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Progress Towards a Just Transition on the Island of Ireland

14 Nov 2018

  • Author(s): John Barry and Sinéad Mercier

Progress Towards a Just Transition on the Island of Ireland
This contribution is published as part of the Just Transition Research Collaborative's online forum Just Transition(s) to a Low-Carbon World. Bringing together a range of experts working on different aspects of this transition, it showcases different case studies, narratives and approaches to the Just Transition and their implications for equity and social justice.

Progress towards a Just Transition on the island of Ireland from fossil fuels in particular and unsustainable (and neoliberal) models of economic development in general, is a mixed picture. It is full of deep and as yet unresolved contradictions, but also great potential. On the one hand, the island of Ireland has some of the best renewable energy resources on the planet, particular in offshore wind. As the International Energy Agency puts it “Ireland’s location at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean ensures one of the best wind and ocean resources in Europe”. Ireland’s solar climate is as good as Paris, and equivalent to 70% of the solar climate on the Mediterranean coast. This means that a transition to a 100% renewable energy system is entirely feasible. Yet, there is sluggish movement on decarbonization and greenhouse gas emissions reduction across the island, and at best only a rudimentary understanding of what a ‘just energy transition’ means from a trade union’s perspective. And then there is Brexit and the problematic post — conflict politics of Northern Ireland to contend with….

John Barry is Professor of Green Political Economy at the Queen’s University Belfast. He specializes in green political economy and low-carbon energy transitions. His latest book is The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Story of Unsustainable Growth: Understanding Economic Growth as Ideology, Myth and Religion.

Sinéad Mercier is Dáil researcher for the Green Party of Ireland/Comhaontas Glas with a particular focus on social justice and climate change. She is a member of SIPTU’s Global Solidarity Committee and has previously worked for Philip Lee, Amnesty International, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. She also contributes in a personal capacity to Just Transition policy with SIPTU and Fórsa.
    Bíonn Gach Tosú Lag
    Every beginning is weak (Irish saying)

The Republic of Ireland

In July 2017 the Republic of Ireland passed a law to ban onshore fracking. However, just days later, one of Ireland’s most prominent oil and gas exploration companies, Providence Resources, was granted a licence to drill, in search of an estimated five billion barrels of oil. A year later the Irish Government committed to divest from fossil fuel corporations, the first country in the world to do so. It appears that Ireland’s work on climate change is a matter of double-speak — with Government taking positive steps, while allowing privatized carbon-heavy industries to undermine them.

And in the last number of years the Irish trade union movement has begun to have public and internal discussions around green energy, climate change, and the transition from unsustainable development models, through for example annual ‘Global Solidarity Summer Schools’.

The 2018 Climate Change Performance Index put Ireland in 49th place out of a total of 56 countries identified in the study, and “the worst performing European country”. The Index also points out that Ireland’s performance in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is “very poor”. It went on to state that Ireland “is nowhere close to being on track concerning its well-below-2°C compatible pathway with both its current level as well as its 2030 target”. While the report points to a “very positive trend in the development of renewable energy” the current share of renewables in the overall energy mix is insufficient. And all of this against the backdrop of 85 per cent of Irish energy being imported, with a staggering 91 per cent of this coming from fossil fuels.

The Green Party has proposed a Community Energy (Co-Ownership) Bill as an amendment to the Planning and Development Act which would “create a planning condition that enables local communities to invest in a renewable energy project”. The Green Party is also proposing a ‘Just Transition Commission (Worker and Environmental Rights) Bill’ to oversee the implementation of the EU’s new Governance of the Energy Union package and Ireland’s National Energy and Climate Plan — ensuring that climate action is taken in a manner that is just and fair to workers, local communities and farmers. Such legislation would clearly improve the changes of a Just Transition enabling communities and not just corporations to benefit from the green energy transition. And it could also extend a just worker and community-based energy transition to include ‘energy democracy’ and the democratization of the ownership and control of renewable energy sources. As IMPACT (Ireland’s largest public service trade union) has noted:

“Unlike other countries (Germany, Canada, Denmark, the UK), however, there has been almost no local investment, ownership or involvement of local communities in […] wind farm developments. This has resulted in the widespread mobilisation of local host communities against wind farms which are perceived to benefit “remote corporate” investors, and not local communities.”

Hence a benefit of community-based energy transition approaches in Ireland — north and south — is overcoming one of the main obstacles to scaling up renewable energy sources (particularly wind energy): local opposition and lack of social acceptance. State-backed provision for community and/or state-owned energy would go a long way in overcoming that opposition. This would also address the issue of the dominant energy transition strategy being pursued by the Irish state is a market-based, neoliberal one. That is, a vision of the low-carbon transition in Ireland that prioritizes and assumes private, corporate ownership of renewable energy production, and a heavy focus on ‘competitive energy markets’. As well as ruling out or disincentivizing community and cooperative forms of energy production, there is also the low level of unionization within the private renewable energy sector. This is a major issue, and rightly so, for Irish trade unions. Here, environmentalist arguments focusing purely on renewable energy (often motivated by the urgency of decarbonization due to climate change and also illustrated in Tadzio Müller’s contribution to this forum) come up against the (not unreasonable) suspicion of trade unions of a low-carbon energy transition in terms of a loss in collective bargaining as part of the ‘green and decent jobs’ core of any Just Transition. Coupled with this is the fear of past economic transitions such as coal miners under Thatcher’s neoliberalization of Britain in the 1980s and the damage they did to heavily unionized industries and communities, especially coal-based regions.

After all, safe, secure and well-paid green jobs can only be maintained by strong unions. Bargaining power through unionization is a vital component to achieving those ends. Environmentalists point to 100,000 new jobs in the low-carbon sector, but talk and evidence is insufficient. As outlined in IMPACT’s 2017 report on Just Transition, what is also needed is both decent, well-paid green jobs and unionized low-carbon workplaces, alongside community and other non-market low-carbon energy options.

And further than that, there is the beginnings of a trade union climate and energy discourse around energy as a public good, something that should be thought of a right and not a commodity. Here some unions link anti-privatization campaigns such as the ‘Right2Water’ mobilization which took place across Ireland in 2016, to the low-carbon energy transition. As SIPTU (the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union) puts it, “SIPTU campaigns to prevent the privatisation of Dublin Bus, Irish Rail and Irish Water. Public goods in public ownership are central to the concept of a just, low-carbon transition as publicly [sic] are pivotal to low emissions as well as energy and resource security.”

Another union, IMPACT, also stresses the issue of the ownership, control and governance of renewable energy seeing in a Just Transition the “opportunity to give citizens a greater stake in low-carbon development through much greater levels of local authority and community ownership of future solar PV, wind farm, biomass and waste-to-energy developments” (IMPACT, 2017: 6).

Northern Ireland

Turning now to Northern Ireland. It is on target to meet and go beyond the goal of 40% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020, yet the region’s GHG emissions are increasing, it has the highest levels of car use and fuel poverty in the UK and Europe. And it is worth noting that if you search for ‘Just Transition, Northern Ireland’ you are brought to web pages about the ‘transition from war to peace’, debate and policies around ‘transitional justice’, including the long-overdue ending of armed paramilitaries dominating working class communities, as well as issues of reconciliation and dealing with the legacy of its 40 year conflict. Northern Ireland is after all a ‘post-conflict’ society, meaning its engagement with energy transitions; climate change and the politics, alliances and policies for a Just Transition cannot ignore this salient and enduring issue.

In the wake of the 2007–08 global economic crisis, there was an alliance of business, trade union, environmental and civil society organizations that formed the ‘Green New Deal’ group. The Northern Ireland Green New Deal idea, in some ways a forerunner of ‘Just Transition’ with which it shares some similarities, was to create local, non-outsourceable jobs and was focused on home insulation. Basically a countercyclical green Keynesian programme, the Green New Deal in Northern Ireland proposed that for a £12 million spend by Government the following would be delivered:
  • “Ensure a total investment of over £80 million in domestic energy retrofit
  • Save over 50,000 households an average of £350 on energy bills
  • Alleviate and prevent fuel poverty in over 25,000 homes
  • Sustain up to 1100 jobs in the construction industry
  • Cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2 tonnes per household per annum
  • Return £440 million in lifetime savings to the Northern Ireland economy.”

But this fell on deaf policy and political ears and an important opportunity to build the foundations for a broad coalition between businesses, farmers, unions, environmentalists and civil society on a Just Transition was missed.

And if that were not bad enough… Another major obstacle to public support for a transition beyond carbon energy is the current political scandal around a green energy subsidy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. This UK wide scheme was badly administered when applied to Northern Ireland. It meant that non-domestic users, mostly from farming and poultry sectors, were able to ‘game’ the scheme to ensure that for every £1 pound of wood pellets they purchased, the Government gave them approx. £1.60 in return. With rumours of political interference, currently part of an ongoing judicial inquiry that delayed cost controls, this scheme will cost the Northern Irish taxpayer millions in the years ahead. But equally damaging, it has led to a widespread suspicion of and resistance to green energy subsidies in the future. In diminishing popular and political support for public subsidies, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal has made progress towards a Just Transition in Northern Ireland even more difficult.


