Hundreds protest outside Leinster House over controversial Coillte deal

James Cox

Environmentalists, farmers, and opposition politicians were among the hundreds outside Leinster House this afternoon, protesting at a controversial deal made by Coillte.

The semi-state company has entered into a €200 million agreement with a UK investment firm to buy up land and forestry.

In response, the Irish Farmers Association has pulled out of any further partnerships with the forestry body.

The Save Our Forest demonstration included more than 20 organisations, including environmental groups.

Gresham House has announced a €200 million Irish forest fund, accepted by Coillte.

The fund is set out to plant an average of 700 hectares of new forests over the next five years. The deal could see up to 123,000 acres of land and forest being sold to Gresham House.

Coillte, a semi-state agency, has pledged to plant 10,000 hectares of new forests by 2050, the British investors would account for 3.5 per cent of these new forests.

Protesters outside Leinster House on Thursday told Newstalk that the Government needs to intervene to prevent the deal.

One person said: "The Minister [for Agriculture] made a statement in the Dáil yesterday saying that the deal had been signed and gone ahead, and if Minister [Charlie] McConalogue and Minister [Pippa] Hackett have allowed this to happen, well then they must resign immediately."

Patrick Lawless, managing director, Gresham House Ireland, has claimed the new fund will “create a platform for enhancing Ireland’s forestry sector, delivering real change and momentum and making a meaningful contribution to Ireland’s crucial afforestation ambitions”.

The fund is supported by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) which is managed and controlled by the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA).

Imelda Hurley, chief Executive of Coillte, said: “Coillte is pleased to work with Gresham House and have ISIF as a cornerstone investor in this important initiative. There is an urgent need for Ireland to meet stretching Climate Action targets and creating new forests is integral to the achievement of these targets. The Government’s national afforestation target is 8,000 ha per annum and the long-term target is to achieve 18 per cent forest cover. Currently, forest cover in Ireland is 11.6 per cent compared to an EU average of 40 per cent.

"The new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund represents an important first step towards accessing the capital required to enable the creation of new forests which will deliver the multiple benefits of forests for climate, nature, wood and people.”

Environmentalists and farmers have spoken out against the deal, arguing that the Government should be the financial backer rather than Gresham House.

However, Coillte has defended the deal. The semi-state agency has claimed the €200 million in funding is required to plant and acquire forests for its strategy.

Opposition TDs have widely condemned the plans, with some labelling it a "land grab".