary legislation has come forward this afternoon. It is exactly what we need on the ground. We could potentially have an economic, if not a food security, crisis going forward because of the way agriculture is going and the feeling within the agriculture community that it is better to walk away from it. That is a huge issue for society and a massive issue for Government. I do not think that has been realised. It certainly is not being dealt with. The situation is compounded by commentary in the media, with some MEPs saying that there should be no access to credit for farmers. That is degrading the farming community to a level which is beyond belief. It is not appropriate. We need to start speaking up our agricultural community, instead of speaking it down.

This Bill is brought forward to try to give some hope to the farming community when it comes to horticulture. Horticulture is a vibrant part of our society. It is something we always take pride in. It brings so much to our economy. It provides 17,000 jobs. Horticulture is in almost every parish in our communities. We are now saying that owing to a shortage of peat it must be imported from the Baltic states or Sri Lanka. One-to-one that is exceptionally hard to explain.

In fact, it is impossible to explain. It is because of that issue that we need to introduce this primary legislation.

We have spoken about European law and what is required. The Leader has clarified that issue and that the proposed primary legislation is appropriate for providing what is required. It moves away from the statutory instrument, which was thrown out by the courts because it was not strong enough.

We are trying to give these people a future. We are trying to ensure that the small degree of peat extraction they have been doing for generations can continue. Otherwise, we will see something that we should be proud of vanishing from the face of the Earth. That is not appropriate. We know that technology will play a large part in finding the solution, but we also know that it could take a decade for that to happen. That is the evidence that we on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine have received. It could take anything up to a decade for the so-called futuristic product that we have talked about to be online. A great deal of research is badly needed if we are to get to where we need to be, but there is no product at the moment that can sustainably do what is already being done.

We must discuss publishing the report's recommendations. It has been a bugbear for many people that we put taxpayers' money into the working group's report and recommendations and they have not been published yet. I welcome that the report's publication will be announced next week. That is an important step because, without publication, we would be hammering ourselves against a haystack. It would make no sense. We are going nowhere without publication. With the report's publication, though, we will be able to see what the recommendations are, what is required and how the industry is to go forward. Until it is published, though, we will in many ways be in the dark. The publication of the report is an important step forward for the industry.

I have met the industry several times. It is amazing to think that this industry of all industries has been importing a natural product from a Baltic state to, in the industry's opinion, stay alive since last September. If there was a suitable product in Ireland, surely the industry would use it. That would be the normal course of action. There is not a suitable product, though, so the industry has to import.

Last night's meeting rattled me because I had never seen so many young people in a hall. Confidence has drained out of the industry. Peat and forestry were mentioned. They are core industries and we need them to have futures. We must have a future for our young people in agriculture but they do not have that future at the moment, nor will they until we give clear guidance on how we are going to deliver it. I hope that this debate is the start of the process. We need clarity and a roadmap and we need to show how this industry and the families involved can survive. Unfortunately, without that clarity and roadmap, those families will leave the land. What I heard about at last night's meeting will happen in every parish around Ireland. Young families and young people will leave farming because the Government failed to provide a roadmap.

These are challenging times and we need to find a solution to the challenges. The farming community is up to that job, but the only way it can succeed is if we have the roadmap. I hope that the Bill is the start of that process.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for attending. I also thank the Leader, Senator Gallagher and all the other Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Senators who signed this important Bill. From listening to the Leader, I got a sense of the urgency and frustration around the Bill.

I have worked in the horticulture business all of my life. I worked in the research centre in Kinsealy. Thirty years ago, people were looking at alternatives in the casing of mushrooms. By the way, a mushroom is not a vegetable or a fruit. It is a fungus, and how fungi are treated, grown and nurtured is special. In terms of the sustainability of the mushroom sector, I pay tribute to the Monaghan Deputies and Senators who have advocated strongly for the mushroom sector in Monaghan and the wider Border region, with employers operating in the area North and South.

The mushroom industry in Monaghan in particular has been enormously successful. Let us not forget that we export mushrooms to Britain and France, where they are a valued and valuable agrifood crop. This is about jobs. The programme for Government, a tripartite agreement between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Minister of State's own party, the Green Party, talks about growing the horticultural sector and about sustainability in the agrifood sector. This sector, more than any other, relies on milled peat and while there are certain bogs that will never be remediated, some bogs may be able to facilitate some additional milling of peat. I am in favour of saving our bogs; we are all in favour of that. This is not an issue of "them" or "us". This is about a just transition. I think of workers in Kildare, Laois, Offaly and Monaghan that have relied on this industry and that still have no jobs, despite many promises. There is a transition, a plan and a vision but many people have experienced a drop in income. We have a proud mushroom sector that is heavily reliant on peat. I make the case for the mushroom sector over and above the nursery stock sector or other areas of horticulture and forestry because they can get on with loam and other new and innovative materials that can be used for growing plants. We must make a special case for the mushroom sector and we must sustain this industry, particularly in view of where it operates, in the Border and midlands regions. These are two areas that really need jobs.

I ask the Minister of State to publish the report as soon as possible. I am not sure it would be published next week were it not for the fact that this Bill is before the House today. I welcome the fact that he is going to publish it. I also call on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as part of a collective Government, to play his part. The Minister is constantly before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss sustainability, fairness and a just transition. This Bill addresses many of those issues. There is no suggestion that the Bill is proposing a free-for-all in milling. Rather, it proposes that the EPA would monitor milling and harvesting on select bogs under very strict criteria. I support this industry and believe it is vital that everyone supports it. This Bill has given a renewed impetus and has forced the Government to focus on this issue and deliver for the people affected. In that sense, it is a really important Bill which I will support. I had to think about it, long and hard, but to be fair to the communities that are relying on peat and the horticultural sector, we need to support it.

