– Green Offaly is the only organisation of its kind in Ireland
By Kathy Masterson
IN 2021 Bord na Móna announced that its suspension of peat harvesting, effective since 2019, was to become permanent. This was welcome news for environmentalists. However, for those living in peatland areas, it raised concerns about employment and the future of their towns and villages.
Offaly resident Rebekah Keaveny came up with a solution drawn from her experiences living and working in former mining towns in Wales.
She is the co-founder and project development co-ordinator of Green Offaly (greenoffaly.ie), a Development Trust that helps communities to set up green enterprises to create a more sustainable future for their area.
A Project 2040 seminar in Dublin entitled ‘Empowering Communities in the Fight Against Climate Change’, which Rebekah attended as Offaly Public Participation Network environmental representative, set the wheels in motion.
She told ‘Changing Ireland’: “The government Ministers said: ‘We have €22 billion committed to help do this transition to a sustainable future. What is needed is a seismic shift in society’. They didn’t know quite how that was going to happen. How do you get citizens on board? How do you change behaviours? So I went away from that meeting and I thought ‘How would you do it?’
“Offaly PPN then got funding to engage with communities, ask them how they felt about climate action, ask them what was stopping them from initiating environmental projects, and we also introduced the idea of a Development Trust.
“Wales was very much an extracted landscape in parts; you had the coal mining communities, you had the closure of steelworks. There wasn’t a just transition, communities were left – for two generations pretty much – until the Development Trust model was born in the early 1990s.
“A Development Trust is set up within a community or a town, and works in partnership with the community, with businesses, with local authorities to regenerate a place. So they’ll take a building, they put social enterprises or services in it, basically giving life and regeneration back to the town. I thought: ‘We’re in Offaly, we’re looking at an extracted landscape and the Development Trust model might work here.’”
And so, Green Offaly (GO) was born. The company is split into two arms – GO Projects, which is mainly focused on assets, regeneration and income generation; and GO Futures, which is centred on training, education and research.
The first regeneration initiative undertaken by GO Projects is the Fiesta Ballroom in Kilcormac. Green Offaly received funding under the EU’s Just Transition Fund, which aims to provide support to areas facing socio-economic challenges arising from the transition towards climate neutrality.
Working in partnership with Offaly Local Development Company and the Trench Trust, who purchased the building and provided match funding, Green Offaly plans to transform the old ballroom into Ireland’s first Green Headquarters.
Rebekah explained: “It’s going to be a community-centred climate action green enterprise. We’ll have a hub for start-ups that are working towards sustainable and green solutions in Offaly.
“The old cinema will become a lecture theatre. We’ll have conferencing space. We’re going to keep the cultural heritage aspect of it so we’ll still have music and events. The front will be a coffee house; a local social enterprise will run that.”
Green Offaly has also completed a feasibility study to determine whether Offaly’s peatlands would be suitable for UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status.
Rebekah says that for many peatlands communities, the end of peat extraction “came out of the blue”.
“These communities thought they had until 2027 to prepare. In the consultations there was a lot of worry about the peatlands, about the towns being deserted, young people leaving, and a dystopian vision of Offaly being a windfarm reservation. So we thought ‘How can we address that?’
“We thought the Biosphere Reserve could be the answer, evolving the peatland identity, securing income from tourism – a continuing legacy of employment, but through a different lens. Now we’ve completed that study, the upshot is yes, it would be very beneficial for Offaly, but we still have a good four years’ work ahead before we’d be able to make a submission to UNESCO.”
Green Offaly also discovered that many communities were seeking advice and technical support around community-owned energy schemes.
They are currently working with Community Power, an energy provider that buys renewable electricity from small hydro and wind generators across Ireland, to write guides for communities interested in establishing a community-owned energy project (See communitypower.ie).
When asked if enough is being done at Government-level to support a just transition in local communities, Rebekah said: “I think there’s a disconnect between government policy and what is happening on the ground, and the reality of delivering on that. It’s a whole new arm of community development and it needs to be resourced as such, it needs to be a national programme. You can’t expect volunteers to do this.
“People have to address their social and economic needs before they even have the luxury to think about climate change. Electric vehicles, retrofits, they’re prohibitive to the majority of the population.”
She recalls a phrase she heard at a recent Local Futures conference in Cork: “‘We’re not faced with a series of problems, because problems have solutions. We’re faced with a series of predicaments’. From that perspective, it’s not so much about climate action, it’s about resilience. It’s about communities being food secure, energy secure, economically secure, those are the things that are really important.”