State Forestry: Motion (Resumed) [Private Members]

The following motion was moved by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett on Tuesday, 26 February 2013:
That Dáil Éireann:
notes, with dismay, the Government’s intention, under the troika deal, to sell the harvesting rights to our national forests;
notes that:
— Ireland’s publicly owned forests are one of our most precious natural resources and a priceless part of our culture and heritage, that must be nurtured and protected in the interests of current and future generations;
— since Coillte was created it has already sold over 40,000 acres of forest land; in 2009 it sold €33 million worth of forests, in 2010, €38 million and in 2011, €37 million;
— the national forests represent 11% of the landmass of Ireland, 745,000 hectares, 1.6 million acres; and that the Coillte estate owns and runs 7% of the landmass, which includes maintaining 11 forest parks, 150 recreation sites and 23,000 km of roadways;
— according to the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association, IFFPA, in 2010 Irish forestry and the forest product sector generated €2.2 billion in annual output, 1.3% of GDP, and forest products to a value of €286 million were exported;
— the sector employs 12,000 people across the State;
— over 18 million individual visits are made to the national forest estate each year and according to IFFPA total economic activity generated by domestic users is an estimated €286 million and overseas visitors a further €138 million;
— in 2008, 517,000 tourist visitors participated in forest walking while holidaying in Ireland, spending an estimated €364 million;
— according to IFFPA, for every 15,000 hectares planted, 490 jobs will be created, indicating enormous potential for employment creation;
— much of the State’s forest land and associated industry and employment is based in rural Ireland and is a vital part of the rural economy;
— the percentage of afforested land in Ireland, at 11%, is well below the European average, representing an enormous unrealised potential for the State and its citizens to generate thousands of jobs and a reliable source of income;
— Ireland has agreed to the Europe-wide target of 30% forest land;
— a country such as Switzerland, which is half the size of Ireland, through prudent and sensitive management of their forestry, employs 100,000 people in the forestry and forestry related sectors, setting a standard that Ireland should seek to emulate;
— no other country in Europe has privatised state forestry or harvesting rights and higher levels of afforestation and related employment have been achieved where the state retains substantial ownership and management of the national forests;
— in Sweden part-privatisation of state forestry was recently reversed and the sector taken back into public ownership;
— in the United Kingdom recent proposals for the privatisation of state forestry were abandoned after there was enormous public outcry, leading to the establishment of an independent committee which recommended greater community participation and development of native species;
— there has been no consultation with stakeholders on the planned sale of Coillte harvesting rights and the potential impact of privatisation in terms of amenity loss, security of supply, environmental impact, job losses and other social and economic consequences;
— the intergenerational commitment implicit in the creation and stewardship of forests means that they are best owned by altruistic and long surviving institutions such as nation states;
— forests play a huge role in mitigating climate change and regulating the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and, as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Ireland is committed to reducing CO2 emissions; and that Irish forests stored 2.2 million tonnes of carbon in 2010 alone;
— the specific habitats of Irish forests will be threatened by privatisation, and it is unclear how the Government intends to address reforestation, species mix, environmental design, forestry inventories and other regulatory environmental issues which, if not planned, will have a detrimental knock-on effect on wildlife;
— privatisation of some state forests in New Zealand has led to major problems with public access, job losses and contracting of the wood processing sector;
— the 745,000 hectares, 1.6 million acres, of forests in Ireland represents an integral part of our heritage which should be developed and expanded; and
— the reported valuation by NewERA of Coillte harvesting rights of €700 million, which equates to approximately €580 per acre of trees, is almost certainly a gross undervaluation of these forests;
believes that the commercial pressure to make immediate profits that would be on any private investor who might take over the harvesting rights of Coillte would critically militate against the imperative to maintain public access to our forests, to invest in long-term sustainable management of those forests in the interest of the public and to generate much needed employment; and
calls on the Government to:
— abandon any plans to sell the harvesting rights of public forest lands under the control of Coillte;
— maintain Ireland’s public forestry in full public ownership in perpetuity;
— establish a major forum involving all stakeholders and concerned groups on the future of Irish forestry;
— rapidly accelerate afforestation in Ireland to at least the European average over the next ten years and to meet the existing targets of 30% forestation;
— establish a major programme of public investment and public works in Irish forestry with a view to creating jobs in this sector and boosting the ratio of forest related employment to forest acreage from the current low level to levels similar to countries such as Switzerland;
— put a particular focus on developing and expanding the cultivation of native hardwoods and developing local community involvement in the development of Irish forestry;
— improve the utilisation and development of public forestry with an emphasis on increasing our low forest cover with our native hardwood species which would help alleviate flooding, maintain soil fertility and reverse the acidification caused by conifers; and
— increase the use of timber as fuel for local communities by coppicing; protect water sources; and restore rivers and lakes to bring back freshwater fish stocks.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
“recognises that for the duration of the EU-IMF financial assistance programme the Irish authorities have taken, and will continue to take, all the necessary measures to ensure a successful implementation of the programme and to minimise the cost to the taxpayer, while protecting the more vulnerable;
- in this context, welcomes the fact that half of the proceeds from the Government’s State assets disposal programme will be available to the Government for reinvestment in job-rich projects to help job creation, with the other half, while eventually destined to reduce public debt, also being available, in the first instance, to be constituted as a fund to underpin additional lending into Ireland, for example, by the European Investment Bank, in support of further investment in job-creating initiatives;
- further recognises that the use of the asset disposal proceeds in this way, for stimulus and, in time, for debt reduction, will support economic growth and preserve long-term fiscal sustainability, including programme targets;
- notes the Government’s decision that the harvesting rights to Coillte forests be considered for sale and, at their request, the National Treasury Management Agency, via its NewERA Unit, has been actively engaged with Coillte, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine over recent months to examine the financial and other implications of a potential transaction;
- acknowledges, from evidence gathered from similar transactions completed in other jurisdictions, that a transaction can be structured in such a manner as to include provision for the maintenance of the Open Forest policy, reflecting public access to recreational land, the continuation of the existing replanting obligations and the incorporation of biodiversity requirements; and notes that it is the Government’s intention that similar appropriate provisions will be included in any sale of Coillte harvesting rights; and
further notes that:
— the process has also included engagement with potential acquirers of harvesting rights, when requested by them in accordance with the published Government protocol; and the two Departments and NewERA have also, when requested, met with interested stakeholders to discuss their position on the sale of the harvesting rights;
— the steering group, including NewERA, is working closely with Coillte and its board in giving consideration to the implications of a transaction for the company and also for the wider forestry sector, taking account of a series of reports commissioned by Coillte in 2012 from specialist external advisers; and
— as part of this process, the steering group have met with the Coillte group of unions in January where they outlined the process involved and received the view of those unions and copies of the report by Peter Bacon, which was commissioned by the unions; and it was agreed that a further meeting could be held as and when appropriate.”
- (Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform).

The next speaker is Deputy Mary Lou McDonald and she will share her time with Deputies Brian Stanley and Sandra McLellan.

I commend the Deputies of the Technical Group on introducing this comprehensive motion. The motion sets out not just the considerable value of Coillte to our economy, but the importance of Coillte and our woodlands to society and our communities.

Coillte is an important rural employer. At a time when we have almost 15% of our population on the live register, Coillte's role as an employer should not be lost. Any sale of the company's harvesting rights or the failure to develop the massive potential of the forestry sector for timber and biomass production will be detrimental to the public interest, to the economic interests of the State and to the social interests of citizens. The company's role in ecotourism must also be developed. With ten forest parks and over 150 recreation sites, Coillte is the leading provider of outdoor recreation in Ireland, with an estimated 18 million visits to forests under its management each year.