It is also important that an economic impact assessment is carried out on the cumulative economic effect on sales, exports and employment associated with peat and the horticultural sector. That is valid and should happen. I do not suggest that as an option for delay because we have a peat crisis in this country right now. The Minister of State and his party are focusing on small artisan growers and producers of organic food, which must also be taken into account. What is peat? It is neutral, as the Minister of State knows. There is not a lot that will grow in peat but it is a very successful soil conditioner. Teagasc must work to develop an alternative. Why are we not working on the international stage to innovate and bring about success? We know that there is no short-term, sustainable, economically viable alternative as we speak so we need a short-term intervention. This Bill is proposing a relatively short timeframe for the controlled harvesting of peat for the horticultural sector.

I have already referred to the mushroom sector and have spoken about the importance of regional and rural Ireland's reliance on peat. We must address this issue. Like the Minister of State, I believe in rural development and rural opportunities. Today we have an opportunity to send a signal to the rural parts of this country that this is not about a green, urban agenda. This must be about a green, national agenda that includes rural people, small entrepreneurs and those who want to grow sustainable and healthy food.

I urge the Minister of State to give a high priority to addressing these issues. I look forward to engaging with him in a meaningful way. I thank the proposers of the Bill.

I wish to share time with Senator Malcolm Byrne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister of State is very welcome to the Chamber. He may remember this time last year I raised in a Commencement debate a matter related to horticultural peat, which he addressed. It is a matter of sadness that a year later we are having essentially the same debate. There is at least a heightened sense of urgency and willingness to do something about the issue, more or less because of the Bill.

I am very pleased to co-sponsor the Bill. I and many others have spoken on numerous occasions about the ridiculous situation in the horticultural peat industry, which is a vital component of the horticultural nursery and mushroom industry. Those in the business, including many in County Kildare, need clarity on how they are to proceed. We are discussing horticultural peat again because there has been no action to date.

Kildare is the second most affected county in terms of job loss impact as a result of the ending of peat harvesting for power generation in the midlands region. We are also at a significant disadvantage, as we have a shortage of suitable sites to establish new green enterprises that could replace the labour-intensive work of peat extraction. This directly affects many people in south-west Kildare around Rathangan, Allenwood, Carbury, Kilberry and just over the border into counties Laois and Offaly.

In my previous contribution on this issue, I spoke about the ridiculous situation that large shipments of horticultural peat were beginning to be imported and how the first 4,000 tonnes of peat had been shipped from Latvia, causing significant carbon emissions. That was a 3,000 km journey by ship, in addition to 200 trucks to transport the peat to the port in Latvia and unload it in Ireland. Until a viable alternative is sourced, we would require a shipment every two weeks for a decade to meet the existing demand. It makes no sense. We cannot allow this to continue. We need an interim solution such as the one suggested in the Bill. The horticulture industry has been crying out for a solution for about a year and a half at this stage. It has campaigned very effectively. It is time for the nine relevant Ministers and all other Oireachtas Members to step up to the plate and find a solution.

We all know we need to tackle climate change and that tough decisions must be made to meet our obligations, but we are cancelling one carbon-heavy process and replacing it with another more expensive and more awkward alternative. We must support jobs in green industry and in the growing industry. There is a world of difference between burning peat for electricity and using it for growing produce. There should be a derogation for the industry.

There can be no greener sector of the economy than horticulture and mushroom growing. By its nature, as an indigenous industry, it is deeply committed to the greening of Ireland. It is impacted by climate change and those involved are very much aware of the effect of climate change. Most are strongly supportive of ending the use of peat as a fossil fuel because they see the impact of it. We have effectively thrown the baby out with the bathwater here.

Let us consider the volume of peat used in a normal year. Peat for energy usage was normally of the order of approximately 14 million cu. m. Heating briquettes were of the order of approximately 4 million cu. m. Let us contrast that with the sector about which we are talking. Professional horticulture use was approximately 131,000 cu. m., while mushroom growing used approximately 245,000 cu. m.

The amateur market, including those who produce salad boxes and things like that, use something of the order of about 470,000 cu. m. Thus, it is a very small proportion of the peat that was actually used. These are, for the most part, local community businesses that are green businesses providing food not just in our community but also, as has been mentioned already, to the export market. It is not just in County Monaghan that we have mushrooms. We have very good mushrooms in County Wexford through Walsh Mushrooms. There are also many nurseries there. These producers are really committed to the green agenda but at the moment their businesses are struggling. If one looks at the European Union, the Dutch, who have a wonderful reputation for horticulture, have not given up using peat. Nor have the Germans. We do not want to bring forward this legislation. This is not something we like doing. However, it comes at the end of a process where those who have been trying to save this business have felt there is no other option. I agree with the Leader that we would like to draw back but we must have certainty for those in the horticulture and mushroom-growing businesses. These are some of the greenest businesses in Ireland.

I am sharing my time with Senator Garvey. If the Bill before us was going to solve the problems of the horticultural industry I would say that. I think people know I am straight enough to do that. However, it simply is not. Making me the enemy by pointing that out is not helping anyone. It is not helping the horticultural sector. We need to distinguish between growers in this country and those who are making money out of extraction. We must point to the fact that ten times the amount of peat is being exported as being imported, otherwise it is a completely dishonest conversation.

What this Bill does is recreate regulations in primary legislation that were struck down by European law in 2019. It is on that basis the Government is opposing it. Let us be really clear about that. Peat is a global commodity. For Ireland it has always been a global commodity. Of the peat we extract, 90% is exported. That continues to be the case today, years later. I completely understand the frustrations. I have them myself. I would be more than happy to put down a joint motion saying we need to move on this. However, with respect, it is not just 18 months we have been waiting for this. It is ten years. We have known for ten years this was a problem coming down the tracks. The Minister was already bringing a memo to Cabinet, as I think most of us know. I appreciate people wanted to create an urgency around this but we must also take on board the Attorney General's advice. That means opposing the Bill today but it also means being really honest about what is going to hold the solutions for the horticultural sector.

Given there is some extraction that is permitted under Irish law, I do not understand why we are not seeing that extraction happening on the ground, unless it is because it is not profitable for a large business. I received an email from a large extractor, as I am sure most Senators did, pointing out that there is no problem with EU law. That is incorrect. The Attorney General's advice will tell us it is incorrect but common sense would too. Let us look, therefore, at the proper solutions around this. Some people have asked me where my evidence is for the illegal extraction. They should come to the west of Ireland or come to the midlands and they will see the evidence of illegal extraction all around them. Nobody in this country has a licence for extraction, other than Bord na Móna. Who then is doing all that extraction, because it is not Bord na Móna? Perhaps it will be argued the extraction is all being done by people who are doing it under 30 ha but that is certainly not what research from UCC showed. It actually showed there are 50,000 ha that are being extracted over 30 ha.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is so great to have the House agreed on wanting to support the horticulture industry. It is fantastic we are all agreed on that. I hope everybody takes that into account when buying their fruit, vegetables and plants so they are only buying off local horticultural growers, as there are many in Ireland who could do with our support.

It is great we all agree on that.

It is also great how everybody keeps saying they really care about our bogs, which is fantastic. No more than Senator Boyhan said, it is great that people say they really want to support our bogs, but then there is a full stop. There are no "buts" on this issue. People cannot say one thing and then say we should start going back to harvesting our bogs again. Let us make it very clear that 11 times the amount of peat needed by the horticulture industry is exported from this country. If we want to tackle this issue, be honest about it and not use it as some kind of political football, we would ask why we are exporting peat when our horticulture industry needs it right now. That would be something worth talking about and enacting.

This Bill does not serve any purpose. First, it is asking us to break the law, which is a complete contradiction for legislation. Second, it is a pity that Green Party Senators were left out of the discussion on this Bill before it was introduced, because we know peat and bogs. I would have happily informed Senator Doherty and her colleagues about information we have on the export of peat, which is a major issue. If we want to sort out horticulture issues, we should stop the madness of exporting ten times what we bring in. We should also stop going on about this 4,000 tonnes of imported peat and all of a sudden caring about carbon emissions when the party referring to those things is talking about exporting pigs to China. Let us be real and honest and have a proper, clear debate on this issue.

Some 500,000 tonnes of peat have been exported from this country since last January. Why are we not up in arms about that on behalf of our horticulture industry? As Senator O'Reilly pointed out, there is big difference between the small horticulture business and the big guys who are making a lot of money from exporting peat. Why are we not targeting the latter and asking them what they are doing? Do they have environmental impact statements? Why are they exporting peat when our horticulture industry needs it? Let us have a proper, intelligent and nuanced debate about the issue of peat and stop with the "We care about our bogs, but ..." approach. There are no buts. We either do this correctly and have an intelligent debate or we are wasting everybody's time. Let us not use this issue as a political football. We all care about the horticulture industry. Many of my friends and acquaintances have jobs in the sector. We need to do it right. If we are exporting peat, why are we saying we will go back to cutting more peat? If we are exporting peat, why are we not giving it to the horticulture industry? Let us have an intelligent debate on peat and saving our horticulture industry instead of playing political football.

The Government has known for many years that the use of peat for horticulture must be phased out. It has known that this would require a transitional plan to ensure the horticulture industry had sufficient supplies of peat in the short term while sustainable alternatives were being identified and put in place in the medium to long term. Despite knowing this for years, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael failed to act, even though some members of those parties were in government.

Today, we have the bizarre situation of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat, including horticultural peat, being exported from the State, while the horticulture industry is left to import peat from elsewhere. In 2019, the Government introduced badly drafted regulations as a short-term measure to address a mess that it created. The regulations were challenged in the courts, rightly so, were found not to be in compliance with the State's environmental obligations and were struck down.

Since then, the Government has sat on its hands and done nothing. It has not engaged those who are exporting horticultural peat from the island, particularly State-owned Bord na Móna, to ensure that the horticulture industry had sufficient supplies from existing stockpiles. The Government has not pursued the issue of sustainable alternatives to horticultural peat in order to provide growers with a viable alternative. It has simply buried its head in the sand in the hope that the problem would simply go away. That is the context in which we have to see today's Bill. It is nothing short of a cynical piece of political theatre designed to give the impression that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are proposing a solution, when anyone who can read knows that this Bill is anything but that.

The Bill proposes a widespread and unlimited exemption from planning for peat extraction for use in the domestic horticulture industry until 2026, with a further possible extension to 2030. In doing so, it completely ignores the outworking of the High Court ruling in 2019 and the advice from the Government's own Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, Deputy Peter Burke, which was put on the record of the Dáil this year. The significance of the High Court ruling is that there must be a dual consent process in place, with planning permission granted under the Planning and Development Acts and licensing granted through the EPA. In October, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, said that while he was not opposed to a single consent process, any such system must ensure full compliance with EU environmental legislation, including the carrying out of environmental impact assessments where required.

The Bill before us today does not do this. If it were passed and enacted, it would be challenged in the courts and in my opinion it would be struck out, as were the 2019 regulations. If this Bill was legally sound, it would not be introduced by Government Senators but by the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, who came to the House a few weeks ago and gave us tea and sympathy. I understand the Government took a decision last night not to support the Bill. We now have the bizarre situation where a Bill being introduced by Government Senators from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not supported by either party and will be withdrawn today without being pushed to a vote. If that is not the definition of cynical gesture politics, then I do not know what is.

We all want to see the matter resolved and we want our horticultural industry to survive in a manner that protects jobs and workers’ rights. The horticultural sector does not exactly have a stellar record in protecting workers' rights either. I would like a debate on that issue as well. We have to ensure the sector is fully compliant with environmental law and legally binding emissions reduction targets. That can be done if the political will is there but it can not be done with this Bill. Instead of playing politics with people's livelihoods and the environment, the Government should publish the report of the working group on horticultural peat. It should outline how it intends to resolve the problems in a credible way that can be implemented and serves the horticulture sectors, serves the communities that depend on them and protects the environment and its biodiversity. The Bill does not resolve the immediate issues at hand. I would have loved the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to have explained to the House how it squares with the response he put on the record in October.

The one thing that is clear from today is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do not have the interests of rural communities or the rural environment at heart. This is the kind of cynical political theatre that serves nobody and gives people false hope. It only serves the Senators who have their eyes on Dáil seats in the next general election. It is pure political theatre and increasingly the electorate is seeing through it. The electorate wants proper solutions that will protect our environment, see us meet our emissions targets and protect the horticultural sector. It also wants to see less of the political theatrics.

We are using a lot of language about extracting and harvesting. I do not know if that is a reflection of what we are talking about when we speak of removing peat from the earth. It is more suitable to say we are mining peat because it is not renewable in any relevant timescale. It takes an enormous amount of time to renew peatlands. We should start calling it mining. I do not know how the public would feel about that but it is a useful word to put into people's minds.

Many of the points made in the debate end up being repeated but I want to talk about the legal question. I have spoken to a number of people about this in recent days because I wanted to get a good background on the legal aspect of this. I am open to correction by either the Attorney General or the Minister of State but there seems to be a strong belief that this Bill contravenes EU law. One of the EU laws that people I have spoken to claim would be contravened is the one that was given effect by Deputy Bruton when he was Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Does this Bill contravene a law introduced in the previous Dáil by a Fine Gael Minister? It is also worth pointing out that we are not going to meet our self-imposed deadlines or those set by international agreements without converting jobs designed for peat extraction into jobs in areas such as bog rewetting and other vital climate measures which fit in with a just transition.

There is a lot of talk about whether sustainable alternatives exist and about how many people have access to them. Again, it is important to highlight that there is an environmental impact to importing peat as well as a financial cost. No one would say the status quo is sustainable. We have this bizarre situation where peat is leaving the country, which is unsustainable and bad for the environment, yet people in Ireland who need peat are not able to access it.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly raised a good point. Is it because it is not profitable to sell that peat in Ireland? What is going on? Why do we have so much coming out? Why are we importing peat? We have to be honest; the best place for peat to be is in the ground. We talk about the value peat has to the sector but the best value peat has is to our planet. It is only two weeks since COP26, we are in the middle of a climate crisis and we simply will end up as a sizzling wasteland in the next couple of decades unless we get to grips with it. The best place for peat to be for the planet is in the ground. There is no question about the value of peat. Peatland is one of the best carbon stores in the world. It is better than all other vegetation on the planet. We have very little time left to reach our climate targets. Bogs are some of the best tools we have to absorb carbon into the earth.

I am not sure presuming on sustainable peat harvesting for two years is the best way to deal with this. I agree with some previous speakers who pointed out that two years is not a pause. It will make matters significantly worse for a generation of people and politicians. I am sure there are a couple of people in this room who hope to be politicians in 2030. Those people will be dealing with the consequences of not taking things like this seriously. They are potentially creating a problem for themselves down the line.

I welcome the Minister of State indicating the report on recommendations on how to proceed will be published. It is clear that is what a great many people want. It hopefully will provide a solution to this.

Is the temporary suspension of laws, particularly EU directives, the best way to govern, lead, legislate and make political decisions? I do not know that temporarily suspending laws because we need to get to grips with them is the best way to do things. I am not entirely clear in that regard.

Currently, large-scale peat extraction needs both planning permission and EPA licensing, with in-depth assessment of environmental and climate impacts under both regimes. That is a requirement under EU law and this legislation proposes to not have that. Having both, that is, the environmental assessment and others, is really important. I do not have any objection to that. I do not know that we should be trying to circumvent environmental protection objectives of key EU directives. That would amount to a breach of, if not EU law, certainly our commitment to co-operation with EU directives. That is not a particularly good look or vibe at the moment when we are dealing with a crisis.

I agree with Senator Boylan that it is frustrating that we have proposed legislation coming from Government Senators in this House that is not being supported by other Government party members. It is not an effective way to do law or build cross-party support. Those of us in the Opposition are looking on and wondering what is going on if they cannot get agreement amongst themselves. It is not a good way to do legislation or proceed with things.

The main concern of our party is that this is not compatible with EU law, EU directives and certainly not with what we have agreed in terms of EU co-operation. That is not a very good reason to pass legislation when there are so many questions over it.

It is not compatible with EU law or with the achievement or maintenance of 1.5°C of global warming. Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. They store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. Damaged and drained peatlands are no longer a benefit or a carbon store, however; in fact, they become major emitters. It is estimated that between 5% and 6% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions each year come from damaged peatlands. To be clear, when we allow the damaging of peatlands to continue, we lose twice. We lose on the carbon we do not sequester and on the emissions that are going out. There is a double cost to the environment from this measure.

Worldwide, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I agree we should be looking to the global implications. We should not be importing from Sri Lanka.

We certainly should be supporting, for example, the Congo Basin to keep its peat in the ground rather than it being pressed to export it.

The restoration of peatlands has been stated as a priority, which we have heard mentioned many times. It is one of the few cards Ireland has to play in terms it being a climate sink. It is one thing we have said we will do. To be clear, it has been calculated by the top peatland experts that we could reduce our greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions by 15% if we restored peatlands. That is important because the European Commission has set a target of 2035 for net zero carbon on land use. This is one of the most efficient, achievable emission reduction instruments we have at a time when not only the horticulture sector but every sector will have to change. We are in a climate crisis and every sector will be making changes. Just transition is about addressing every sector. I support just transition but it is about supporting those in the industry, not about delaying the transition.

The environmental information is clear. The legal aspects are also extremely clear. Let me address what the Bill provides. It will give a derogation, which could extend to 2030, into the next two carbon budgets to 2022, 2026 and potentially to 2030. If we say this is about the small horticulture businesses and not the big peat contractors, which, as we have heard, have exported 500,000 tonnes of peat last year and 900,000 tonnes of peat the previous year, but the alarm bell for peat extraction was sounded in 2019. We have already had our temporary or emergency period for transition. That happened in 2019 and that is a charitable interpretation. The need to exit from horticultural peat has been clear since the 1990s and even in 2014, Ireland was being criticised by the European Court of Justice for its failure to designate special areas of conversation or natural heritage areas. I hope the Minister of State will address the point. I was in the Oireachtas after that 2019 ruling and instead of seeking address the crisis, perhaps by having Bord na Móna as the one extractive body whose actions we could control, we were seeking to de-designate new bogs. That is what was being used as political capital. The Fine Gael Party and the Fianna Fáil Party put forward those motions and they were the parties in the previous Government. I spoke about these issues. It is not as if a sudden alarm has arisen about peat extraction.

One of the most shameful pieces of political theatre concerns the 4,000 tonnes of peat that has been imported. That has deeply discredited the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and others who supported that language. How can we engage with them credibly on the climate debate, as we want to, if they have been putting out the figure of 4,000 tonnes of peat in terms of imports, while not discussing the export of 500,000 tonnes of peat?

Let us be clear, the Bill allows for the continuation of exports of horticultural peat. Extraction is not limited for the purposes of only domestic horticultural peat. The Bill also rewards those who have been recklessly extracting peat during the past year and half with full knowledge of the 2019 ruling. Section 3(1)(b) of the Bill states "nothing ... [should be] affected by any previous unauthorised peat extraction ... or associated unauthorised development". Again, we will reward those. This legislation is the last chance saloon. People will extract what they can quietly, the previous Government had a non-action approach to it and this Government is asking that we apply blinkers again. This is effectively a nod and wink Bill to the effect that we should again turn our backs and a blind eye to the extraction that has been taking place.

Clearly, this Bill is not compatible with the 2019 landmark High Court ruling. Neither is it compatible with the environmental impact assessment directive or habitats directive Crucially, I do not believe it is procedurally, legally compatible with Articles 9(2) or 9(3) of the Aarhus Convention. Members of the public have a right to a say in environmental decision-making that affects their future.

The Bill is not legally sound and it will not stand up to scrutiny. I urge that the Minister of State does not make unnecessary inappropriate concessions that tie our hands for the next five or ten years up to 2030.

If we do so, we will send a signal to every sector that political theatre will be rewarded. Let us be clear, if export miles are the issue, then let us have scope 3 accounting for everything, so we measure the miles attached to the supply chain in both directions for all our agricultural produce. That is something I will support.

In the next slot, Senators Kyne and Dolan are sharing time and they have three minutes each.

We have six minutes each.

I will take six minutes, if that is okay.

I would like to acknowledge the work by Senators Doherty and Gallagher on this important legislation. The purpose of any Second Stage debate is to do just that - to debate and to put forward facts, to put forward alternative facts, if one can use that phrase, to dispute items and to put forward concerns people have regarding the legislation. It is important to put that on the record.

On where we are, I will make a few points and the Minister of State might be able to confirm them or comment on them. Could he confirm that there are no viable alternative mediums to peat for the horticultural sector that have proved to be available, affordable, sustainable and meet quality as well as environmental requirements? Also, 0.12% of Irish peatlands is required for peat extraction for the purposes of horticulture. That is what this is about. This is not about large-scale extraction. This is about what we can do to support an industry that is hugely important for food production and has a valuable role to play in employment as well. As has been said, the Bill will reinstate for a temporary period the exemption from the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2021 for peat extraction for the purposes of horticulture.

It has been reported that the Bill is incompatible with EU law. Is it the Bill that is incompatible, or is it the practice of extraction that is incompatible? If it is the Bill, that is one thing. However, if the practice is incompatible with EU law, how then is the harvesting of peat in the Baltic states, which is brought to Ireland, compatible with the same EU law, considering they are EU member states? We, in government - I am sure the Opposition is doing so as well - are trying to convince everyone in society that climate change is real and that we need to change. We are trying to bring people, in particular, farmers, with us. How can we convince them that transporting peat from halfway around the world to Ireland is a good thing? How does that make sense if we are trying to convince a farmer to plant trees? The farmers will say, “You want me to plant trees and you are importing peat from halfway around the world”. I accept there are issues around why the horticulture sector cannot source peat here. That is a valid question. If it was able to source peat here, we would not be here debating this Bill. That is a valid question and it needs to be answered. In the absence of being able to source peat here, it is being brought in from other EU member states and from Asia. That just does not make sense. As I said, it creates so many issues with the message that we have to send to farmers and everyone else about the things they need to do. I am sure the Minister of State sees where we are coming from. I appreciate the Minister of State will have issues with other aspects but that is the principle here.

The Minister of State may go to an IFA meeting with farmers and tell them that they need to do X, Y, or Z in terms of planting, habitats and reductions in nitrogen. This is all worthy stuff, which we have supported. However, they will throw it back and say “Yes, but you are importing peat and are stopping Irish lads cutting turf." That is what is being thrown back at us. Those are the difficulties we face.

There has always been a debate in this country about the ordinary turf cutter. Many of us have done this, including my uncle, although he is not in the position to do it anymore. He cut a few hoppers of turf. There has always been that debate between those small-scale harvesters, if you like, and the Bord na Mónas. I had many a debate with Senator Higgins in my previous role in the then Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, on behalf of then Minister, Deputy Madigan.

I understand that the wildlife legislation is still with the Department and may reappear. That remains to be seen. That is central to the debate. It is about designating some of those State-owned lands, protecting them and ensuring that they are not harvested, and allowing some of the smaller farmers to complete the harvesting on some of their bogs, which have been damaged. That is what that Bill is about. There is a larger issue here regarding harvesting, turf and peat but this Bill is about protecting one sector.

If there is another method of ensuring that peat is sourced in this country for the horticulture sector, rather than the ethos of this Bill, then that needs to be looked at. If there is a reason why the horticultural sector cannot get it, such as quality, it needs to be addressed. If large-scale suppliers are not providing to the horticulture sector for price reasons, then that has to be debated. Either way, we need to ensure that the growing media that they need are available in the short term, until research provides new media of growth for the mushroom and horticulture sectors. That is what this Bill attempts to do.

I welcome the Minister of State. I would like to put on the record that I have found the Minister of State to be very approachable. He and I have had many discussions about this issue, through Commencement matters or whatever else. I have always found the Minister of State amenable.

I have listened to the debate. We all have one thing in common in this House, which is the love for our climate. Everyone has a responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that we reduce the carbon footprint, regardless of what element of society we come from. If we are going to take the Irish people with us on this journey, the messaging has to make sense. I have no doubt that if the messaging makes sense, the Irish people, especially the farming community, will do the right thing, as they have always done. I say "messaging" because I would contend that the messaging about this issue is confusing. We are saying to people that they cannot extract 0.1% of the entire peatland of the State for the purpose of horticulture.

I refer specifically to the mushroom industry in County Monaghan. The horticulture sector would use 0.12% in total and the mushroom industry would be much less than that. Somehow, it is okay to import thousands of tonnes into this country every fortnight, coming from the Baltic states or wherever else. It is okay for 200 trucks to drive round Latvia, pick up their cargo, take it to a port, ship it across thousands of kilometres to the Irish Sea and have it arrive at a port here, where 200 trucks have to load their cargo and drive up the boreens to deliver it.

Creating jobs in this country is not easy. Creating jobs in a place like rural Ireland is a much more difficult task. We are fortunate in Monaghan that we have a strong agrifood business.

One sector of that agrifood business we are very proud of is the mushroom industry. It is estimated that the mushroom industry employs 3,500 people out of the 17,000 mentioned here earlier. Many of those jobs are located in County Monaghan. Monaghan Mushrooms is the largest exporter of mushrooms in Europe and the second or third largest in the entire world. There are loads of other smaller enterprises and small farmers with small mushroom huts that keep their families going. What we are talking about here this afternoon is common sense. We need a temporary, commonsense solution in order to sustain those jobs. When someone from Monaghan Mushrooms knocks on my door and says we have a crisis I will listen because there are too many jobs at stake not to do so. We are not saying this legislation is perfect but I hope it acts as a catalyst so the Government will finally act. I am not pointing the finger at the Minister of State when I say that because there are more Departments involved in this decision-making than just his. It is vitally important and we have gotten to a critical stage. Somebody needs to grasp the nettle because there are too many livelihoods and jobs at stake in rural Ireland, where it is difficult to create jobs. I ask that the Government act on this. I have asked the Minister of State to do this several times. I know he is doing his best but we need action and we need it now.

It was great to have the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, with us yesterday to launch the Shannon master tourism plan. It was a great day for the region and all living around the River Shannon.

Unfortunately I do not have too much time but the Acting Chairperson might be kind and give me a minute or two. I do not think it is fair for any Senator to say that anybody who put their name to this particular Bill was doing it for any cynical reason. I studied horticulture in college and my first job for a number of years was teaching horticulture. I was involved in running a horticulture business for some time. I certainly did not put my name to this for any cynical reason and I do not believe the Senators who put their names to it did that either. What everyone has to realise is that we have been lobbied by a lot of genuine people who are seriously concerned about their future.

Like Senator Gallagher, I have to say that any time I approach the Minister of State he is a gentleman. He listens and he understands the crisis we have. I want to acknowledge that publicly. However, it is our job to fight, whether we are in government or not, for people who need that bit of support. I have never lobbied for the big exporters. Senator Garvey was right when she said that we need a debate. We need to discuss what is happening. I even heard a rumour that some of the peat that was imported from Latvia could have been exported again. I urge Senator Garvey to share that information with us as quickly as possible. I am sure she will.

We cannot just return to what we were doing. I am fully committed to what we have to do with our bogs and I am fully committed to what we have said we will do on climate change but we cannot have peat being imported from Latvia to serve Irish growers. I am told that despite what we saved by closing down our bogs, this continuous importing of peat from Latvia will actually cost us an awful lot more in its carbon footprint. We are defeating the purpose of what we are trying to achieve and that is a difficulty for the Government.

I and the other Senators who signed this Bill are here for the right reasons. To be quite honest, I am glad we do not say "Yes sir, no sir" or "Yes ma'am, no ma'am" just because our party is in government. We will stand up for people and we have to stand up for them. I am standing up or the small growers. The Minister of State has a great understanding of small growers and he is concerned. I have spoken to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Taoiseach and have mentioned this to the Minister of State. Quite a lot of peat was extracted in the Mount Dillon area on the Roscommon-Longford border and has not been used. That should be used for the horticultural sector. It is suitable and I am sure that 80% of what is lying there in piles could be used. It has been extracted and I do not think there is any point in putting it back into the bogs. It would get us out of this situation. We are only talking about the mushroom industry and other parts of the horticultural industry, which will be in crisis if we do not solve this problem.

I rise to speak about one thing only and that is the mushroom industry. It is the only thing I am concerned with. I oppose the export of Irish peat to the UK and other places for horticultural purposes there. They can get on with their John Innes compost or whatever else they have. I am only concerned with the mushroom industry and the people whose jobs are at issue in the mushroom industry. It is all very well to come into this House and blame parties for the errors that have happened. Sometimes we should be honest - I hope the Minister of State will not take exception to this - and say the Administration in our country is to blame for much of the messing that goes on. We only have to look at the messing going on the forestry business at the moment and the complete omnishambles of our failure to meet forestry targets. It is no political party's policy that should be the case but it has just happened by sheer incompetence thus far. It is not a party political point. There is no point in attacking the Greens on this or the Greens feeling sensitive because it is Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's Senators-----

We are not sensitive.

-----who are promoting this Bill. It is important that we do something practical now for the mushroom industry. I have known about this from another aspect of my life, which I will not go into. We have known for more than three years that this crisis was coming but nobody stood up to say they were going to deal with it and save the mushroom industry. There is no point in coming in here and saying we need research into a different medium for growing mushrooms at this point because the industry will be wiped out while people in Teagasc try to work out whether gorse needles or something else can be ground up to produce a medium. There is no point in doing that kind of thing. We now have to have some derogation simply to produce extracted peat or mined peat, if you want to use that phrase, to supply that industry while we work on an alternative.

