Not a very just transition so far

It’s the time of year when families are preparing to send their children to universities and colleges around the country. The race for accommodation has been painful and expensive, and with college offers accepted by many in the past week or so, there’s a real sense of household budgeting now to try and pay for the fees, rent and upkeep of the students in the coming months.

For many families, this will not be easy. Many are absolutely dreading autumn and winter. With the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, their sons and daughters will in most cases be going back onto campus – and that will mean they will have to fork out thousands of euro in the coming days to cover transport, accommodation, food and drink.

There’s another category of parents I feel particularly sorry for this year, and that’s the younger couples who have to pay for the adult children’s college fees and upkeep after a summer when they initially hoped these young men and women might have worked with Bord na Mona during the harvesting season, earning their own dough. For decades, the job on the bog was a saviour for such families – their hard-working student spending most of the summer out on the Mountdillon or Blackwater bogs, driving a tractor, picking stones, opening railway gates or doing whatever was asked of them and coming home at the end of a good week with 500 or 600 euro or more in their pockets.

This was the way it was in my own youth and I know full well how important it was for the household budget. With two sisters training to be teachers and a brother in Athlone Regional College, there was severe pressure on my own parents to meet the bills. I can remember the trips to Galway and Athlone and elsewhere with bags of turf, boxes of groceries and much more. It was a really penny-pinching time for us.

Bord na Mona was a crucial contributor to the household economy of thousands of Roscommon families every year. The ‘Bord’ paid for the education of thousands of children in return for the hard slog on the dusty peatlands of the county every summer. Now, the suddenness of the demise of the company’s operations in peat here over the last 12 months has left a lot of people cash-starved.

I know that some of the more experienced BNM staff have received redundancy payments – and there is some money in the region for education – but the parents I’m referring to are the younger couples who did not qualify for a decent redundancy payment this year, or who are just starting out as parents of college students and are now facing a really challenging time in coming up with money.

A colleague cautioned me when I mentioned I was about to seek redundancy from RTE last spring. “You DO know you will need 15,000 euro per child, per college, per year, if you are going to be able to pay to educate your boys in the years to come? That’s at least 150K…you might need to think twice about walking away from a good job with those sort of bills coming down the line. They won’t be on the bog this summer either!” I have to say I was a bit shocked when it was put in those terms.

Apart from education costs, many families are also wondering who will give them a job in the years to come. This painful scenario has quite rightly led to questions being asked in the Dáil in recent weeks about the progress of the Just Transition Fund.

Just Transition has been a painful process for many people I know in Shannonbridge and Lanesboro-Ballyleague and their hinterlands. Ten years ago there was an expectation that there would be a phasing in of any major economic changes. We were told there was a plan to use the burning of biomass for eight or ten years in the existing power stations as a period when these people could begin to look elsewhere for employment (while they still had a job), set up alternative industries and have Government aid to assist them make the transition in a slow but safe manner – instead of falling off the economic edge.

The German experience was quoted most. They were dealing with the closure of dozens of coal mines and the loss of thousands of jobs, and had set out a ‘transition’ plan over many years. Mining for hard coal in Germany officially came to an end on Friday, 21 December 2018. The decision to shut the last hard coal mines was made in 2007 – some 11 years earlier, for purely economic reasons. The aim of their transition was to wean mining communities off coal onto new enterprises in order to head off the hard-coal mining industry’s overall structural decline across western Europe due to competition from cheaper extraction costs elsewhere and a diversifying energy mix –for the most part they achieved their goal, with hundreds of new industries being grant-aided, creating jobs across the German coal regions.

In Ireland, we had closer to 11 months’ notice that the power stations were going. The collapse of the planning process undertaken to help adapt the existing power stations to burn biomass was disastrous. Within a very short space of time, over 20,000 people in four counties were faced with the brutal reality of redundancies.

The saddest part of it all is that we were well warned. The National, Economic and Social Council here had looked at the German model (and others) and advised a long time ago that a badly handled restructuring of regional economies would leave deep scars, a community in decline, and distrust of new restructuring attempts.

The reality is there was no time for regional restructuring after the collapse of the planning cases. The date was simply set for the closure of the stations and the Just Transition Fund Commissioner was wheeled out, with Roscommon’s Kieran Mulvey at the helm.

Two years later Mr. Mulvey has been the first person to express deep dismay and disappointment with the way the Transition Fund has operated. He has long admitted that the process began far too late.

It is true that Just Transition is supporting some job projects in Roscommon and neighbouring counties – but these are few and far between. Counties like Offaly were advanced in their preparations (because they expected the Edenderry power station to close much earlier) but, even there, there is frustration with the pace of change and the lack of urgent supports.

The bottom line is that communities needed at least ten years to prepare for these closures. Fortunately, there is a new process underway now. I am hearing for the first time of exciting new developments around the use of hydrogen and other energy forms in this region in the years to come, but it’s all so very late for the people who need this economy to give them a job next winter, or for those who have to pay those college fees this month.

In the months to come, we must all work closer with the Just Transition process to see what can be salvaged. I am told that the next stage of the Just Transition Fund is a green initiative from Europe and that significantly more funds will be made available to help support communities like our own, where jobs can be created in a low-carbon friendly society. It will be a challenge to take it on, but the scientists and the engineers say it is possible – and we must try.

If we don’t, the alternative is a decade (at least) of decline for the old Bord na Mona communities – when the economy will stagnate and younger generations will be lost for good. That’s not just my view. It’s exactly what the Economic and Social economy review group told us in its report two years ago.