September 22, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Through the smoke I spy a Healy-Rae

People in Dublin were wearing face masks 35 years ago, but not to guard against a virus or infection.
Shops had started to sell them as a means of protection against the smog that choked the city every winter.

The worst days were those with light rain and no wind to disperse the pollution. On those days the dirty residue from thousands of coal fires could be seen on your skin as you walked the city’s streets.

At best, it was unpleasant. At worst it was dangerous, particularly for the very young and very old.
Many cities around the world suffered from the same problem. London, in particular, had been infamous for its ‘pea soupers’.

An uncle who lived near Wembley told me how he once got completely lost while trying to drive home through the fog. He at last recognised a  street where he knew there was a petrol station and  decided to drive there and leave his car overnight. When he pulled into the station he found there was a long queue of cars behind him, following the only lights they could see in north London that night.

London put an end to such horror stories by banning smoky coal. In 1990, Mary Harney, then a junior minister in the Department of the Environment, did the same thing for Dublin. It was one of the two most instantly effective pieces of legislation I have witnessed.

The other, which also came from the Department of the Environment, was Noel Dempsey’s levy on plastic bags. Almost overnight, Mr Dempsey’s bag-tax ended a scourge which had littered every street and hedgerow in  the country. Ms Harney’s ban on bituminous coal had a similarly dramatic effect. The dangerous smogs of Dublin were no more.

Many people opposed this simple life-changing measure, including Ms Harney’s senior minister, Pádraig Flynn, who  claimed bizarrely that it would hurt widows and old-age pensioners.

But Mary Harney was a tough politician who held a strong hand as the representative of a minority party in a coalition government. She forced through the measure and once its advantages became clear there was no more moaning about it.

Soon other cities and towns followed suit and that, I had thought, was  that. I am amazed to find that, while smoky fuel is banned in 42 cities and towns, there are still large swathes of the country where it can be legally burned.

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan plans to end this anomaly next year by extending the ban to all 26 counties.

Ms Harney reckoned her measure saved 350 lives and the equivalent of €20m a year. Mr Ryan believes that extending the ban might save a further 1,000 lives each year.

That’s not a figure that can easily be proved but I don’t see why it needs to be. For who, after all, could object to a simple move that is bound to do some good and cannot do any harm.

Well, Michael Healy-Rae for one. He says it’s an attack on rural Ireland. Part of “a continuous drip, drip, attack, attack,” he told Pat Kenny on Newstalk.

Where exactly is this rural Ireland that Mr Healy-Rae and his relatives are always so eager to defend? I want to avoid it, for it seems like a dangerous place, where ould fellas can break speed limits while drink-driving on country boreens, young fellas and girls can break Covid rules in Danny Healy-Rae’s pub, and people can choke their neighbours by burning whatever kind of smoky fuel comes to hand.
“Why would we be worried about the little bit of smoke coming out of a small fire burning solid fuel?” asked Michael Healy-Rae. Because the little bits are helping push Ireland beyond our emission targets, that’s why. And because Ireland’s little bit is helping to push the world towards a climate catastrophe.
But also because the ban, which won’t extend to home-harvested sods of turf, is easy to introduce and causes no problems for anyone, except foreign producers of coal. Mary Harney proved the worth of this measure in 1990 and I find it hard to believe that it is still under discussion 31 years later. It seems there are some very slow learners in Kerry – and in Dáil Eireann.

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