How a branch saved a forest

TreesThe shelving of plans to sell Coillte harvesting rights was greeted with ‘relief and delight‘, according to the press. NIALL SHANAHAN and BERNARD HARBOR report on an IMPACT campaign that came through.

RELIEF AND delight is putting it mildly. When economist Colm McCarthy first fingered Coillte as a saleable state asset, it filled a lot of us with dread.

Not just the 600 IMPACT members who work for the State forestry agency or the 12,000 people whose jobs it supports in the timber industry. Not just the small and medium enterprises supported by forestry tourism, worth an estimated €270 million a year. Something about the sale of our forests just seemed fundamentally wrong.

Yet, by the middle of 2012, the sale (by then limited to a sale of the trees for 80 years) looked unstoppable. A firm Government decision had been announced. Commitments had been made to the Troika. Work on the technicalities and finding a buyer was underway.

Campaign

From the start, the union’s Coillte branch believed that, when it came to the state’s forests, everyone is a stakeholder. This would not be a narrow industrial relations effort; it would reach out to people and organisations of like mind.

By focusing on aspects of concern across the community – especially the issue of public access to forests – the union was soon spearheading a Save Our Forests coalition that included organisations as diverse as the Society of Irish Foresters, Birdwatch Ireland, Mountaineering Ireland and, in time, Scouting Ireland.

The message

The next step was to hone and test the arguments. We knew that nobody – least of all the politicians who made the decisions – would be convinced by an approach that simply said: “We’re not having it.” We needed credible arguments. Years of knowledge and experience built up in the branch helped deliver them.

Retired member John Prior was instrumental in developing the campaign’s central arguments, set out in the Save Our Forests booklet and website developed by the IMPACT Communications Unit. These became both a resource for the committed campaigner and a ready-made and case to put in the hands of potential allies and decision makers.

Between us, the partner organisations had a huge and active network, which was able to use the material to convince others and lobby their local representatives. The brochure, which covered the social, economic and environmental case against selling Coillte assets, was sent to every TD, senator, councillor and Leader Company in the country. It also went to selected journalists.

Taking risks

It was relatively easy to build support around the potential loss of countryside access. But we knew we’d be confronted with the seemingly rock-solid argument that Ireland simply had to make sacrifices because the country is broke. The economic argument was going to be crucial.

So, if there was a seminal moment in the campaign, it was the Coillte branch’s decision to commission economist Peter Bacon to do a study of the economics behind the proposed sale.

It was a risk too as Bacon was clear from the outset that his report would reflect the facts regardless of whether they supported the union’s arguments. Bacon unearthed some uncomfortable truths about the proposal and concluded that “the economic rationale for the proposed sale of Coillte harvesting rights no longer stands up and cannot be justified.”

This became the core message of the campaign. Bacon’s assessment was a cold look at the bottom line, which drove a stake through the heart of the proposal. It confirmed that a sale would put jobs at risk and, devastatingly, concluded that it would actually cost the taxpayer money to lose its forests.

Decision

As numerous ministers and backbenchers voiced doubts about the proposed sale and whether it would go ahead, it now became an issue of creating space for a Government rethink.

When IMPACT officials gave evidence at the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee in May, the union emphasised its members’ willingness to look at ways of improving Coillte’s operations and maximising its return to the exchequer. While we were dead against the sale of harvesting rights, the union again positioned itself as an advocate for the best possible forestry service.

Trade union campaigns rarely end so conclusively. Everyone involved is still absorbing the news that the sale is off, while the Coillte branch and its members now have to prepare for the challenges of a proposed merger with Bord na Móna.

But by building a coalition of interests around a single and achievable objective, by showing the courage to put branch and union resources – including time and money – behind a priority campaign issue, and by sheer determination and hard work, the Coillte branch has shown just what can be achieved in an effective campaign.

This is an shorter version of a feature article in the latest edition of Work & Life magazine, which will circulate to IMPACT members in the workplace in the coming days.