“Did you hear the one about the country that sold off its natural resources and then let go hundreds of people in a bid to save the world from environmental disaster?”
When the letter in the post begins with a sentence as evocative as this one, you can be sure there’s a hell of a message coming down the line from its writer. That’s the feeling I had this week when I opened the envelope that came in through the post box.
It’s not a new story either. Learning to cope with the effects of lowering carbon emissions from industry and the community in rural Ireland is nothing new to the people of this region. One only has to walk down through the quiet villages of Arigna, Ballyleague or Shannonbridge to see for oneself the way life has changed so dramatically here since prohibitions on the burning of coal and peat came in, reducing local employment levels by hundreds of people over the last three decades.
Some people in these towns are far from amused when they hear about the new ‘green agenda’ on the national airwaves and the way things are “going to change” in the next ten years. I dare any reader to tell any member of one of the old mining families in North Roscommon how things are on a different trajectory now “compared to the way they used to be”.
Every person who lives in these communities also knows that these forms of electricity generation were not profitable either from as far back as day 1 – and have been subsidised for decades – but the reality remains that these industries were created by an Irish state determined at the time to provide a form of livelihood and income for those living in the parts of the country with the highest unemployment rates. This was an effort to try to stop thousands of people from emigrating to the UK and USA (as they most certainly would have done if the power stations were not there).
When I wrote about this issue in the People recently, I received the aforementioned very interesting letter in direct response. It came from a Dublin man who worked in the ESB here in the midlands for nearly three decades. He had some very strong things to say about the way the whole process of burning peat, turf and coal came to an end in what he described as an “unjust transition”.
Peter worked in the ESB here from 1972 to 1989, but, in his letter, he wanted to concentrate instead not on how the industry had come to a staggering halt here in recent years, but the way in which other nations in the world had tackled a similar challenge – and, in his opinion, ensured that there was some level of fair play in treating the sensitivities of the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
Peter began by telling me that in 1990, 70 hard coal mines were operating in Poland, most of them in the Silesia province. They were then employing nearly 390,000 workers. He reckons they extracted 147 million tons of hard coal from the earth which were every bit as inefficient as the peat and turf he burned here. He says that since 1990 the same region has undergone a series of restructuring reforms aimed at scaling down the employment, reducing debt, improving management, and adjusting production to improve the mines’ economic performance – and get the industry ready for massive decarbonisation.
As a result of those reforms (which were not popular locally), by 2020 employment in hard coal mining in that area had shrunk to roughly 80,000, and annual coal production had decreased to 54 million tons. The way it was done was blunt, but “at least layered out over a long period,” as he writes. “Among the first policies to assist workers, emerging in 1993, were a pre-retirement miners’ leave payment and a welfare allowance. Miners’ leave was offered to underground miners facing job losses at closing mines. Eligible beneficiaries who were old enough or had sufficient seniority on the job were paid 50 percent of their salary for a maximum of three years. The money could be taken in one up front payment or in monthly instalments. Thousands left”.
The local municipal area management played a direct role in the next phase of what happened in Poland. The word ‘municipal’ is a bit of a brainteaser for many readers here. It’s a new word to the Irish political vocabulary and our administrative system – borrowed from our neighbours and EU cousins. In effect, it just means the local county councils and their sub-divisions in the local electoral areas who moved in around the Polish mining regions and took on the role of preparing for the end of coal – the only difference being they set out a plan to do it over 50 years!
Silesia had 60 such municipalities or county council areas. To support local job creation, a municipality could start new enterprises with the mining company, take over real estate from closed or scaled-down mines, and receive preferential loans from the government to stimulate economic activity. Yes, you read that part right – cheap loans, tax-free breaks and direct financial and economic benefits were offered to take people out of the mines and create alternative industry. Now is that an idea we haven’t heard of before?
The result of the direct involvement of the local authorities was fairly dramatic. Local authorities assumed the assets of mining sites and created new jobs in modern business centres. One example is the New Gliwice Center for Education and Business. The local municipality carried out a model revitalisation of the old decommissioned KWK Gliwice coal mine, using EU funds, and transformed the site into a modern zone of education and business. Today, New Gliwice is home to several technology companies and a functional urban space that attracts residents with cultural and sports events. It was one of the biggest post-mining repurposing projects in Poland. It cost 34 million euro to revitalise the 15 hectares of land, 13 million of which came from European funds, with the remainder provided by the municipal budget. All of this happened 20 years ago – and can make one only dream of what could have been delivered here pre-closure at some of the old ESB power stations now destined for dismantling in our neighbourhoods.
The New Gliwice Center is a shining example of what could and should have been planned 20 years ago for the Shannonbridge or Ballyleague-Lanesborough areas. About 1,900 new jobs were created, particularly in ICT and other new technologies. The buildings were retrofitted to new functions – as business incubators, a technology park, and a college.
Peter’s letter ran to about eight pages (I’m still reading it!) but the essential point he makes was that this was the type of pre-closure planning that should have been instigated in our own country. In his closing line he describes this as “the longest sleepwalk in history” into industrial decline and deprivation. “The region will be paying for this in the next 10 or 20 years” he says, “unless some of the measures now being wheeled out are put on fast-track – and fairly smart too!”