This motion sets out the success of the forestry industry in Switzerland in creating substantial employment and a strong export economy. Of course Switzerland invests in that sector. Sadly, Fianna Fáil with the support of both the Labour Party and Fine Gael surrendered much of its discretion and these rights to the European Union. Putting it plainly, the European Union discriminates against state companies which exist to serve the public good. In 2003, the then Fianna Fáil Government bowed to the European Union's decision not only to cancel European grants worth €47 million to Coillte, but also forced the company to repay an additional €8.3 million received in grants. If Coillte had been a privately owned company, the European Union would have paid the grants with no questions asked. It seems, therefore, we have a bizarre position where private individuals can benefit from EU grants paid for by European citizens, but the citizens themselves cannot benefit via state-sponsored enterprises.

I find it astonishing how easily the Government has forfeited and is prepared to forfeit further indigenous industries. This goes way beyond selling off the family silver. Ideologically, the Labour Party, along with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are simply opposed to the notion of State-owned enterprises, despite the immense benefits these companies have generated for the State and the people. OECD figures show that outside of energy, transport and telecommunications, the extent of State-owned enterprise activity in Ireland ranks towards the bottom in terms of the scope of public enterprise in the economy and public ownership.

A very exciting innovation programme has been in full swing in Coillte for the past two years or so and has massive potential for jobs and added-value use of the raw materials. For example, at the nano-technology level, the crystals that make up wood are harder than steel, offering huge potential. One of the areas of innovation involves exploiting more fully the tops of mountains, the peaks Coillte owns, for telecommunications businesses.

This motion sets out in clear terms the real added value Coillte brings to the economy and society and I see no good reason for the Government to amend or oppose it. If it does, it simply reconfirms its commitment to privatisation and reconfirms its lack of imagination and ambition to developing our natural resources and their indigenous potential.

We are moving towards a situation where the Government is using the cloak of the recession and the troika to attempt to sell off the harvesting rights to our woodlands. I commend the Technical Group on bringing forward this motion.

The decision to sell off harvesting rights will have an immediate effect in Laois and Offaly, an effect that will be felt long into the future. I know Minister Coveney is concerned about rural jobs, but I would like to point out that the sawmills in Coolrain and Mountrath depend almost entirely on the supply of wood from the forests in the Slieve Bloom mountains, Togher, Cullenagh and similar places. These sawmills are economically sound, because the timber for them only needs to be hauled a short distance. This is important in the context of the environment and their carbon footprint. The industry in this area is sustainable because the wood can be hauled to the mills cheaply. The industry provides jobs locally and because the raw material only has to travel a short distance, costs are kept to a minimum.

These businesses in Mountrath, Coolrain and similar places will not survive if they are made uncompetitive. These sawmills are part of the national sawmills group and they operate on a very tight margin. They cannot survive if they are made uncompetitive. Therefore, we need to keep these woodlands and their harvesting rights in the ownership of Coillte. If our woodland is sold off to an international company, we will not have control over it. This will threaten local economies and local jobs. I cannot stress enough the importance of these jobs for counties like Laois and Offaly and for rural areas where there are few, if any, opportunities for other types of employment.

The Bacon report clearly shows that the sale of harvesting rights will cost the State €1.3 billion. There are a number of outstanding questions that need to be answered in this regard. How much Coillte land has already been sold and who has bought it? The Government amendment refers to investors and consultations with interested investors. Who are they? Will Coillte remain commercially viable if it sells its harvesting rights? This is the key question. If it sells these rights, the State will no longer receive the dividend it needs. I believe this decision is wrong and I hope it does not happen. I beg the Government to retain Coillte and its woodlands in semi-State ownership.

Sinn Féin is absolutely opposed to the Government's proposal to sell off the harvesting rights to our national forests. That the troika prompted the sale of such an important national asset to proceed is, to say the least, simply shocking. It is shocking from a number of aspects, economic, environmental and recreational. More importantly, in the context of employment, the sale of Coillte makes absolutely no sense.

In his report on the proposed sale of Coillte's harvesting rights, Peter Bacon looks in some detail at all of these areas. He concludes: "The economic rationale for the proposed sale of harvesting rights no longer stands up and cannot be justified." Coillte is wholly owned by the Irish State and its job is to manage the nation's forests, which make up 11% of the landmass of Ireland. As a wholly owned State company, Coillte accounts for more than 80% of all timber that is sold on the Irish market each year. As Bacon noted: "Coillte output will remain vital to timber processing operations in Ireland as it will comprise almost the only source of supply of large diameter mature timber for many years to come."

What is even more worrying is that the proposed sale is not based on the performance of Coillte or on the market value for timber.

In other words, no efficiency audit of Coillte was undertaken by the Government to ascertain whether the proposal to sell one of the nation's most valuable assets made any sense. The sale of Coillte would make no sense because it would ultimately have an adverse impact on direct employment in this sector and in tourism industry. The Coillte annual report estimates that visits to forest sites deliver in excess of €270 million to the tourism sector each year. The sale of Coillte makes no economic or environmental sense and should be abandoned by the Government immediately.

I would like to share time with Deputies Martin Heydon, Ann Phelan, Eamonn Maloney and Michael McNamara.

I thank the Technical Group for bringing this motion before the House and giving me an opportunity to speak on the issue. I was not present for the start of the debate yesterday because I was in Brussels. I am pleased to be in the House this evening to contribute to this important debate which, however, may be somewhat premature. There is an assumption that a decision has been made and it is a matter of time before the sale takes place, but that is not necessarily the case. I want to explain what is happening. The Government decided some months ago to investigate the possibility of selling harvesting rights in our forests, as opposed to the sale of land or the company. We made it quite clear that during the process, we would protect the public good elements of Coillte, including the guaranteed public access onto Coillte lands, and that we would insist on maintaining the crucial importance of Coillte for the country's timber industry.

I wish to deal with some of the issues that have been raised so far in the debate. This is not a question of ideology. A company can function perfectly, employ people and make good use of natural resources in a sustainable, competitive and profitable way, regardless of whether it is State-owned or in the private sector. In the agri-food sector companies such as Kerry Group, Glanbia and Dairygold are spending hundreds of millions of euro to enable them to expand, grow and employ more people. Many are employed in private sector companies in the forestry and timber sector, including Glennon Brothers. These competitive and well run businesses are major clients of Coillte. I accept the point that we should proceed with caution in this regard, given that more than 80% of the commercial timber provided for the sawmills industry in Ireland comes from Coillte.

We need to do a number of things before we proceed with any sale. We have undertaken not one but a number of audits to establish the value of the rights about which we are talking. We have been accused of not doing so. We need to audit the company independently to ensure what we do safeguards its future. If we remove the harvesting rights which comprise a significant asset, we must not fundamentally undermine the ability of Coillte to survive, grow and expand. My Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have been doing a great deal of work with NewERA under the National Treasury Management Agency to inform our consideration of whether we should proceed with the sale of harvesting rights, whether it makes sense to sell a State asset and use 50% of the proceeds to stimulate job creation and whether this can be done without damaging the broader timber industry or the company and its subsidiaries, including SmartPly and Medite. All of these questions are being discussed in some detail. That is why we are not in a position to say a clear decision has been made on if, when or how we will proceed with the sale of harvesting rights. The decision will be taken by the Cabinet when the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin or I - or, more than likely, both of us - have brought a report and recommendation to our ministerial colleagues, which will happen in the not too distant future. At that time, we will make a decision and will stand over it.

The Government is committed to the forestry and timber sectors. The former Minister of State, the late Shane McEntee, did an extraordinary job in protecting the budgets of this sector and getting to know the personalities, companies and people involved, including in Coillte. It is worth noting that despite all of the expenditure reductions which have had to be imposed by all Ministers in recent years, no reduction in expenditure in the forestry sector has been provided for in either of the last two budgets, with the sole exception of a tiny reduction in capital expenditure for forestry roads. We are spending well over €100 million on forestry each year. That money is spent on premiums and afforestation, for example. We planted 7,000 hectares of trees in each of the last two years and will do the same this year. The programme for Government contains a very strong commitment to the sector. When we get an opportunity to spend more money on it and plant significantly more trees than we are currently able to, for reasons of affordability, we will do so.

Ireland is catching up with other European countries in terms of the percentage of land covered by forest. We want to use wood for good purposes - for the timber industry, obviously, but also for the energy and bioenergy industries. We want to use the lands that Coillte owns and for which it is responsible for other good purposes - for wind farms, telecommunications masts and recreation, etc. Some other countries that give an equal level of priority to their forestry sectors have decided to sell forestry rights in certain segments. It happened most recently in south Australia. In doing so, they have protected the timber industry in the local area. They have built into the sales process a requirement to offer to sell timber to local sawmills before the option to sell outside the locality can be considered. One can build whatever one wants into the sales process. I accept the impact of doing so can be to undermine the value of that sale. We are going through a process. We are looking at the viability or non-viability of proceeding with the sale of a very significant asset. When we complete that process, we will be open about how we have arrived at our conclusions. We will then proceed with whatever decision we have made.

I emphasise the Government's commitment to supporting Coillte as a semi-State company. We will proceed carefully with the finalisation of any decision made on the sale of harvesting rights. We are determined to continue to protect the public value that Coillte offers by maintaining public access to its forests and supporting the broader timber industry. As I have said, we should be more ambitious with regard to the potential future uses of Coillte lands. Equally, we should be more ambitious with the dividend we demand from a company as large as Coillte which is responsible for managing 7% of the land mass of the country. It is not good enough that just two financial dividends have ever come back to the State from Coillte which is a good company. Many really good people work for it and there is a great deal of expertise in it. We must demand of Coillte what we demand of all of the other arms of the State. As a country, we need all semi-State companies to perform as well as they can. They need to return a dividend to the State when it needs cash and protect all of the things they are charged with protecting, building and growing. There has been a great deal of innovation within the company. It is examining new ways of carving out profits and creating businesses and jobs through the use of timber, the asset for which it is primarily responsible.

It is important for me to say one more thing about the sale of State assets before I conclude. It has been suggested the only reason this is being considered is that it has been foisted on us by the troika. It is true that pressure from the troika to consider the sale of State assets has certainly been one of the main drivers that has forced the pace in this regard.

However, Fine Gael had a NewERA policy when in opposition which was not driven by ideology, as perhaps Deputy McDonald would suggest, because we were talking about creating new State companies as well as potentially selling some of the existing ones. We have followed through on that. We are setting up a semi-State called Irish Water at the moment, while we are potentially looking at selling a semi-State, Bord Gáis Energy. Any sensible country must look at its portfolio of assets every now and again and make a judgment call as to whether some of those assets should be sold because they are no longer strategically in need of State ownership, and it should look at raising money that can be pumped into building the new assets that are needed to progress an economy. That is what we are doing when setting up the semi-State Irish Water.

It is in that context that we have looked at all of the assets the State owns, both companies and the physical assets themselves. We then have to make a judgment call and a political decision, as a Government, as to what the State strategically needs to own and what the State could perhaps sell to raise money to be able to build the new assets the State strategically needs, given the pressures we are under at the moment. That is the context under which we are considering the sale of harvesting rights. However, at the moment, that is all we are doing. We are considering the sale and we must then make a decision. I might add that it will be an informed decision. There have been at least three audits and reports, including valuations, in regard to this decision, one undertaken by Coillte and two by NewERA. At the end of this process, we will have a recommendation coming to Government, and when we make that decision, we will of course come back into the House and defend it.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important motion. As someone who, when I had more time on my hands, enjoyed many days hill walking in the Wicklow mountains from Glendalough to Lugnaquilla, I am very conscious of the many and varied benefits and uses of our natural forests, the Coillte estate in particular. In one way, while it is a deeply rural issue, it is one part of rural life which can be and is enjoyed by many urban dwellers, particularly in areas like Wicklow, which is so close to the city of Dublin.

I acknowledge there are many genuine concerns surrounding the decision to consider the sale of harvesting rights from Coillte. These include open access to a recreational amenity which is used by many, such as hill walkers, as well as security of supply to the timber producers and sawmills, which is a crucial factor for the people involved in that sector because Coillte provides 80% of their supplies. The direct jobs at Coillte and those in related companies are a consideration, as is the need for a continued afforestation programme and replanting. In addition, the impact on our climate change targets is also important.

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, while speaking in the House yesterday, recognised all of these concerns and confirmed they were all factors that would be taken into consideration in any final decision. This decision is only being considered in light of our current economic plight and shows an analysis of all alternative sources of funding for job creation and infrastructure projects, given the large shortfall in our annual public finances. I accept the Minister, Deputy Coveney's, point that, in our NewERA programme, we showed an openness while in opposition to look at the role all State assets could play. We have to look at value for money and consider any return that can be made. As a Government, we would not be following our mandate if we did not fully consider all options open to us to generate additional revenue.

The process that led to the current consideration of the sale of harvesting rights has already recognised the intrinsic value of the land. I believe we should review all potential sales of State assets to ensure we find the best way of generating these much needed funds, and I make no apology for that. The Government amendment confirms the renegotiated troika position that half of the proceeds from the sale of State assets can be used for re-investment in job-rich Irish projects. It also confirms that while the other half is destined for debt repayment, it could also be available for use in a fund to underpin additional lending in Ireland to fund infrastructure projects and a stimulus package.

These projects are vital. We cannot debate this motion in isolation but must also consider the wider return that could be generated from the proceeds of any sale. In my constituency, there are two projects in particular that are obvious for strategic funding in order to proceed, namely, the southern distributor ring road around the town of Athy and a new primary school in Crookstown. While that school is at an advanced stage of planning and is much needed, it is not currently on the five-year building programme. Additional strategic funds would help it proceed at a much quicker pace. The southern distributor route has been assessed as having an extremely high cost-benefit ratio and would turn around many businesses in the town of Athy that are currently struggling due to the town being clogged with traffic. The €35 million cost needed to progress this project must be found. I am sure there are projects like the southern distributor route and Crookstown school in every area of the country. Their progress would create jobs and economic activity in local towns, as well as providing much-needed facilities.

I am very aware that the whole issue regarding Coillte is one that needs to be got right, all the more reason why we need a calm and thorough debate around all aspects of the proposal. I welcome the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, last night to proceed with great caution throughout this consideration phase and, in particular, his comment that this sale will only proceed if it makes economic and strategic sense for the Irish people.

I note the report of Mr. Peter Bacon, commissioned by IMPACT, and I am aware of his findings. However, I am cautious of reports that are commissioned by such an interested party. Many of his outcomes were based on assumptions and historical information, without any detailed knowledge of the potential structure of any proposed transaction.

The Government recognises the importance of forestry. The Minister touched on the work done by the late Minister of State, Mr. Shane McEntee, in maintaining funding levels in the industry in the past two years. I welcome a thorough review of the Coillte business, irrespective of the outcome, because a review of Coillte's business is warranted and may bring benefits in other areas.

As a member of the Oireachtas agriculture committee, I agree with the views of Deputy Andrew Doyle that the committee is the proper forum to discuss this proposal and the industry in general in a lot more detail with the stakeholders. I look forward to those discussions as a means of shaping this debate further and ensuring that all stakeholders have a detailed opportunity to have their say. Let us use this period as an opportunity to reflect on the value of our forestry assets, how best we can utilise them and if an improved return can be generated, whether that is through the sale of harvesting rights.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this extremely important topic. I welcome the comments of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, given the sale of the harvesting rights of Coillte has created much concern in the community and has been contentious, with many concerned about different aspects of such a sale and the knock-on effect to society in general. However, the point should be made that the proposal only involves the sale of the timber, not the land. This is very important. From what I know of Coillte, its business is in planting trees, harvesting them and selling them on - that is how it has always done its business. I know that if one sows a crop, the only way to make money out of it is to harvest it. The reality is we must deal with that situation.

Nonetheless, I accept there is a wider picture. Like many others, I hope there will be guarantees to re-plant the land from which the trees will be harvested. When communities have been looking at a wooded area for 25 or 30 years, it causes concern when, all of a sudden, the forest is razed to the ground. We should certainly take that on board.

The forests are an amenity in themselves. Deputy Wallace is probably aware of the constituency I represent. The Barrow valley is wooded on both sides as far as St. Mullins, which is getting towards Deputy Wallace's constituency. Part of that woodland has not been cut down for centuries and, if we were to cut it down or alter it, this would have a significant effect on what is one of the most protected views in the whole of Europe.

The forests also have an economic value, not just in the value of the trees, but in the tourism market we hope to attract. However, in times of economic difficulty, we must examine more ways of generating much needed income. It is the job of this Government to look constantly for new ways of redressing the gaps in our finances. Most importantly, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, made a commitment in the House last night that this will only happen if it makes economic sense, which should allay some of the fears people may have.

Guarantees regarding continued public access to the forests, with further commitments to the upkeep of the amenities, have been made by the Minister. Woods and forests that are harvested will be replanted. It has always been the policy that in order to maintain the forests we have, full replanting takes place when an area has been cleared through felling. There will also be specified volume limits for harvesting and guarantees as to the continuity of supply of timber to the markets here, which rely on it. The only trees being targeted are evergreen, non-hardwood trees. These trees do grow very quickly in Ireland. I believe they grow here at double the pace they grow anywhere else. Should the area be re-sown after harvesting, these trees would cover the land very quickly once again. The Government has made commitments not to do anything that will undermine or significantly damage the timber industry or sawmill sector in this country and that position remains unchanged.

If I were to give a personal story about woodlands and community, it would be that of Silaire Wood in Graiguenamanagh in County Kilkenny.

The Deputy's time has expired.

Twenty-five years ago, Coillte decided to harvest the crop of trees it had sown in Silaire Wood. However, the community was very aggrieved by this. Coillte insisted that it was its commercial crop and it needed to realise the value of it. The community came together and decided to buy the crop for £18,000, and we have never looked back. I am delighted to hear that the Minister is proceeding with caution.

Historically, we do not have a great record in the development of forestry. I say that in the context of what other European countries have done. I know other speakers alluded to this yesterday and earlier this evening. We are coming from a country with such huge tracts of virgin soil that there is much potential to develop forestry. We have not managed to do it so far and we certainly have not managed to do it at the speed that some of us would like. I am one of the people who admire the work Coillte has done. In particular, I am very impressed by the publication from IMPACT entitled Save Our Forests. It is a fine piece of work and anyone who has an interest in this should read it. It is a pretty good argument in terms of developing forestry.

Some of us get ourselves knotted up in a great ideological defence that any State asset should not be questioned. If there is a possibility of any sort of job, it matters very little to most people on the dole whether it is in a semi-state company, a communist commune or a private entity. I am glad the Minister stated earlier in his contribution that no decision had been made on this. Nobody on any side of the House can make that claim because it is just a bit of rhetoric. There are two or three fundamentals. People would like Coillte to be more commercially successful because this would be a good thing. Being commercially successful means a better dividend for the taxpayer, saving existing jobs and creating additional jobs. That is what most ordinary people would wish for in this debate.

I do not believe in blowing ourselves apart over State assets. I am not suggesting a blanket sale of State assets but if a private operator in some circumstances can save and expand jobs, that should be looked at. My preference is for Coillte to be able to do that. There is certainly plenty of potential for it to do so and I would like to see it go down that road.

Deputy Maloney praised Coillte quite highly in his speech. I share some of his praise but I also share some concerns. The last time I addressed this issue was the last time the former Minister of State, Shane McEntee, addressed this House. One of the last things he said in the House was how difficult it was to get information from Coillte. We are talking about State assets and I am someone who takes State assets very seriously. Coillte is the guardian of a State asset and the degree of difficulty even Ministers encounter in getting information from it needs to be addressed. Obviously, Coillte has a commercial remit. It is tasked in legislation with making money, but it could also benefit from a much greater degree of openness.

There is a presumption that because all of these assets rest in a semi-state or State body such as Coillte, they are being used for the benefit of the State and communities. I am not convinced that is so; nor am I convinced to the contrary. Clare has one of the highest rates of afforestation in Ireland. I believe it is the third highest rate of afforestation in the country both in terms of the proportion of the county that is forested and the size of the forestry block in the county. Seán Lemass's industrialisation policy came to east Clare and my home town with the creation of a chipboard factory in the 1960s. Much of the forestry planted was on Slieve Aughty and Slieve Bearnagh, which, prior to that, had generated considerable tourism revenue because they were areas for grouse and partridge shooting. Hunting parties came over from London and various parts of the British Isles to exploit that and locals were employed in that business. All of that more or less came to an end with the planting of forests on those mountains. The chipboard factory is no more, as it closed just before the last election. Obviously, it was a victim of the downturn in construction. People simply do not need to buy chipboard in the quantities they did before, either here or in the UK, which were its main markets. One of the great difficulties in finding something to replace that is the fact that Coillte, which has so much of the forests, will not engage in a long-term supply contract with anybody. It will not even discuss the possibility. Due to the necessity of earning money, it will not engage in a 30-year, 50-year, 20-year or even ten-year supply contract because it is determined to sell its crop on a year-by-year basis for the most it can gain. Of course, that does nothing to create employment and an industry that could be built around our assets.

I am not inherently opposed to the sale of the harvesting rights, because all of this forestry was planted as a crop to be harvested and will be harvested. While I am not inherently opposed to it, we need to consider what will generate employment, which we so badly need. There has been a very small drop in unemployment in Clare this year for the second year in a row. If an industry can be based around forestry, surely it can happen in Clare, which is the third most forested county in Ireland? Despite the fact that Coillte is there and all this land is in State ownership, it is not being used to create employment.

As I mentioned previously in the House to the former Minister of State, the late Shane McEntee, the amenity value is very important.

Some reports are casting very serious doubt on the economic benefit which could accrue from the sale of the harvesting rights so I am glad the Government is not going full steam ahead with any sale. If it is to be sold, then the amenity value must be maintained because, for example, Limerick city is situated on the edge of Slieve Aughty. Thankfully, the amenity value of the forest walks and the potential for mountain biking has been explored by Coillte but there is room for further exploration.

Deputy Joan Collins is sharing time with Deputies Clare Daly, Wallace, Donnelly, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and Seamus Healy.

I refer to the Minister's statement that this is not an ideological debate. In my view, the debate is ideological from the point of view of the potential value of this State company to the people of this country and the benefits which would accrue from the economic effects of afforestation. There is never much debate about a State asset which is not making money but that changes when it has the potential to make money. This is an asset that could be developed into something for the country and it should remain in State hands.

I refer to a meeting yesterday attended by Impact, the Woodland League and Dr. Peter Bacon, at which the free access campaign was discussed. If the Minister had attended that meeting it might have caused him to change his mind, and the case is likewise for Deputy Stagg. Now is the time to develop Coillte into something much better.

This issue sums up all that is wrong with the approach of this Government, the previous Government and the troika to dealing with the crisis. Austerity and a fire sale of State assets are not the solution. NewERA should be constituted as a body to develop a strategy for the State sector as well as developing natural resources as wealth regeneration for the Irish people and a sustainable green industry which will create employment. This requires a strategic plan for the State sector and investment by the State.

Coillte is an excellent example of how a State company can provide secure jobs and sustainable industry while at the same time creating a significant dividend for the State such as social and tourism amenities, a reduction in greenhouse emissions and the preservation of wildlife and biodiversity. It can play a key role in the rural economy.

This country is committed to the EU target of 30% forestation of land which is currently only 11%. The proposal to sell Coillte will most likely mean a reduction rather than an increase in this percentage. Why will the Government not publish its own report on a strategy for the forestry sector? Is it the case that this report will undermine the proposed sell-off of our timber rights? The economics do not add up and this was the evidence provided by Peter Bacon at yesterday's meeting. The sale of forestry rights will effectively liquidate Coillte as a commercial entity. What will this mean for other Coillte projects and jobs in telecommunications, wind farming, board mills and biomass supply? The Coillte report should be made public to allow for a proper debate.

According to Peter Bacon, €1.3 billion will be the necessary price to make up for the loss of 80 years of profits from Coillte. The estimated value of this potential deal is €400 million to €600 million, one third to a half of the figure estimated by Peter Bacon. The top estimate of €600 million is about two to three weeks' interest on the debt. It is a drop in the ocean. Coillte's debt is €172 million plus a pension fund deficit of €130 million. That is the other half of €600 million and it amounts to very little for job creation.

I agree that not everything is all right with regard to Coillte. I acknowledge the points made by other speakers. I refer to how Coillte was established, how it acquired land and how it is not accountable when questioned. Coillte has been privatised by stealth. It has sold 40,000 acres from 2009 to 2011. I refer to the case of Chevy Chase in Galway, a popular amenity for local people who were horrified to see that logging was being carried out even though this is an area of special protection. The Chevy Chase deal was made with the Irish Forestation Unit Trust, IFUT, made up of Coillte, AIB and Irish Life. It has links with the International Forestry Fund of which Bertie Ahern is a member. He got the job while he was a Member of this House. There is a need for democratic control of State companies as the way forward rather than closing the door on them.

Nine thousand years ago, before the first settlers came to Ireland, the whole island was practically covered in forests. One hundred and ten years ago, that had been reduced to about 1%. Gradually over the past period it has grown to about 10%, which is well below what it should be for any sustainable and desirable afforestation policy. It is laughable to listen to Labour Deputies say that it does not really matter whether something is in State hands and that whether it is a semi-State or a communistic facility does not make any difference to job creation. Has this person heard of Telecom Éireann, the decimation of jobs which took place in that enterprise as private concerns sold and resold the asset, sweated it of any value and depleted its workforce? It is no accident that the forestry which has developed in Ireland has taken place under planned investment and under State investment. That is a sustainable way of going forward. To jeopardise that to commercial capitalist interests is something which will undermine the well-being of our forestry in the future.

Coillte is not deforesting at all.

I will deal with Coillte now. The reason we are very suspicious about a continuation of the sale of our harvesting rights is precisely because of the role of Coillte to date. The history of this organisation has been one of intrigue since its inception. It was set up by Haughey, Burke and MacSharry. The Irish forestry service was handed over to businessmen to run it with a commercial remit. That sounds good on paper except when one knows that this activity is taking place behind closed doors without any transparency, and without it being open to freedom of information or anything like that. Desirable forestry policy should be about a strategic goal to develop our environmental targets and job creation, for example. Instead there has been a selling off of harvesting rights on 40,000 acres. The money gained from that selling off was used to shore up bad pension decisions made by the same organisation. Not only that, the organisation sold it back to itself under a different guise with other private concerns without the public having any access to that information.

I fully and clearly support the calls of the Woodland League that Coillte should be subject to a public inquiry and that there should be a suspension of all sales until these matters are investigated. That is the only way to begin to develop our forestry properly as a proper public concern, one which would be run in the interests of the population and which has massive potential for job creation. It is ironic that this Government is discussing this matter in the same week as we were all given a glossy booklet about action on jobs. What a joke in terms of this Government's record on jobs. Meanwhile, we have a vital potential amenity and resource which is totally under-utilised and underdeveloped. Points have been made in this Chamber that Switzerland, a country half the size of Ireland, has double the amount of forestry. It employs ten times as many people in this industry as we do in Ireland. That is the way forward if we are to talk about job creation, sustainability and environmental commitments. The first step is to democratise Coillte, to hold it to public account. To date, it has failed miserably in the task which it was set up to undertake.

When the UK Government proposed to dispose of its public forests there was a public outcry in England.

An independent panel was established to review the proposal and to consult the people concerned. It now appears that the proposal will not proceed. Consulting people is not something we do very well. I attended a meeting in Gorey on Monday last at which people were protesting about the downgrading of the Garda station in the town. Those who were present and who will be affected by this decision were extremely angry that the Government never thought to consult them. There was no consultation whatever. One could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a democracy.

Coillte is a major employer and it is particularly important at present given that employment opportunities are scarce. The Bacon report estimates that job losses in Coillte could cost the State in the region of €19 million. The ten companies which comprise the Irish Timber Council are 100% dependent on Coillte for the raw materials necessary to run their businesses. Some 2,500 people are employed in the timber sector in areas where employment prospects are poor. The Irish Timber Council has highlighted the fact that the purchase of harvesting rights could export some or all of the product which emanates from our forests, thus depriving the sawmill sector of critical raw material. The council has argued that "Allowing a purchaser to export significant volumes of unprocessed sawlog would force the closure of every sawmill in the country with consequent job losses in rural communities, deprive the Exchequer of revenue and force the building materials sector to import higher cost materials".

The assessment carried out by Peter Bacon & Associates on behalf of IMPACT indicates that the sale of harvesting rights would cost the State €1.3 billion and concludes that the economic rationale for the proposed sale of those rights no longer stands up and cannot be justified. In London last year, President Michael D. Higgins stated that privatisation of public services is the road back to autocracy. Surely it would make more sense to resist pressure from the troika to sell the harvesting rights relating to our forests, reform a badly-operated Coillte and strengthen this valuable asset for the benefit of the State and its citizens.

We might do that.

I hope that proves to be the case. I would applaud it for doing so.

Does the Minister have any idea-----

The Minister should vote for the motion then.

We might well decide to do what Deputy Wallace suggests. The motion indicates that we are committed to a course of action. We have not yet committed to anything. That is the whole point.

The Minister should not interrupt. Deputy Wallace has one minute remaining.

I will have to be given extra time as a result of all the interruptions.

The election held in Italy at the weekend was a triumph for democracy. The outcome is an antidote, not just in respect of Italy's corrupt politics but to the dogma of austerity which has Europe's economies by the throat. Mario Monti was pushed into office by the banks a year ago to impose unlimited suffering on the Italian economy, so as to shore up the euro and thus protect German and other bank loans from devaluation. Super Mario was the darling of the banks. Like Greece and with no local currency to take the strain, the Italian economy had to be waterboarded. It shrank by at least 2.2% last year, with official unemployment at 10%. Prime Minister Monti promised to hold the Italian economy in its downward spiral, without growth and ever less able to repay its mounting debt. Future generations of Italians will be in perpetual bondage to German banks. It is not surprising that only 8.3% - fewer than one in ten - of Italians voted for Mr. Monti in last weekend's election.