I hope the Ministers in the various Departments, as it is a cross-departmental issue, are working on some kind of measure, which this Bill is trying to get at, that will keep the show on the road for all those people who are about to lose their jobs. You can be in Friends of the Irish Environment and say your credentials are ultra perfect, that you stopped this and stopped that and you can make very obvious points about the science of it, which I accept completely, that peat is a hugely important carbon storage medium but in the end, let us be honest with ourselves, something has to give on this. By way of example, when I was on the energy committee in the last Dáil, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was on it with me, and a Bill was put forward by Deputy Bríd Smith to stop all gas exploration. I remember saying, "Hold it, we will need gas for the next 30 years." The response was that we were going to have alternative means of producing energy, we did not need it and we must stop gas exploration now. That was the imperative. It is easy to pose on these issues. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, went to the Cabinet today, I think, to say we need two need gas stations, and will need them for the next 20 or 30 years as a backup. I do not understand how it made sense to give up gas exploration in those circumstances and to render ourselves liable to Mr. Putin turning off the tap or gas prices shooting up in England.

The reason I mention that is that you can be as environmentalist as you like, but you must be truthful and practical and look at the consequence of what you are suggesting. When Friends of the Irish Environment go to court to seek this or that declaration, it should say what its plan is for the mushroom industry in Monaghan for the next five years.

A ban on exports of peat to the UK is no problem as far as I am concerned, but I am concerned about the people who are working in and running one of the most successful export businesses in this country. They are entitled to the assistance of their legislators. They are entitled to the backing of their Government and, from those who have a different view of where the balance should lie environmentally, they are entitled to fairness and some degree of hope. I ask the Minister of State, who I know is a reasonable man - I have personal experience of that - to accept that the mushroom industry is walking into a crisis if we do not act now. Something must happen. If not this Bill, which will be talked out today rather than voted on, something must happen. Something must give. Something must be put on the table to keep the mushroom industry going over the next three to five years while other things happen.

The next slot is being shared by Senators Dolan and Carrigy.

Can the Acting Chairman confirm that I have six minutes?

The Senator has three minutes and Senator Carrigy has three minutes.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being here. It is crucial that we talk about peat, transition and climate change, but who is talking about people? Who is talking about people and about jobs?

We are talking about peat. I live in Ballinasloe. Less than 10 km from Shannonbridge, there are seasonal workers who have lost their jobs. I know people who have lost their jobs. Roscommon has been hugely impacted by the loss of the Lanesborough facility. We are in the midst of a just transition or, at least, we talk about being in the midst of a just transition. How just is this transition in Ireland? According to timelines, the impact of the closure of the ESB and Bord na Móna was not planned. They expected to be operational for another number of years and that there would be a transition plan in place.

We talk about the EU and the EU banning this and that. That is not the case. To be very clear, the EU supports a just transition. It supports a transition to impact the social and economic status of families and people, particularly people in the west of Ireland who are affected. In the west, we are already at a disadvantage. In the urban centres we can talk about a just transition when we have access to public transport. We can talk about a great transition when there are so many jobs in our city centres. How many jobs are there 10 km from Ballinasloe or 40 km from Galway city when one is a seasonal worker? What just transition is there?

That is correct.

According to the EU:

The Just Transition Mechanism (JTM) is a key tool to ensure that the transition towards a climate-neutral economy happens in a fair way [a fair way not for some but for everyone in this country] leaving no one behind. It provides targeted support to help mobilise around €55 billion over the period 2021-2027 in the most affected regions.

Frans Timmermans has stated, "We must show solidarity with the most affected regions in Europe, such as coal mining regions and others, to make sure the Green Deal gets everyone’s full support and has a chance to become a reality". My region is a region in transition. That means that it is not the same as every other region in Ireland. It is not the same as Munster or the same as Leinster. It is a region in transition. We have less investment per capita in healthcare and education yet it is okay to say that we can lose jobs willy nilly. There is no just transition for the people who have jobs in those areas and to support their families to make the change.

We know that rural Ireland will be impacted more by the changes that we face. We are willing to face that. Our farmers are willing to do that, but it has to be fair. There must be timelines and consideration about the impacts on areas of disadvantage. Currently, that is not the case.

We have many raised bogs in our area in the west. We have the environments that we are trying to fight for under CAP reform. Our areas, hedgerows and all the other things that we do, such as our extensive farming and eco-schemes, should be counted.

Are they being counted in CAP? Bord na Móna is now a climate solutions company. That is fantastic. People are changing their jobs and new roles have been assigned, but how many new roles are there for our seasonal workers? The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science heard today that the rate of lifelong learning in Ireland was 11%. This means that older people in our communities, and I am guessing especially in the west, are not going back to further and higher education. They will not be able to reskill or upskill and get new roles. I ask that the Minister of State take this into account.

I take exception to the comment that most of us who have put our names to this Bill are being cynical. I am not in any way cynical. I am here to represent the people of my area. That is the job of every public representative.

I welcome the Bill and am delighted to have put my signature to it. I compliment Senators Gallagher and Doherty on their work on it.

I am from Longford, which has seen the shutdown of the Lough Ree power station. A consequence of that was the closure of Bord na Móna's Mountdillon site, causing significant job losses. I am chairperson of the county tourism committee. For many years, I have been one of the strongest proponents of developing what we term the mid-Shannon wilderness park as a natural amenity of 20,000 acres of rehabilitated bogland. I support its development and believe it could be an economic driver for our community.

The area of peatland that is relevant to the horticultural industry only represents 0.12% of total Irish peatlands and is a fraction of what we previously harvested. The impact of imported peat undermines Ireland's commitment to global climate action. A recent study by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine estimated that the horticultural industry was worth €477 million, the fourth largest industry in terms of gross agricultural commodity output. It also provides up to 17,000 jobs.

A number of Members have met various IFA groups, farm interest groups and so on about this matter. They acknowledge the situation but they are seeking emergency legislation. They want the Department to explore the legislative avenues for the replacement of the dual consent system for large-scale commercial peat extraction by a new consent system similar to those in place in other EU countries, ensure that the just transition fund is available in the short term to compensate the industry, and provide funding to enable research and development to be carried out on reduced peat and peat-free growing media. No one is against the route we are taking. The farming industry and I politically understand the reason, but we need a dual system to get us to the point where our growing media can produce the horticulture that we need without having to use peat. This Bill does that.

