Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport, Darren O’Rourke TD, speaks with Ciarán Galway, outlining his party’s energy and climate policy, as well as the challenges of constructive opposition.
A biomedical scientist by training, O’Rourke just lost out on a place in the Dáil in 2016 when Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty took the third and final seat, before subsequently topping the Meath East poll in 2020. Prior to his election to the Dáil, the Kells native served as a councillor on Meath County Council for the Ashbourne Local Electoral Area between 2014 and 2020. Previously, he had also worked as an advisor to party colleague, Matt Carthy TD, and as a Sinn Féin policy advisor in Leinster House.
O’Rourke has been tasked with marking Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan TD. Indicating that he was “very grateful” to take up the role, he acknowledges: “To some degree, it was a step into the unknown. But it is a really interesting area and a huge area of change. The thing that immediately strikes me in relation to it is how climate change is an issue of social justice and equality. They are inextricably linked.”
To date, Sinn Féin’s energy and climate policy has been characterised as incoherent and lacking in detail, relative to its housing and health policies. Naturally, this is a criticism that the party’s environment and climate spokesperson rejects, labelling it an “inaccurate critique”.
“My colleague [Senator] Lynn Boylan and I would have had very detailed involvement in the development of the [Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021], bringing forward a range of amendments. We have brought forward legislation ourselves and our party has a long track record,” he explains.
Instancing the work of his predecessor, Brian Stanley TD, O’Rourke highlights the Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill 2017 as an example of this track record. “We still do not have a feed-in tariff and with all due credit to Brian, had that Bill been taken in good faith, amended if necessary, and acted on in 2017, we would now have a microgeneration scheme that is far stronger than what we have,” he asserts.
Placing an emphasis on “the need for the State to lead” the green transition, O’Rourke believes that there should be an enhanced role for organisations such as ESB, Coillte, and Bord na Móna, among others.
“At the heart of that is the need for a fair and just transition,” he insists, asking: “Where is the community dividend, where is the community return, where is the State ownership, where is the State leading on these issues?”
While acknowledging the specific community-led projects aspect of the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS), he maintains that the Government’s ambitions for community-led renewable energy are insufficient and that there is untapped potential.
“The Government has eventually come onto the same page as us. On paper, we agree that there needs to be ambition for solar PV on schools, farms, and homes. The problem we have with government is that it is not acting on or enabling it.
“We think that there is a case for additional support with grid connection fees for community projects as well,” he adds.
“There is considerable scope for greater understanding of the need for this type of infrastructure and cooperation and engagement with communities to deliver it. That is absolutely not to say that there is not a role for the private sector. We know that there is and will be into the future, but it is about the blend.”
“In the context of failing to provide affordable, achievable alternatives for people, the principle of the polluter pays and carbon pricing itself is not something that we are opposed to.”
Darren O’Rourke TD, Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport
At the close of 2021, O’Rourke launched his Green Hydrogen Strategy Bill 2022 seeking to “ensure the State is prepared to realise the full potential of green hydrogen through the preparation of a national hydrogen strategy”.
Initiated in February 2022 and currently at Dáil Second Stage, the Private Members’ Bill would, if enacted, oblige the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications to draft and publish a hydrogen strategy within six months.
“As in all of these cases, we would rather that the Government lifted it, ran with it, and delivered it itself. It would be the most efficient way to get it done,” O’Rourke remarks.
Defining what a national hydrogen strategy for Ireland would look like, the Sinn Féin spokesperson alludes to the European Commission’s strategy which was published in July 2020 and the Scottish experience.
“It is all about the statement of intent, of showing researchers and early adapters in this space that there is a commitment in Ireland to support and to try to nurture that, bringing it to its maximum potential,” he begins, adding: “There are scientific and technological developments, and some will be more successful than others. But I think it is important for Ireland to realise the potential of this.”
Equipped with an 80 by 30 target, by which it intends to increase the share of electricity generated from renewable sources from 4.5GW to approximately 15GW, the Government has committed to delivering a target of 5GW of offshore wind by 2030.
However, while the Phase One offshore wind projects are in the early stages, O’Rourke is sceptical that this commitment will be met.
