I thank Deputy McAuliffe for speaking as fast as he could in order to fit it all in and leave me with a bit of time. I too will try to speak as quickly as I can. We have very serious work to do. Many people have spoken about the silence of our forests and emptiness of our rivers now and in the time to come. There is serious work to do if we are not going to leave ourselves on a sterile planet that barely supports life, let alone human life. The end destination of the road we are on is quite terrifying. Due to that fact, it can often be very hard to focus on the challenge and task ahead.
The second recommendation from the citizens’ assembly states:
The Assembly believes that the State has comprehensively failed to adequately fund, implement and enforce existing national legislation, national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and directives related to biodiversity.
I want to focus on the important elements of enforcement. Our enforcement in this country has in many ways been light touch in nature, and we have suffered for that. We are doing the same again here. We are not implementing or enforcing the laws that are already in place which would help us get off the road we are on and on to a more sustainable and balanced pathway.
There are challenges with the courts in the context of their being overburdened and under-resourced. The citizens’ assembly recommendations called for better judicial structures in terms of the environment and planning and for specialist environmental courts, not just at the High Court level but also in the Circuit Court and the District Court, and sufficient funding for relevant bodies to enforce EU laws, directives and policies. There is a real challenge in that the court structures are not good enough. There is also a challenge in getting people into court to be held accountable for the destruction and damage they have caused and enforce these rules.
Recommendations 28 and 31 refer to citizens being empowered with legal standing to protect biodiversity and nature in court and to a referendum to amend the Constitution with a view to protecting biodiversity. The latter can enable the former. If we are reliant on the funding that is being given to the NPWS, it is no wonder we are in the position in which we find ourselves. Before we start looking at initiatives to improve things, something we have to do, we need to invest in what we are doing now.
I welcome the comments of the Minister of State on the strengthening, building and enforcement of capacity. One of my neighbours is a tour guide. He spoke about bringing people all around the country . Everywhere he goes, he sees gutted hedgerows and sterile environments and landscapes. He is in pain and wants to do something about this, but not does not have sufficient legal standing. There is no point in creating a new court list with specialist judges if we are not broadening the standing and power of the average citizen to protect nature.
When enforcement happens, it is often pathetic. The fines are meagre. They are factored in as the cost of doing business. Time and again, they have been shown to have absolutely no preventative impact. The Minister for Justice spoke recently about increasing the sanctions and tariffs on people who are convicted of assaulting gardaí or front-line workers in order to disincentivise the carrying out of such acts. That logic needs to apply to nature and nature protection. Just like those assaults, attacks on nature are an attack on society as a whole. We need to recognise that we are only exist on this planet because of nature. It is where we get our food and how we stay alive. If we are killing that, we are ultimately killing ourselves and life on this planet. That may sound dramatic but, as has been shown time and again in report after report, that is the reality of what is happening. I agree with some of the previous speakers that none of the lofty words in this Chamber will achieve anything. We need to see real action.
I welcome the funding, enforcement and strengthening of capacity, but we need to do more. It is incumbent on people who are standing here to do something and get their colleagues in Europe to support this. It is frustrating to hear high rhetoric being uttered in this House and to see the hypocrisy in Europe whereby people are voting against the very laws we need to enforce in respect of nature. I will finish by repeating the quote from the assembly with which I started my contribution:
The Assembly believes that the State has comprehensively failed to adequately fund, implement and enforce existing national legislation, national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and directives related to biodiversity. This must change.