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Cabinet abandons plan to sell off felling rights for public forests

The planned sale of Coillte harvesting rights has been called off, with the agency now set to merge with Bord na Mona.

A silhouette of Enda Kenny is seen at the launch of a National Trails Day in 2011.
A silhouette of Enda Kenny is seen at the launch of a National Trails Day in 2011.
Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

THE GOVERNMENT has formally abandoned plans to sell off the rights for the harvesting of trees in public forests.

Agriculture minister Simon Coveney this afternoon confirmed the Cabinet’s decision not to proceed with the sale of the Coillte harvesting rights.

The proposed sale of Coillte’s felling rights had been first proposed in a review of the sale of State assets, led by economist Colm McCarthy, in early 2011.

That report had estimated that Coillte had net assets worth €1.2 billion – but the proposal has drawn sustained criticism, particularly since it emerged that former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was chairing a private investment vehicle which was advocating a sale.

Coveney this afternoon said the Government would now consider a potential merger of Coillte and Bord na Móna, to create a single state body operating in the bio-energy and forestry sectors.

The restructuring of the agencies will prioritise the payment of an annual dividend to the State. In recent years it has been rare for Coillte to return any cash to its shareholder.

A period of 18 months has been set aside for the restructuring to take place, with the Government agreeing to consider all possible options to maximise Coillte’s value at the end of that period.

“This analysis was quite extensive as it not only involved financial calculations associated with the sale process but also the possible impact on the timber industry, public access to recreational land, environmental and social impacts and consequential implications for the company,” Coveney said.

“We are determined to realise commercial potential but also to protect the public value that Coillte offers by maintaining public access to its forests and supporting the broader timber industry.”

Staff welcome decision to abandon sale

The IMPACT trade union, which represents Coillte staff, said the report it had commissioned from Peter Bacon concluded that the sale could cost up to €1.3 billion – around twice as much as the State could have hoped to make from the sale.

“Today’s decision to retain Coillte’s harvesting rights is a sensible response to the evidence that a sale would actually cost taxpayers money,” said IMPACT national  secretary Matt Staunton.

Independent TD Richard Boyd Barrett, a vocal campaigner against the sale, described the abandonment of the planned sale as “a stunning victory for people power and public protest”.

He said, however, that the campaign to save Coillte was only one arm of a larger campaign “against the give-away of Ireland’s natural resources – whether it be oil and gas, wind, fishing, or the equally disgraceful plans to sell-off parts of hugely successful and strategically important state companies such as the ESB, Bord Gais or Aer Lingus.”

Independent Labour MEP Nessa Childers said the decision was a “victory for people power and grassroots activism”, and paid tribute to the Woodland League for organising a series of protests against the proposed sale.

Read: For sale: State asset sell-off begins as Bord Gáis Energy invites bids

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Gavan Reilly

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