The well-worn narrative emanating primarily from the Irish agri sector and amplified by a cohort of vocal rural TDs is that, despite being the true custodians of the natural environment, they are being constantly “demonised” by over-zealous environmentalists, animal welfare activists, vegans, etc. It’s a line that has been spun so often that many, especially in the Irish media, have taken it uncritically to be broadly true. It must have come as quite a shock when a senior figure from outside the Irish media/political bubble came along recently to point out forcefully that this narrative is in fact a complete inversion of the truth. I reported on the background to this in a recent Business Post article.
WHEN A HIGH-RANKING EU Commission official recently denounced a member state for its “increasingly aggressive stance” against environmental campaigners and its “worrying” undermining of the rule of law on environmental protection, you might be forgiven for thinking he was discussing Poland or authoritarian Hungary.
In fact the recent comments, from Aurel Ciobanu-Dordea were directed squarely at Ireland, a country that trades heavily on its “green” credentials on the international stage, while demonising and marginalising environmental defenders at home.
But if you blinked, you may have entirely missed that this happened at all. The only mainstream news coverage consisted of a solitary inside page report in the Irish Times. Neither RTÉ nor Independent Newspapers, Ireland’s two largest media organisations, deemed it worth covering.
Could this virtual media omerta following his hard-hitting comments have had anything to do with Ciobanu-Dordea having also called out the “aggressive and negative reporting in the mainstream media” on environmental issues?
And as for the political reaction to these extremely serious allegations from the EU Commission: silence. Instead, the Fine Gael website includes headlines like this: “An Taisce a leading threat to future of rural Ireland”, describing Ireland’s oldest environmental charity (which has a legally prescribed role in the planning process) as “driving what seems to be a very personal vendetta against farmers, the rural economy and a company like Glanbia”.
Last year, Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill accused An Taisce of engaging in “a revolting act of treason”. Despite this appalling outburst, Cahill suffered no sanction and remains chair of the Oireachtas agriculture committee.
Overt threats by politicians to cut off funding to NGOs were highlighted by Ciobanu-Dordea as part of a pattern of intimidation that is “highly unusual to witness in an advanced society like Ireland; such conduct which can be witnessed in more polemic places in the European Union”. It was, he added, “a surprise for us to hear this happened in Ireland”.
And, contrary to the political narrative that environmental objectors have undue influence or an easy ride, the EU Commission official noted evidence of the use of so-called SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suits against environmental defenders in Ireland.
Ciobanu-Dordea also observed that Ireland “continues to be the most expensive member state in which to make an environmental claim before the courts”. This has left many environmental litigants “unable to predict with any certainty the costs exposure” involved. Many have run up significant bills simply trying to clarify issues around costs.
Were this antipathy to environmental defenders happening against a backdrop of Ireland having a good record on nature and biodiversity protection, there could be justification for resisting over-reach by some environmentalists.
However, the opposite is the case. Less than 2.5 per cent of Ireland’s marine waters enjoy any protection whatever, representing “one of the poorest records across the Natura 2000 network in Europe”. On land, the situation is little better. Only 15 per cent of Ireland’s key habitats as identified under the Habitats Directive are in “favourable” condition, with more than half suffering “ongoing decline”.
Many bird species in Ireland are in “serious decline”, Ciobanu-Dordea noted. Our Special Protection Areas mean little in reality, and Ireland needs to “address concerns about some of these breeding species and farmland birds in particular”, he added. The situation regarding our peat bogs is equally parlous.
While these egregious assaults on both our natural environment and its defenders may be news to the EU Commission, they are an all-too-familiar reality for anyone on the ground in Ireland.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has highlighted this repeatedly. Commenting on the break-neck expansion of the dairy sector, EPA director Laura Burke stated bluntly: “the economic growth in recent years is happening at the expense of the environment”. Ireland’s “green” reputation, she added, is “largely not supported by evidence”.
While Ireland’s dairy industry in particular is delivering profitability to many farmers, it is doing so at a fearsome ecological cost, a price that is being offloaded onto the general public and the wider environment.
Farmers face many challenges, including spiralling input costs, stagnating commodity prices and the stranglehold of supermarkets in pushing down prices. Rather than confront these issues squarely, it has been in the shared interest of farm organisations and the agri-industrial sector to collude in creating an environmental bogeyman.
This simplistic “enemy” narrative helps deflect farmers’ anger away from the failures of their representative groups to secure better prices or to back organics as a win-win for nature and for farmers, as well as the refusal of the agrifood and meat conglomerates to pay farmers a fair price.
For instance, a 2020 Teagasc study found that milk prices paid to Irish farmers were the lowest in the EU. Having an eco-scapegoat to vilify is an invaluable mudguard to deflect criticism away from the failings of the farm lobby and its financial dependence on the beef processors in particular.
Part of the emerging narrative is that farmers are being “persecuted” by environmentalists, yet it is worth looking at where the toxic language actually emanates from. One senior agri group official was quoted recentlyas being “sick of listening to hippie dippies and tree huggers telling us we need to do more on the environment”.
This is not anything but unusual. A well-known agricultural journalist recently railed about an “environmental jihad against livestock farming”, while another routinely accuses environmental defenders of being “thugs”, “trolls” and “extremists” who “hate farmers”. Within Ireland’s close-knit farming press, group-think is the norm, and this often spills over into national media coverage.
Words have consequences. Worldwide, over 220 environmental defenders were murdered in 2020. Last August, the High Court heard that threats had been made against Friends of the Irish Environment director (FIE) Tony Lowes by people linked to a paramilitary group arising from an action FIE had taken regarding a flood relief scheme in Roscommon.
Those who nod and wink at the use of incendiary language cannot expect to avoid blame should violent words inevitably beget violent actions.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator