IrishTimesWatch

Hounding the journalists who believe they're above it all

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

O'Toole's right...and wrong...on Irish forests

Fintan O'Toole's "Millennium forests idea one big lie" made good point, and bad. Yeah, yeah - it's only about trees, but I'm always interested to see how the Statist advoates the preservation of it.

He reminds us about the government's planting of trees in December 1999 - one for everyone in the audience, as it were.

Seamus Brennan sent you out a certificate with a scientific-looking number on it and a statement of where your family's very own tree was to be found.

The government blather was that this idea was

a visionary millennium project to help rescue and restore a number of the country's native forests and woodlands. A unique element of the People's Millennium Forests is that each of the 1.2 million households will be able to identify the exact location of their tree, obtain a certificate of identification and will be encouraged to chart its growth well into the new millennium.

O'Toole explains that,

On average, over 30 per cent of the EU at the time was forestry. In Ireland, the figure was less than 9 per cent.

This particular nonsensical government policy seems to have come to O'Toole's attention when, as he reported, a member of the Today with Pat Kenny show on RTE radio went in search of the tree "belonging" to a resident in Wexford. Needless to say, it wasn't there - not in the way in which the government promised 7 years ago, anyway.

The whole thing was a swizz. O'Toole explain that, "[t]he central database that we were told would identify each of our trees doesn't exist. And all of this was known from the start." Clearly upset, if not a little disillusioned, he makes two particular complaints I find a little galling.

O'Toole is angry that the government would use children in such a cynical way. Earlier, he states:

Kids in schools all over the country collected the seeds of native tree species to be planted and, according to the official website, "set up small nurseries on their classroom windowsills . . . in this way each school helped to increase the forests of Ireland".

Later adding:

the cynicism involved in getting primary school children all worked up about a big environmental project under false pretences is as corrosive as it is sickening, teaching them the lesson that public ideals are for suckers.

This is amazing. A man rooted on the Left of politics dares to criticise a government for getting a little PR boost by evoking images of the Earth's future, replete with images of dancing children, enjoying plush forests and all that? What is so hypocritical is that this is the very meat and drink of the Left. When have the Greens or Labour declined the opportunity to use children in their arguments with the evil, cold, money-oriented Right? When have they ever refused to manipulate our sensibilities by angering us for the loss of this or the lack of that - involving children and their weakness in society? When have they, in short, failed to seize an opportunity to do exactly what Bertie et al. did on that dark day in December 1999: to gain electoral kudos by employing the bright eyes and cheeky smiles of our nation's children?

Now, while O'Toole's points were bunkum in a social context, this was small beer compared to his beliefs in an economic context. He believes that

the whole episode highlights the unholy mess that continues to be made of forestry policy...Coillte sees itself as a purely private, commercial operation, with no public responsibilities...[The] practice of selling off public forests to private developers in deals that involve very little public scrutiny...The big lie in the whole millennium forests spin was that "we" own our trees. Public ownership of one of our most important environmental and tourism assets is about as real as the teddy bears' picnic.

The biggest mistake - and it's a time-honoured mistake - to to believe that, by simply ousting one government, that a problem will resolve itself. O'Toole falls for this, believing that, should whomever his ideal combination in power in the Dail succeed in the next general election, this will somehow work. That the State's ownership - in whatever administrative guise - can ever run commerce, resources or services as well as private enterprises.

This has nothing to do with how much organization is involved, or how honest the administrators are in their management of the system in question. This is about the fact that ownership not only implies, but demands, responsible management of resources - be they renewable or not.

O'Toole is naive to think that any now government could do better. What is needed is private ownership of these facilities and resources.Henceforth, costs would matter. Be they run by for-profit companies or trusts or charities or whatever other combination of people, they would be cared for- the very thing O'Toole wants, but will never get, from the State's management.

Financial ruin must always be the threat to business that keeps the management on their toes, not some mystical clap-trap about "the people's assets." The latter has never worked, and no new administration in the Dail will ever make it work.

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