“We are hearing from informed sources that there is a real chance that even with the delivery of the committed projects, there will be a failure to deliver the 5GW and that we should consider, for example, going with a floating offshore auction or at least a ring-fenced floating offshore auction earlier than had been initially intended, with the opportunity to bring in some of that west coast wind towards the end of the decade or early into the 2030s,” he states.
Recognising the significant potential of Ireland’s offshore wind resources, the Sinn Féin TD stresses the volume of preparatory work required to unlock this at scale. Discussing the development of the National Marine Planning Framework and the resourcing of An Bord Pleanála, he emphasises the need for immediate action.
“According to Wind Energy Ireland, it takes approximately 10 years to develop, consent, design, finance, construct, and commission a typically sized offshore wind farm. It is that idea of queueing theory; decisions that are made now have a knock-on effect. We must make decisions now to be ready to begin production in 2024, 2025, 2026, and 2027. The concern is that if the institutions are not up and running, there will be further delay.”
In November 2021, Sinn Féin withdrew its widely criticised Wind Turbine Regulation Bill 2020. If enacted, the Bill would have severely restricted the development of onshore wind in Ireland, as well as ban the export of energy produced by onshore turbines.
Regardless, O’Rourke denies that his party makes a distinction between onshore and offshore wind. “The Bill was drafted at a different time and was of its time. This is the nature of opposition legislation; you go in, try to tease it out, and improve on it,” he insists.
“What it sought to do was to ensure an appropriate framework for the development of onshore wind. The objective is to maximise the amount of onshore wind and to ensure that it is delivered in a fair way that engages local communities.
“It is important to recognise that there is a particular challenge there. It is frustrating for communities. If you look at the number of parliamentary questions, put down, including by former ministers, wondering where the new [Wind Energy Development Guidelines] are.
“The important point to take from that is that these are contentious developments that need proper planning and proper engagement to ensure their delivery. The industry itself has got better at it.”
Meanwhile, major reductions to carbon emissions are going to be required to meet national objectives and European obligations on climate action. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that a high price on carbon is crucial.
Despite this, Sinn Féin has vociferously opposed successive increases in the carbon tax. In the context of spiralling fuel and energy costs, O’Rourke insists that the concept of carbon tax as an environmental tax to drive behavioural change is redundant.
“The level of elasticity within the system has shown that when people do not have options and they do not have alternatives, it is practically impossible for them to wean themselves off fossil fuels. The effect of a carbon tax, or increases on the price of carbon, in that context, is punitive,” he contends.
“An important point to say is that we have had carbon taxes here in Ireland since 2010; our emissions have increased every single year or certainly have not reduced. The same will be said for the first three years of this government.”
However, O’Rourke maintains that Sinn Féin is not entirely opposed to the concept of a carbon tax. “In the context of failing to provide affordable, achievable alternatives for people, the principle of the polluter pays and carbon pricing itself is not something that we are opposed to,” he says.
Explicitly, his party censured the approach taken by successive governments, and he identifies a perceived failure to offset the real impact of fuel price increases for “the ordinary people that I represent, and who know that things are getting tougher”.
Ultimately, O’Rourke maintains that climate action must simultaneously ensure that those who are most exposed – the poorest and the most vulnerable – are protected during the green transition. “For me, the transition should not drive people into poverty or further into poverty,” he says, adding: “It is about providing alternatives for people and supports for people to transition, particularly if they are dependent on fossil fuels.”
Criticising what he perceives to be a lack of vision in the Government’s approach to climate action, O’Rourke suggests that broad agreement across the political spectrum for “real and urgent climate action” has been squandered.
“We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly and as aggressively as possible, and transition to renewables. We have a spectacular resource in wind. We have an excellent resource in solar. We have the state agencies to realise that potential and we have the potential to create an environment that will realise that ambition. But government is failing to do that in terms of the institutions and the architecture to deliver on that,” he concludes.
“Even if the next general election is in 2025, this government will have missed every one of its annual emissions reduction targets. That is a very significant statement, and it is the greatest proof of policy failure.
“I believe that there is a better way and the way to actually deliver on the transition is to do it fairly, with communities, and to harness the keen interest and ability of communities to deliver on this.”