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Environment Minister Eamon Ryan Oireachtas.ie
turf wars burn on

'How many deaths should we tolerate?': Eamon Ryan compares turf plans to the smoking ban

Leaders Questions saw the third day of intense political debate over the turf issue.

ENVIRONMENT MINISTER EAMON Ryan has compared government plans to regulate the sale of turf to the workplace smoking ban and asked in the Dáil “what number of deaths should we tolerate?”. 

Ryan was speaking during Leaders Questions on the third day of intense political debate over the turf issue, with Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty TD labelling government proposals as “daft”. 

Final proposals have not yet been published but the minister has said there would not be an outright ban on the burning of turf or the sharing of turf with family members or neighbours.

He has said the objective of the regulations is to control the commercial sale of turf. 

The government had hoped to have the new regulations in place by September of this year but the timeline has been thrown into doubt by Taoiseach Micheál Martin

Last night, a Sinn Féin motion seeking to scrap the plans as well as halting next week’s scheduled increase in Carbon Tax was defeated.  

In the Dáil today, Doherty said there would be “no just transition” for the households affected and by the plan which “alienates communities”. 

“Minister, you should not naively believe that a ban on turf is a solution because it is not, 4% of households right across the State depend on burning turf as the main energy source to heat their homes, that rises to 9% in rural communities. In some counties it is over 30%, these communities need to be supported instead of facing the punishment that you’re dishing out,” he said. 

Ryan and other campaigners have insisted that the proposed restrictions on turf sales are primarily due to health reasons. 

An alliance of public health organisations under the umbrella group the Climate and Health Alliance has advocated for a ban of turf sales, saying that there are more than 1,300 deaths in Ireland from air pollution every year.

This figure is an estimate that has been provided by Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Environment Agency

Ryan raised these figures today, saying that these deaths need to be prevented and that the smoking ban “has shown in the past that we can tackle this”:

Are we to ignore the heart surgeons and cardiologists across the country, or the respiratory disease experts who say that this does have to be tackled? It will be so easy to walk away and say no, we won’t do that, because it is difficult. But what number of deaths what we should we tolerate? What should we do in ignoring that reality across the country?

He added: “I don’t believe we should ignore it. This government will act and will deliver practical measures that are not there to punish anyone.”

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Responding to Ryan, Doherty said that removing a source of heating to people could also lead to mortality.

“You talk about excess deaths and every excess death is one to many, but let me tell you about excess deaths, 2,800 people in this State die of fuel poverty each year,” he said. 

The figure Doherty references was an all island figure from a study carried out by the Irish Public Health Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2007. 

The minister said that Doherty’s statistics are out of date but he argued that they relate to the same people who are at risk of poverty. 

“There is a correlation, some of those figures include the very same people I’m concerned about because the deaths due to air quality are connected also to poverty, it tends to be the same people. So actually, the two issues go together,” he said. 

Previous governments have sought to ban smoky coal but there were legal threats from within the industry that this would not be permitted unless the ban also included other fuels such as peat and wood.

Ryan said today this remained the case and he asked Doherty: “Do Sinn Féin accept the legal advice we’ve received?”. 

Doherty then responded to ask Ryan what exactly were in the government’s plan before Ceann Comhairle Sean O’Fearghaíl was forced to intervene and said “can we have a little bit of respect for one another”.

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