Is Ireland going to continue down the road of austerity? Will the Government continue to threaten to sell some of the State's assets or will it consider investing again? Might we consider standing up to our masters in Europe? Despite all the talk to the contrary, there is no evidence that extra borrowing for growth would lead to a confidence crisis. The Government seems to have no intention of fulfilling its election promise to establish a new State-controlled strategic investment bank, a matter which I have raised on approximately six occasions in the House. Perhaps it is time this Administration began to tell the so-called pillar banks what to do. Our fear of owning AIB and our enthusiasm to get it back into private hands borders on madness, particularly as taxpayers have already paid out multiples of that institution's value. Despite best economic practice, the Government is considering selling the harvesting rights to Coillte's forests. That would be a poor economic decision and, more importantly, a poor social one. This Administration - the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan in any event - wants to further erode any remaining semblance of local government. It continues to undermine the public service and is hitting the less well off. Do those opposite wish to be remembered as being members of the Government which championed outsourcing and decided that the best approach was "To hell with the State sector, let the private sector control everything"?

The financial crisis has been ongoing since 2008. The fiscal deficits incurred by most countries are largely due to the fall in tax revenues following the collapse of private financial institutions. This is a financially-induced recession and it was not caused by the public sector or high welfare spending. Attacking the poor and the public sector, undermining the welfare state and selling our State assets will not cure the underlying causes of this recession. Those on the other side of the House are behaving like disciples of neoliberalism. That is the wrong route to take. Do we want a society where - as is the case in Greece, Spain and Italy at present - 50% of young people are unemployed? Our rate of youth unemployment only stands at 38% because we export so many young people by the planeload each weekend. Do we want a society which takes best care of those who least need the Government's protection, while everyone else becomes poorer?

The Deputy's time has expired. He should conclude because he is eating into the time allocated for his colleagues.

The Italians said "No" at the weekend and given the chance to do so tomorrow, the Irish electorate also would give a massive "No" to austerity and all it represents.

The motion calls on the Government not to sell the harvesting rights to State forests. In half an hour Dáil Éireann will do what it normally does. All of the Government backbenchers, despite what they feel and the views they may want to represent, will do exactly what they are told and the motion will be defeated. That is parliamentary democracy as it operates here.

I hope this debate will at least help to inform the decision the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Cabinet are ultimately going to make in respect of this matter. I listened carefully to the arguments put forward by Members on both sides. Two arguments have been put forward in respect of selling the harvesting rights. The first of these is practical and states that pressure from the troika means that we must proceed with the sale. The second is economic and states that the sale will generate much needed cash, some of which can be directed towards job creation.

I have no sympathy with the argument relating to the troika. I have met representatives from the troika several times and on each occasion they went to great lengths to explain that while they insist on the budget deficit targets being met, how a sovereign nation meets those targets is an issue for it to deal with. Let us assume that those in the troika are codding us and that when they meet the Government they insist on certain things about which they do not inform us. Even if that were true, the troika will be gone in ten months. The sale can be delayed until they are gone and, therefore, the argument relating to the troika holds no water.

In the context of the economic argument, the Minister has suggested that the sale value might be in the region of €500 million. We know from the amendment to the motion that the troika is suggesting that half of this amount could be used for investment in job-rich areas. Let us place that in context. We are talking here about the sale of the harvesting rights to our national forests for a potential €250 million worth of investment. This year's budget makes provision for €700 million in increments which have been paid since the economic collapse. That is €700 million we pay every year. The €250 million would be a one-off benefit. That is the scale of the benefit from the sale.

What about the costs involved? We know that the industry is modernising. I agree that it has a long way to go. However, opportunity exists because it is modernising. We are aware that 12,000 people are employed in the forestry sector. The sale of the harvesting rights would mean that the State would forego any future profits from Coillte. We also know that there are outstanding pension and debt liabilities which the State would still hold if it sold off the harvesting rights. Furthermore, we are aware that the sawmill sector, in which 2,500 people are employed, is reliant on a steady stream of high-quality product from Coillte in order to operate. As several previous speakers indicated and as Peter Bacon's analysis suggests, the total cost to the State in respect of this matter would be approximately €1.3 billion. Offset against this would be the €500 million which would potentially accrue from the sale of the harvesting rights. We could do something useful with half of the latter amount while we would be forced to use the other half to write down banking debt.

The Bacon report is not the only one relating to Coillte and the Deputy is aware of that.

The Government has stated that it will not sell off any strategic assets. I put it to the Minister that the monopolistic nature of this asset - and its importance in terms of tourism, the environment, farming and a large range of other considerations - makes it a strategic one. As the Minister is aware, I do not have much of an ideological position in respect of the State owning all manner of factors of production. However, there is a small number of the latter which any state should possess. For example, I am of the view that we should retain control over our water resources. There is no economic argument which trumps that. The same is true of our forests. That is why I signed up to the motion. I did not put my name to it for economic reasons. I do not care if the Government manages to sell the forests or the harvesting rights to them for €1 billion or €2 billion.

I discussed this matter with a Government Deputy a while back and he said to me, "Stephen, it is just a crop". To him it is just a crop and I accept that. However, it is not just a crop to me and the people I represent. I grew up walking the mountains of Wicklow. To the people of Wicklow, the national forests are not a crop - they are part of our identity and of who we are.

Listening to this debate is like listening to a debate on whether we should sell access to Achill Island. It is a preposterous debate that fundamentally misunderstands what the national forests mean to us. It is not an economic debate for the people of Wicklow and, I imagine, for people throughout the country.

I do not care if an international logging company gives us assurances that we, the people of Ireland, would still have access to the land under the trees. I do care that we would have to ask them for the assurance or for permission.

We would not because we are not selling the lands.

As an Irish citizen the Minister may or may not understand what the forests mean to the people I represent. It does not matter if he does not understand it. What matters is that he appreciates that there are many of us who feel like that.

I believe it makes sense to sell the family jewels when times are tough, but it does not make sense to sell the cow, and that is the equivalent of what the Minister is doing. The sale of the harvesting rights makes no sense from an economic, financial or moral point of view. The 12,000 jobs, the €2.2 billion in annual revenue generated, and the €1 billion invested in private forestry in the past ten years will all be lost.

If the Minister persists with this lunacy and follows through on selling the harvesting rights, certain caveats must be included to protect our sawmilling sector. It is interesting to note that the Government's amendment to this motion acknowledges and confirms the concerns of the recreational bodies and the replanting and biodiversity requirements that will be catered for in the sale of Coillte's harvesting rights, but there is no mention of the concerns of the sawmilling sector being catered for. That makes a nonsense of the Minister's statement in the Dáil in September 2012 that it will be necessary to protect the supply arrangements which sawmills have with Coillte in the event of a sale of harvesting rights, and "one can stitch it into any sales process". There is no logic in this process, and therefore it is time to move on.

What do we need to do with Coillte? Our nation's forestry sector must be supported, enhanced and expanded to generate significant returns in the form of an annual dividend to be paid to our Government on behalf of the people. The sawmilling sector has been successful in developing and growing export markets to combat the sharp fall in domestic demand due to the demise of the construction industry. However, that success has not been mirrored in resource expansion, which is at a critically low level.

The sector's job creation potential has been clearly articulated to the Government. Every 15,000 hectares planted will generate 490 direct jobs. Furthermore, for every 100 jobs generated in the sawmill sector, a further 70 full-time equivalent jobs are created elsewhere in the economy. A steady supply of raw materials from Irish forests could generate some additional 7,000 jobs by 2015.

