Ireland is past its ‘Celtic Tiger’ days; economic growth is good and we want it to be sustainable: Roderic O’Gorman

Down To Earth talks to Irish Green Party politician and Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’ Gorman, who was in India during Saint Patrick’s Day

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Sunday 19 March 2023

Roderic O'Gorman, the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Photo: @IrlEmbIndia / TwitterRoderic O'Gorman, the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Photo: @IrlEmbIndia / Twitter

Roderic O’Gorman, Irish Green Party politician and the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, was in India this St Patrick’s Day.

O’Gorman, a Teachta Dála or Member of Parliament for the Dublin West constituency, visited Mumbai and Delhi. In the national capital, Down To Earth spoke to the minister about a host of issues including green energy, the economy, war in Ukraine, Irish green politics, social issues, wildlife and forests and the road ahead for the Emerald Isle. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: Your visit to India comes at a time when the prime ministers of both countries on either side of the Irish Sea are of part or full Indian descent. What would the Irish government like to collaborate with India on, especially in the field of environment?

Roderic O’Gorman: Ireland has long, historical links with India and we would like to make them stronger and deeper in the years to come.

India has taken a huge leap in the area of solar power. Ireland’s focus in renewables has mostly been on wind in the last 2-3 years. But now the technology for solar has got so much better. We in Ireland do not have as much sunshine but we can produce solar energy whenever it is sunny. We can probably learn lessons in producing it in significant quantities (from India).

Ireland has expertise in wind. We are looking at partnerships to build more offshore wind turbines. I understand there are ongoing negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement between India and the European Union of which Ireland is a part. Ireland and India would be looking for strong environmental and sustainability guarantees to be integrated within that. Free trade has to be sustainable and environmentally conscious as well.

RG: Let me ask you about migrants and refugees. Migrants and refugees continue to make their way to Western Europe, North America and Australia from Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East due to war, political strife and the climate crisis. There is already a wave of rightwing populism across the planet currently. You are currently overseeing the programme to provide shelter to Ukrainian refugees in Ireland which has drawn flak from the Irish Right. As a member of a nation that itself migrated in times past, how do you reconcile these developments?

ROG: We have, as a country with a reasonably small population, provided shelter and accommodation for over 75,000 Ukrainians and perhaps another 20,000 people from other countries fleeing war.

Certainly, the people of Ukraine, Ukrainians living in our country and the Irish Government recognise that Ireland has, maybe, gone above and beyond in terms of looking after the needs of Ukrainians. We are proud to do that. This is Ireland’s contribution in terms of supporting Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in illegal. It is in breach of all international norms.

There has been some negative reaction and rightwing rhetoric and protests against Ukrainians but particularly non-Ukrainians seeking international protection. The rightwing and the far right are still small in our country. They use social media to amplify their presence. You can make noise on Twitter that your number of people does not equate to.

But it is a concern and we have had some very unpleasant protests outside of centres where people were being accommodated, particularly women and children.

It is also important to remember that there are thousands of Irish people working on a daily basis to support Ukrainian displaced persons and other refugees as well.

The majority of Irish people recognise we have a legal obligation under international law but also a moral one to support people in times of crisis.    

I will always make one point: There is not one person in Ireland who does not have a family member who went abroad to work in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, further afield.

Everyone of us have family members who went away. A 100-150 years ago, they did it to flee famine and persecution. But in our lifetime and our generation, they went for economic reasons.

So, I find it very hard to believe when I see some people in Ireland criticise those who look to move to Ireland to better their lives when every Irish person has a member of their family who did the exact same thing. We have to be strong in terms of reminding people that we will continue to support those fleeing to Ireland, seeking sanctuary.    

RG: What, in your view, has the performance of the Green Party been like on the Irish political scene since its formation in 1981? Why has there been factionalism and splits? Has it remained true to the principles of environmentalism that most green parties practice elsewhere?

ROG: The Irish political scene is unusual and different to many other European countries because the three biggest parties in the country, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael — who are now in government with us — and Sinn Féin, the main opposition party, they all originated from one common Sinn Féin party in the early part of last century.

The Irish Greens are completely different. We do not have that history. As you say, we were founded in 1981. We are an internationalist party. We take our inspiration from greens in Germany, in northern Europe.

I think we have had a very significant role in raising the profile of environmental issues. For years, we were the only party talking about the environment and now, as other parties talk, we are the only party doing something serious.

I think in the last two-and-a-half years since we joined to form this government, we have seen environmental policies increase in prominence very significantly within it. We passed a very significant climate act. We raised a range of issues on protecting biodiversity.

So, we have placed a very strong focus on the environment but have also recognised social justice since green politics is not just about the environment. There was a time when we lost all our seats in Parliament. It was a difficult time. But we came back again.

RG: Can green parties ever become a fixture in the politics of Global South countries?