Over the past number of months, we have had politicians from all parties and groups expressing their opposition to Ireland becoming dependent on imported peat. The Bill complies with EU law. To take up Senator Kyne's point, how could the Bill not be compliant with EU law if it is compliant for us to import from Latvia? I cannot get my head around that.

I give my full support to the Bill that has been introduced by the two parties. I understand why there might be opposition to it, but it is a time-sensitive Bill that means to get us to the point at which we can find an alternative. That is a workable solution.

I apologise to the Senators who will not make it into the debate, but I must call the Minister of State.

On a point of clarification, is the Minister of State the last speaker?

Yes, unless we end up with more time, but we have already eaten into his time by six or seven minutes.

This debate is to be adjourned and will be resumed.

I thank Senators for their very valuable and passionate contributions to what has been a really useful debate. I want to make two very quick points before I sum up. First, the report is going to Cabinet with recommendations and a memo on it but that is not sparked by this Bill. We have been working on this for a long time. I assure the House that we have been working tirelessly for many months on this and if it were simple, we would have embarked on the legislative process already. It is not so simple and we cannot do it. The second point is that we must work together on this. We have heard speakers from across the House outline the challenges facing the sector. It is a sector that I worked in for many years as a landscape gardener and one that I truly value, but as an environmentalist, I also value our peatlands.

To respond to Senator Doherty, who introduced the Bill and opened the debate, nobody is against fixing this. We are all in favour of fixing it. We have advice from the Office of the Attorney General around its legality and compliance with EU law. There is also advice that the Bill itself should be subject to a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, which it has not been. It is critically important to work within the law on this. Senator Boyhan and I have spoken on many occasions about the mushroom and horticultural sectors but also about saving our bogs. I know that biodiversity is something he greatly values and that he is particularly interested in the area of innovation and the research being conducted by Teagasc. We will see recommendations in the report around that research. I also have a report here from the UK and assure the House that a lot of very good work is going on in the UK around peat alternatives. A lot of really good work is being done internationally that we can share. We got this report at the peatlands pavilion at COP26. A huge amount of international research is being done on peat alternatives and huge value is placed on Irish peatlands.

Senator O'Loughlin spoke about the horticultural sector in County Kildare and I appreciate its importance there. Senator Malcolm Byrne argued that there is no greener sector and I agree with him on that. He mentioned the Dutch continuing on in this space but the Dutch are also on the same journey as us. We all have to share that journey. Many years ago when I joined the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, it was the Dutch who came in and bought Irish bogs to help to save our peatlands. It is fantastic that we are on this journey but we have to do this together.

I will not have time to respond to all of the points raised in the debate today before I make my closing remarks. Senator Boylan raised the issue of the dual consent process and referred to the comments of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in this House on 13 October. Again, this is a wider issue than planning and an amendment to the Environmental Protection Agency Act would be required. I reiterate that it is not that simple, which is why we are here having this debate. Senator Boylan also mentioned bog rewetting and other climate measures as well as figures for importing and exporting peat. We have lots of figures being bandied about but the picture is as murky as the peatland itself. We do not know what the reality is in that regard.

Senator Higgins quite rightly mentioned the fact that our bogs and peatlands are carbon stores. Again, I go back to the conversations that we had at the very first peatlands pavilion at COP26 and the great respect for the work being done in Ireland on habitat restoration and bog rewetting. This is something we can be leaders on and we are sharing our experience with our international partners. Senator Higgins also noted the real risk of infringement proceedings if we seek to introduce a solution that is not compliant with EU environmental law. We must take that seriously.

Senator Kyne spoke about viable alternatives and we are exploring that area. Senator Gallagher also referred to the mushroom sector. I have spoken with him about that sector on numerous occasions. We want to find a collective solution and I am appealing to all Members of this House to work towards that.

In the short time remaining, I will go through my scripted closing speech but before doing so, I reiterate my belief that we can find a solution to this. While I welcome today's debate, I must point out that the Government will be opposing this Bill. In the context of interruptions to the supply of peat in the horticultural industry, the Government wants to protect jobs, livelihoods and our domestic horticultural industry. I see where Senators are coming from and appreciate that their concerns are genuine. I share those concerns and have been working with colleagues across government to address them for a number of months now.

That is why we have listened very carefully to the contributions here today. The concerns that people have for the horticulture industry are valid. However, while I believe that this Bill is well intentioned, as others have identified, any proposals that we bring forward to address these concerns must be in compliance with Ireland's obligations under the environmental impact assessment and habitats directives. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in breach of European law, and potentially back in a situation where the legislation would not withstand a challenge in the courts. That is not where any of us wish to be.

My Department has received initial legal advice on the Bill from the Office of the Attorney General, which has indicated that there are serious legal issues with the Bill in terms of EU environmental law. We must take those concerns very seriously but we also have to work together to find solutions for the domestic horticultural industry. That is what the Government is working to achieve.

Senators will be aware that I commissioned a working group, under the chairmanship of Dr. Munoo Prasad, to examine the potential of alternatives to the use of peat in horticulture. This report will be brought in a memorandum to the Government very shortly – I understand it will be next week - accompanied by a series of additional proposals developed in a significant piece of cross-departmental work undertaken by the Departments of the Environment, Climate and Communications, Agriculture, Food and the Marine and my own Department, which have been working together to identify a series of steps that can be taken to assist the industry in addressing these challenges. On balance, I am of the view that we should proceed with the approach which will be brought to the Government in the coming days. While I understand the reason for wishing to bring this Bill forward, I cannot support it.

We are all grateful for the value of our peatlands and the change in conversation. A huge transition is taking place. In many ways it is very exciting, but incredibly challenging and worrying for many who have worked in this sector. Our relationship with peatlands is in a transformation. It is something that people have had historically, culturally, socially and economically but it is in flux. We want to work together as legislators to help the sector, but also to help peatlands, biodiversity and climate. I again thank Senators for their valuable contributions here this afternoon.

I thank the Minister of State. When the debate resumes, he is entitled to the balance of the eight minutes that we deducted from him today.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 4.17 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.