Since 2006, there has been a Single Electricity Market and all-island grid, so despite separate jurisdictions both are integrated and co-dependent. And not just at the macro scale. If you are an electric vehicle owner in Northern Ireland and ring the helpline for public charging points you speak to someone in Cork, as the Republic of Ireland-owned energy company ESB manages all e-car charging points on the island.

But while parts of the island have the infrastructural and institutional capacity to develop a coordinated all-island energy transition plan, this has failed to develop. This has partly to do with the internal ‘post-conflict’ politics of Northern Ireland where ‘unionist parties’ (i.e. those who wish to maintain the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom) often resist all-island policies as the thin edge of a wedge to create a reunified Ireland. On this issue, the negotiations around Brexit and the likely consequences of any post-Brexit deal for both Northern Ireland and the Republic, make such cross-border, all-island proposals for any coordinated ‘just energy transition’ difficult if not impossible in the current political context.

The ‘Just Transition’ idea is still in its infancy in Ireland, public debate, policy and political discourse. And it is also very new to the trade union movement, despite the long history of environmentalists working with trade unions for public health goals. Ireland’s trade unions — north and south — have a long history of action on global solidarity; from boycotting apartheid in South Africa to present-day solidarity with Palestinian workers. Advocating for climate justice is a space in which trade unions can lead; as evidenced in the May 2017 ICTU Conference Just Transition: Climate Change & the Implications for the Energy Sector at which Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten was the keynote speaker.

Another salient point here is that unlike other countries, Ireland, while heavily dependent on imported carbon energy, does not have a large carbon extraction and processing industry. However, it does have many workers in the energy and electricity production sector, much of which is heavily unionized (ICTU Conference 2017).

Unions such as SIPTU have defined a Just Transition in Ireland as meaning “that no one will be left behind. Governments must co-operate with unions, industry and local communities to ensure that good quality jobs are available to workers in the new economy” (SIPTU, 2017: 4). Directly challenging the old ‘jobs versus the environment’ framing of sustainability issues, trade unions in Ireland have come around (some quicker and with more convention that others) to seeing climate action being a ‘jobs killer’ as wrong. Union discourses of a Just Transition also stress the involvement of communities and workers in any energy transition planning process. The slow-moving National Dialogue on Climate Action appears to be taking paces in this direction with the appointment of ICTU’s Adrian Kane to the board — however a stronger body with all-Government commitment is needed.

SIPTU, for example, points out that in 2014, peat generation accounted for only 8.8% of Ireland’s electricity requirements, but 21.8% of our carbon emissions from power generation and Irish energy consumers pay an annual subsidy of roughly €115m to continue this ‘carbon lock in’. This subsidy should be used to help transition workers, and their local communities, into their chosen low-carbon livelihoods — whether that means remaining an engineer, or becoming a musician — as IndustriALL Director Brian Kohler posits. There is a need to pay respect to workers that provided energy to the country for decades.

A major challenge in the island of Ireland context is the issue of the industrial-chemical, carbon-based and high-emitting agricultural sector which is the biggest source of Ireland’s non-Emissions Trading Scheme sector emissions. It is also an industry that does not provide a liveable income for many farmers outside of beef or dairy. The decarbonization of agriculture and how this sector can be transformed to reduce its GHG emissions is still a major ‘missing piece’ from the dominant discourse of a ‘Just Transition’ in terms of a new industrial revolution. Not least in how Government plans for the expansion of the sector (the Food Harvest 2020 plan) run completely counter to its climate change commitments.

At the same time, the Northern Ireland peace process, imperfect as it is, does have lessons around conflict management and transformation that should be useful in activism and strategy around Just Transitions. This is because any transition, even a just one, will produce ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and will face opposition and inertia from dominant interests. Hence conflict is inevitable and it is better to prepare for it than be taken by surprise. Hence the suggestion of activists for a low-carbon Just Transition learning and amending some of the lessons from conflict transformation processes such as the one in Northern Ireland. Here the trade union movement’s call for widespread worker and community involvement in the ‘social dialogue’ around the content of any energy or sustainability transition could benefit from the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process. And this could be, alongside the islands abundant renewable energy sources, the island of Ireland’s distinctive contribution to the global debate and localized struggles for a Just Transition.

Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.