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Burning Question: what does a peat-free future hold for the Midlands?

Trinity College Dublin PhD candidate Jamie Rohu outlines the challenges for workers as we transition our industrial bogs towards a more sustainable future.

Jamie Rohu

IN 2015, BORD na Móna reported in its Sustainability 2030 strategy that peat harvesting would cease by the end of this decade.

In October 2018, it outlined plans for 430 job losses along with a revised production end date of 2025. Then, this January, the semi-state declared an immediate halt to all extractive operations.

Though not entirely unexpected, these announcements raised a number of important questions such as: How will Bord na Móna manage its 80,000 hectares of cutaway bogland? What will be the long term implications for employees who have lost their jobs? 

  • The Noteworthy team wants to find out why authorities have failed to tackle unlicensed industrial peat extraction. See how you can support this project here 

And, what will become of the many towns and villages in the Midlands, already blighted by rural decline and outward migration, now that production has come to an end?

There are also other, less immediately apparent, ramifications arising from the bog closures. The impact on communities has largely been overlooked. 

From opticians supplying safety goggles to factory workers and garages repairing employees’ vehicles, many local businesses will be negatively affected by the changes.

Role of bogs in our struggling Midlands

Ireland’s vast peatlands, once covering upwards of 20% of the island, have historically been understood in a myriad of ways. Once considered wastelands, their economic and social value was realised with the setting up of the Turf Development Board in 1934 (succeeded by Bord na Móna in 1946). 

Industrial extraction of peat from raised bogs in the Midlands provided secure, well-paid full time and seasonal jobs in a traditionally underdeveloped part of the country. Further high quality skilled employment was created in the ESB power stations and Bord na Móna factories that used the peat. 

The transformation of Bord na Móna has been underway for three decades. It opened Ireland’s first wind farm at Bellacorick, Co Mayo in 1992. Today, it operates a successful waste collection and recycling business alongside four other wind farms. 

As this ‘Brown to Green’ strategy has been implemented, the plight of its workforce has come into sharp focus as environmental groups and trade unions call for a ‘just transition’ to support those affected by job losses.

3 Peat Former Littleton briquette factory closed in 2018. Following investment from a Chinese firm, it has been repurposed as a plastics recycling facility. Source: Jamie Rohu

Just Transition to support workers

The concept of just transition came to the fore in 2018 following the closure of Bord na Móna’s Littleton briquette factory in Co Tipperary where 69 jobs were lost at the plant and upwards of 50 from the surrounding bogs that supplied it. 

Job loss is not unprecedented at Bord na Móna. In response to the oil crises in the 1970, it expanded operations in order to ensure a secure energy supply for the state. 

Having overreached and accrued significant debt as a result, efforts were undertaken from the late 1980s to rationalise the business, clear debt and improve productivity. The workforce was downsized and those affected were provided with redundancy pay-outs.

Severance packages, however, do not meet workers’ needs in the long term. Instead, trade union movements have called for the creation of new roles in similar, albeit, environmentally sustainable enterprises. This is happening to some extent.

Those affected by job losses at the Littleton briquette factory, for example, were offered retraining, while Bord na Móna’s recycling business AES partnered with Chinese firm Sabrina Integrated Services (SIS) to repurpose the factory into a plastics recycling plant, creating 40 new green jobs.

2 Peat Amenity at the Lough Boora Discovery Park, Co. Offaly. Source: Jamie Rohu

A new role for our peatlands

Similar employment efforts are underway in the Midlands as Bord na Móna is now obliged to stabilise its post-industrial peatlands in line with the State’s increasing climate ambitions as peatlands are recognised for their ecosystem services such as the carbon sequestration and storage.

A total of 300 short-term roles will be offered to production workers to meet legal requirements to protect our peatlands. However, long-term positions on the scale seen before are unlikely to arise. 

And what of the bogs themselves, or what remains of them? Bord na Móna’s peatlands are cutaway, some down to the underlying marl or mineral substrate. 

Not all cutaway bogs will recover as functioning wetlands, however, as physical changes as a result of peat production means that some sites cannot retain water. 

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These spaces may be suitable for renewable energy projects, while some will simply ‘scrub up’ or become birch woodland, with wildfires a real and present danger in an ever warming climate.

The iconic Bord na Móna branding – translated as “The Turf Board” – may soon be consigned to history now that it is no longer “making peat”. 

How the company will evolve and redefine itself in the minds of Irish society is yet another unknown in a story of transformative and oftentimes contested landscape use.

Jamie Rohu is an Irish Research Council PhD candidate in Trinity College Dublin. His research is focused on the process, difficulties and opportunities of transitioning Irish industrial bogs towards a more sustainable future.

 PEAT’S SAKE Proposal

Why have authorities failed to tackle unlicensed industrial peat extraction?

The Noteworthy team wants to investigate the extent of unlicensed peat extraction across the country and try to piece together why authorities, at both a local and national level, have failed to tackle the problem to date. 

More details are available here >>

About the author:

Jamie Rohu

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