If that revenue and jobs generation is to materialise and be successful, our nation's forests need to be managed properly. That has not been done to date. Coillte, which manages and is responsible for our forests, was given 7% of this country's land for free and it has only paid one dividend to the Government - €10 million in 2011. That is a diabolical return for our country, despite the fact that over the years Coillte had been paid the highest stumpage prices in Europe for equivalent timber.

Coillte is a hugely inefficient and very poorly managed organisation. Successive Coillte management have presided over an organisation that has failed to deliver a proper return for the national assets entrusted to it. The Minister might listen to me. Over the years, Coillte has continually sold land instead of planting it. If that land had been planted, it would have provided essential raw materials for a vibrant timber industry. Historically, the money from these land sales was used to cover up the inefficient operating structures while more recently, the revenue from those land sales has been used to plug the hole in the company's pension fund.

This is very important. Coillte management have refused to order a Garda investigation into volume weight fraud, despite being requested to do so on numerous occasions. That has cost us, the country, tens of millions of euro. Surely it is incumbent on the management of that organisation, with the responsibility of one of the country's most significant natural resources, to properly protect that resource on behalf of our citizens, and the smoking gun is there to prove it. The Minister should follow up on that.

Since becoming involved in the boardmills sector in recent years, Coillte management have allowed and been responsible for poor harvesting practices in our nation's forests, to the detriment of the sawmilling sector, because it suited their boardmills to do so. That is a blatant abuse of its near monopoly position. If the Government wishes to raise immediate revenue, it should sell the boardmills, especially in view of the fact that the SmartPly plant is suffering from metal fatigue, and Coillte is looking for €85 million from the Government to invest in it.

Coillte management is holding the sawmilling sector to ransom to pay the highest prices in Europe for its raw material because there is excess primary processing capacity in Ireland, as the sawmilling sector invested in its business on the back of incorrect forecasts by Coillte. Issuing blatantly incorrect information was an abuse of its monopoly position.

If this Government wants to do the right thing for our country, the harvesting rights to our country's forests will not be sold but the management of those forests will be changed, and the organisation ran as it should be to generate a proper return for this country from one of its most significant resources. Over the years, Coillte has lost its focus on its main core business, forestry, and has moved towards areas such as wind energy and biomass, all the while becoming more inefficient every day.

A good starting point would be to publish the long overdue review of the forest sector. That review has been completed but not yet published. We paid for it, and we cannot even see it. The Minister should publish it.

This proposal or any proposal to sell the Coillte harvesting rights is madness on a number of counts. It shows again that this Government has lost touch entirely with the people of Ireland because access to the forestry and woodlands, and to mountain areas through those woodlands, is part of what we are as Irish people; it is certainly part of what I am. I was born in a place called Scrouthea, on the northern slopes of the Comeragh Mountains. There were Coillte woodlands east, west and south of where I lived. I was reared in that area. I engaged in walking, hiking, camping, cooking and fishing in those areas. I have 50 years experience in Scouting Ireland, with access to all those woodlands. Generations of young people have enjoyed the access to those woodlands. Their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters are using those woods today. Very large numbers of visitors use the woods. It is a huge recreational and tourist facility, and it should be developed rather than sold off.

South Tipperary, Tipperary in general and the borders of Waterford is probably one of the most wooded areas in the country. The Comeragh Mountains, the Knockmealdown Mountains, the Galtees, the Glen of Aherlow, Glengarra Wood, Hollyford hills and a range of other areas are part and parcel of the people of south Tipperary and west Waterford. There is a major opportunity, not just for recreation or tourism, but for job creation in this area.

We should use the woodlands and the forestry to create jobs because the private sector has not, is not and will not create the jobs we need. The private enterprise is effectively on an investment strike.

It is simply not in a position to create the jobs we need if the 430,000 people unemployed are to go back to work. Other countries have ensured job creation from forestry - up to ten times more than what we have created.

As I said, this is madness on a number of counts. There are a number of reports, of which Dr. Peter Bacon's is only one. Another came out yesterday from the Irish Timber Council which clearly showed that even on a very short term and short-sighted economic basis, there was no advantage to be gained in selling harvesting rights. As Dr. Bacon said, the case no longer stands up and cannot be justified. He said it would cost the State €1.3 billion, but the Minister has told us the most the State will get for these rights is approximately €500 million. The figures simply do not add up. A number of reports have stated this is the case; this confirms that what is being suggested is madness and the proposal should, therefore, be withdrawn. The Minister should start tonight by withdrawing his amendment and supporting the motion.

I welcome the useful debate last night and tonight. As the Minister said, there is no proposal to be put to the House because the Government has not come to a view on the matter. The way in which the Minister has handled the issue in looking for expert opinion and advice is the way to go. I very much agree with Deputy Stephen Donnelly who claims he has no ideological bent on this issue. We must do the right thing for the country at a very difficult time. When we were in opposition, we spent a considerable period of time working on solutions to problems, rather than just producing speeches and an analysis of problems. One of our concrete ideas was-----

The Deputy should not be so touchy. One of our clear ideas - I encourage the Deputy to do the same as it always helps to be positive - was the creation of NewERA. It was not an ideological view but a clear view that if we had a commercial State company with significant assets, we could use part of the assets to rebuild the country in circumstances where they were not of strategic use to the country. We are going through that process in government, as we said we would do in opposition.

The Government has not taken a view on this issue, which is why the debate has been useful. However, I agree with what Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan said-----

-----that monopolies, whether public or private, are bad for competition and consumers. It is the fundamental responsibility of any Government where it sees a monopoly to do its best to break it up in the interests of the people.

I accept what colleagues have said that there is a very strong connection between the forests and the people, not only in terms of leisure activities and amenities and all of the great recreational pursuits which go with them, but also in terms of the huge potential of the forests into the future in the context of exports. I understand Coillte, on behalf of the State, owns approximately 7% of the total landmass of the country, but up to 20% to 25% of this is used for non-commercial purposes. We will address this issue not only on a value for money basis but also on the basis of what is in the interests of the country.

We have taken the view that some of the assets of Bord Gáis should be used for the purpose of providing a stimulus in terms of job creation, investment and providing opportunities. That is the way to go. In the decision taken to establish Irish Water, a concrete idea, we are using public assets for the purpose of creating other public assets and utilities.

There is no proposal, but if one is made, it will be brought to the House, as the Minister said. While the debate has been useful, we must be realistic about what can be obtained. Whether it can be obtained is a matter which needs to be debated, which is why I welcome this debate. However, people should withhold judgment until we have a proposal, about which the House will be informed.

I am ideologically opposed to the sale of State assets. Any car boot sale of the nation's assets is a sell-out of workers and taxpayers alike. Placing some of our key State assets in private hands would confer on the owners an unwarranted and a potentially hazardous degree of economic and social power, as has happened in other countries, not to mention augmenting the wealth of these private owners, diminishing the public treasury, impeding the public good and suppressing the rights of the people. Given the economic situation and the severe pressures on the public finances, what we should be doing is giving consideration to making public utilities more efficient and using what we have to drive the economy, but instead the Government is insulting people's intelligence by leading them up the garden path with promises of a job creation fund which would be nothing more than false economy. The Government exercises its ownership rights in these businesses on behalf of the people. The people own the land, not Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Independent Members, Fianna Fáil or anyone else. History has shown us that the sale of assets further destabilises the country and puts thousands of people out of work.

Somebody mentioned the troika. We should not fudge on the facts. The provision for the sale of State assets is not coming from the troika but from the programme for Government, with an ambition to raise approximately €3 billion or so in hard cash. The EU-IMF memorandum of understanding does not mandate privatisation in whole or in part. What is more, the discussion on the sale of State assets in the memorandum does not take place in the fiscal section but rather in the section dealing with obstacles to competitiveness. I hope the Minister has read it because that is exactly what it states. Hence should any sale of assets take place, the object will be to improve our competitiveness, not to write down debt.

Selling harvesting rights will be a disaster for the economy and the environment in the long term and could have serious social consequences. Before any sale takes place, what consultations will take place with the shareholders - the people: rural communities, walkers, sports societies, environmentalists and workers in Coillte? The Minister has no right to sell anything or even negotiate its sale without engaging in consultation with the shareholders. He knows as well as I do the history of harvesting rights. The prices achieved would be understated and understate the worth of the State's assets. All he has to do is look at what has happened in countries such as New Zealand and Sweden. This is one of the few countries in the world which is attempting to sell its forests, apart from some in South America. Why should we go down that road when the policy has failed? Sweden sold off a figure of 62%, but it took it back again because the privatisation of its forests had failed. The British Government abandoned proposals to sell off state-owned forests. I remind the Minister of the history of privatisation and the sale of forests throughout the world. It has resulted in diminished income for governments and poor working conditions for workers.

In 2009, the EU funded research project, Privatisation of Public Services and the Impact on Quality, Employment and Productivity, known as PIQUE, examined the impact of privatisation of public services in five European countries. It concluded that privatisation was achieved primarily at the cost of workers, mainly through the worsening of working conditions. Where the quality of services depended on a certain level of labour input the project found that service quality suffered as a result of privatisation. I want no hand or part in that legacy.

I hope I will get the Ministers' attention for this last few minutes, as the author of this motion. A great deal of work has gone into it. It is a very serious issue. I thank my colleagues in the United Left Alliance and other Independent colleagues who signed the motion and spoke so well and passionately on it. I also thank Members on all sides of the House who have spoken on it and taken the issue seriously.

I wish to give the greatest amount of credit to the groups outside this Parliament who have brought this issue to the top of the agenda. They include environmental groups, walking groups and people involved in the timber industry. I had a group of scouts from Delgany in Greystones in the House today. The group was not here specifically for this debate, but was in the Visitors Gallery for some of it. Both the scouts and their leaders said they were utterly opposed to the sale of Coillte harvesting rights, because they are the forests in which they walk and hike. I particularly pay tribute to the Woodland League, which protested with us outside the Dáil today. Tragically, its spokesperson, Andrew St. Leger, was barred from coming in to attend this debate because he spoke at a protest outside the Dáil at 5 p.m. It was a shocking decision.

He and his group have collected over 30,000 signatures in opposition to the sale of any part of Coillte harvesting rights or any other asset.

The reason there is such a broad coalition of opposition to the sale of Coillte harvesting rights is itself indicative of how many different reasons there are for opposing the sale. Every sector and stakeholder and anybody who has any concern with this issue has stated their opposition to it. It ranges from economists to scouts, the timber industry, trade unions and rural communities. Nobody supports it, because there is no good reason for it.

The troika and, it appears, this Government are only interested in the bottom line, that is, deficit and financial targets. The Minister made clear last night that this is the territory on which this decision will be made. I take heart from the fact that the Government is clearly shifting its position on this. Last night, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, stated that the Government agreed in principle in June last year to the sale of the harvesting rights of Coillte. The Minister of State has said it is being considered.

Read our amendment.

I have read it, and it is contradictory. The Government agreed it last June and now it is being considered. I am glad the Government is shifting its position. I believe it is doing so because all the evidence is piling up, as is the public pressure. The Government knows there is no justification for doing this, except to meet the targets of the troika to pay off the gambling debts of bankers and speculators. There is simply no argument for this.

It is unfortunate, as Deputy Donnelly said, that we must argue this in terms of economics and finance. It should not be argued on those terms. The forests are our heritage and history. They are a critical part of what it is to be Irish. They are linked indissolubly to our rich literary heritage, and are indistinguishable from what it means to be Irish. That they should be given away to a private entity concerned with profiting from them rather than remaining fully the property of the public is an utterly appalling proposal. Private for-profit entities are always about making profit, often short-term profit.

The commercial forests of Coillte are for profit too.

The Minister had his chance to speak.

By definition those entities are not concerned with public access. That is not their job. I am not making a moral statement, just an objective statement of fact. They are interested in making money. Public access, maintaining biodiversity, meeting climate change targets, creating jobs for the economy or creating revenue for the State will not be their priorities. Those are our priorities, as a society, but a private company's priority is to make money for the company. That priority will conflict with the objectives we as a society would have for forestry, to protect its environmental integrity and to protect it as a piece of our heritage and history and, yes, as an economic asset, but for every citizen of the country and not just for one or a number of private entities.

In the forestry sector there is perhaps no clearer example of where environmental, heritage and social concerns cross over directly with economic interests. In Ireland, more than any other country in Europe, our environment is our economy, and forests are a critical part of it. The forests, the sea and the land are our economy, or a critical and indistinguishable part of it. Historically, the State has recognised that in the case of farming, but, sadly, we have not recognised it in the case of forestry and perhaps fishing, to the detriment of those sectors. The evidence is clear - 12,000 jobs, 18 million tourist visits, approximately €0.5 billion in revenue generated from domestic and foreign visitors and €2.2 billion in annual output from the forestry sector. The Minister will be familiar with the statistics.

Nobody disputes that.

This is a major asset but, as the Minister correctly said, it has not been properly developed by Coillte. We are not here to stand up for Coillte as it is currently constituted. The reason that Coillte has underdeveloped our forests is that it has been preparing them for privatisation since Ray Burke, Bertie Ahern, Frank Fahey and Ray MacSharry established it. That is why it has been clouded in mystery. One cannot get any information about it. It has sold 40,000 acres of forestry to the Irish Forest Unit Trust, which is made up of Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Banks and Irish Life and Permanent.

What about the acreage it has acquired?

Here is the supreme irony. The Minister says we must sell the harvesting rights to our forests because we must pay off the gambling debts of banks, yet those banks or a Swiss bank such as Helvetia Wealth, with its subsidiary headed by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, may end up owning the forests.

The choice we are putting forward is very simple. Should the people or the banks own the forests? We say the people should own them. Please do not tell me that Helvetia Wealth or the Chinese, who have also expressed an interest, or Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland will develop our forests in the interests of the public and in the interests of public access, environmental integrity and protecting our heritage.

They will not. They will take what they can get from the forests, make as much money as possible for shareholders and probably sell them on in a few years. Forests, more than anything else, require long-term management and stewardship in the interests of future generations.

The Minister of State can say that about the banks too and that is why he should assert some control over them.

I do not think they would be buying the forests if I did.

He does not exert any control over the banks and cannot even give them the instruction to write-down unsustainable mortgages. I certainly do not trust him to ask the banks to manage our forests for us.

They might do better with the forests.

(Interruptions).

Look at the heckling.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is right in what he is saying.

We are asking the Government to keep these assets in public ownership and develop them the way they are developed elsewhere in Europe. Switzerland is half the size of Ireland with roughly the same acreage under forest and it has 100,000 forestry-related jobs. We could do that. We could get money from the European Investment Bank to do it. It is money in the bank and it would protect our forests and our heritage for the people.

Amendment put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 85; Níl, 45.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Perry, John.
  • Phelan, Ann
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Wallace, Mick.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Catherine Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett.
Amendment declared carried.
Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 86; Níl, 42.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Collins, Áine.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Maloney, Eamonn.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Perry, John.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Wallace, Mick.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Catherine Murphy and Richard Boyd Barrett.
Question declared carried.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.24 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 28 February 2013.