ROG: They can. Environmental damage and degradation always impact the poor the most. We know that from climate change, from natural disasters. When a factory pollutes an area, it is always the most vulnerable, poorest people who are most affected.

So I would hope that there is an opportunity across the Global South to see that there is a need to work and solve environmental threats that we all face. There are examples.

In the 1980s, Ireland was not a wealthy country. It was regarded as quite behind the rest of Europe. But our green party developed during those years.

So, I definitely think there is a role for green parties across the Global South. They may take different focuses to those in Europe.

The environment cannot be the number one issue for everyone. For someone who is hungry today, solving the climate crisis in 10 years is not the priority. But there always needs to be some politicians in the room saying ‘What about the environment? What are we doing there?’ and keeping that in the conversation.

RG: Ireland is now a ‘Celtic Tiger’.

ROG: We had our Celtic Tiger time and we went down again during the 2008 economic recession. We have very good economic growth at the moment. We are trying to make sure it is sustainable. We are investing a lot into infrastructure, into capital — green infrastructure which would get benefits in future years.

We are also putting money aside for a rainy-day fund as we know the economic scenario will become bad again. Not now. But whenever it happens, we will have money for that time.

But the greens are in power in a number of European countries — Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Austria, Finland. When I attend meetings of the EU, there are many greens sitting around the table and that is a hugely important development.

RG: Recently, just across the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay, another prominent European Catholic nation, Spain, allowed menstrual leave, teenage abortion and self-declaration of gender? Can Ireland follow?

ROG: Ireland has allowed abortion in 2018. We had a referendum that year to remove the prohibition on abortion that had been contained in our constitution. So, women now have the right to choose to decide if they can have an abortion or not.

We also have self-identification in terms of gender. We brought in legislation in 2015 that allowed for self-identification.

In terms of menstrual leave, that is an area I am looking at. We have recently introduced leave for victims of domestic violence.

We are looking at doing some research in terms of what are the workplace policies that can support women better on issues to do with menstruation. So, I think Ireland is ahead of Spain or close to Spain in terms of all those issues.

RG: What is your party’s stand towards introducing once-extant predators like brown bears, gray wolves and lynx to the island of Ireland?

ROG: Protecting biodiversity is hugely important for our government. We are looking at increasing our forest cover which is currently only four per cent. We are looking to reverse that.

Realistically speaking, there is no major habitat left in Ireland to support the carnivores that you have mentioned. I don’t think we are anywhere near that.

But one thing that we have been successful at is reintroducing birds of prey back to the country. Buzzards, red-tailed kites, sea eagles. Even the massive golden eagle. We have started to reintroduce them into the country.

Unfortunately, they are sometimes poisoned which is shocking. But you now see buzzards in and around Dublin where you never saw them before. It was fascinating for me to see birds of prey in Mumbai and here in Delhi. We did not have that till recently. But it is changing. Species that used to be there in Ireland are coming back and that is very positive.   

RG: What about Irish and British cooperation so that environmental issues are addressed in Ulster as well?

ROG: Cooperation with the United Kingdom is hugely important. The UK made a decision to leave the EU, which is their entitlement.

We now have a ‘Windsor Protocol’ that has ended what was a very difficult period in terms of the bilateral relationship between the two governments.

We certainly welcome the work that has been done and are looking forward to implementing the ‘Windsor Protocol’.

In terms of specifically environmental matters, the environment is not an issue that is dealt with on an all-island basis. Tourism and food safety are.

The Irish Green Party is an all-island party. Politically, we are represented in Northern Ireland. They have elections for their local council in May. I will be going to campaign, knocking on doors, in Northern Ireland.

We have a significant role in raising environmental issues in Northern Ireland. But there is a lot be done as well.

RG: Where do you see the Emerald Isle in the future? A land that has suffered so much in the past…can it find closure for problems past and present?

ROG: Most people in Ireland see it in a very good place at the moment. We have weathered COVID-19. The war in Ukraine is said to be having an impact on us in terms of fuel costs and wider costs of living in terms of the pressure that the extra people — who have fled Ukraine and other places — have brought.

But we are a wealthy country and are able to withstand those pressures. Ireland’s place is very much as a gateway to the EU. It is now the largest English-speaking country in the bloc.

We are a bridge for the countries who want to do business, who want access to the very wide market that the EU provides but don’t know French or Spanish or German. Ireland is a base for that and that has been the case in terms of the very large number of IT companies that are based in Dublin.

We are a welcoming country. Far right groups are a tiny minority. When I grew up, Ireland was a very homogenous country of white, Irish people. In those 40 years, there has been a huge change. One in 6 people living in Ireland right now were not born in the country. We are now multicultural.

There is a bright future for Ireland. Maintaining peace in Northern Ireland is a top priority for us and that is why the Windsor Protocol and cooperating with the British government is important.

Also, as greens, we want to establish our environmental agenda and meet our Paris Agreement targets. Hence, the Irish Greens’ participation in government is hugely important.  

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