Rosalind Skillen: Putting the environment centre stage in the election

The challenge for climate campaigners is learning how to frame the environment in a way that connects with everyday concerns of voters

Eamon Ryan announced last week he is stepping down as leader of the Green Party
Eamon Ryan announced last week he is stepping down as leader of the Green Party (Brian Lawless/Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

There are 18 seats up for grabs in Westminster for our Northern Ireland politicians. And with two weeks to go, everything is to play for.

General elections can feel irrelevant in Northern Ireland, with many policy areas devolved. However, the challenges that MLAs face in their departments cannot be divorced from decisions at Westminster, particularly when it comes to funding and having a say on the major crises of our time.

Climate change is a key policy area which unites communities from all political backgrounds. Yet, much in the same way that Westminster elections can feel a bit irrelevant, so too can the environment.

Despite being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, the environment is still relegated to the Greens, who continue to battle the perception of being a single-issue party.

Parties like Alliance and SDLP have certainly done more to promote environmental protection in recent years, and we should see more of this with the DAERA portfolio sitting with an Alliance minister for the first time ever.

However, it must be said that we are no longer operating in the green wave of 2019 which saw countries like the UK and Ireland declare climate emergencies. Or in 2022 when our neighbours in Glasgow were hosting the UN climate change conference, Cop26, and when not one – but two – competing climate change bills were making their way through the Assembly.

In 2024, we are operating in a squeezed political space. The recent results of the local and European elections in Ireland, which saw the Green Party losing both its MEPs and returning half of its council seats, paint a lucid picture of the state of environmental politics.

Last week’s resignation of Ireland’s Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, has raised further questions over the future direction of the party, not to mention the pieces of environmental legislation waiting to be published in the lifetime of the current Irish government.

Ryan’s resignation speech alluded to the challenges for the Greens, one that candidates in the north will also face. He said one of his biggest regrets was climate action measures being seen as “costly” and out of touch.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan with deputy leader Catherine Martin
Outgoing Green Party leader Eamon Ryan with deputy leader Catherine Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

In Northern Ireland, there are many topics discussed on the airwaves that need our attention and investment. Better funded public health services, housing, an improved schooling system and childcare support, to name a few. The challenge for climate campaigners is learning how to frame the environment in a way that is not deaf to these issues but connects them.

One way of doing this is by linking climate change to our most basic needs, like energy, food, our health. As Environment Minister, Eamon Ryan played a leading role in enacting policies – like reduced public transport fares and local link rural buses – which not only helped to make Ireland a greener place to live, but improved people’s health and quality of life. Energy efficiency measures, like the retrofit scheme, cut costs and reduced the number of people living in damp, leaky homes.

Think about Lough Neagh, an issue which has captured the public consciousness in a way that few environmental issues have. People were outraged to see a Special Protected Area turn into a thick green algal soup. Worse still, one supplying nearly 50% of drinking water.

Algae on the surface of Lough Neagh at Ballyronan Marina
The environmental crisis at Lough Neagh has captured the public imagination in a way that few other issues have (Liam McBurney/PA)

Had this issue been about the ecological status of the lough alone, would it have garnered the same attention? The links with human health, recreation, tourism and even with governance and politics are what drove Lough Neagh up the agenda.

Northern Ireland has a shiny Climate Change Act. We’ll struggle to meet its targets, including the Climate Action Plans, but missing a few specific statutory deadlines will only really matter to people who are active on the issue. As far as most are concerned, parties in Northern Ireland are relatively engaged on environmental issues. All of them at least recognise that more needs to be done.

The results of the EU elections across member states have shown that environmental issues need new life and meaning. Climate change has become tied up in identity politics, it’s become the problem child of “environmentalists”.

We must remember that there is no such thing as the “green” agenda – policies on climate and nature are part of a collective agenda aimed at improving all our wellbeing and promoting common good.