Leo Varadkar is deliberately blocking Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill. Eoghan Ó’Ceannabháin explains.
The term gaslighting isn’t part of our mainstream vocabulary in Ireland, but watching Leo Varadkar’s attack on Bríd Smith in the Dáil last Wednesday during an exchange about People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Measures Bill, I couldn’t think of a better term for describing what was going on. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where the abuser uses various shades of denial, manipulation and lying in order to cause the victim to doubt their own perception of events, their own memory and their very sanity. The victim often ends up blaming themselves for issues that are quite clearly the fault of the abuser.
If you were to watch Varadkar’s response to Bríd Smith on Wednesday and nothing else, you would come away with an utterly warped perception of the situation. The Taoiseach’s words were delivered with the confidence and brazenness of a mafia boss. He began by telling her “maybe to try to be constructive around the issue of climate change and climate action”. This is the man who bragged recently that he was reducing his own personal meat consumption when asked what he was doing to tackle climate change. The same Leo Varadkar who until recently was spending €5 million of taxpayers’ money on a government propaganda machine then accused her and “the far left” of looking for attention, likes and retweets. And finally he rounded it off with a screed so thoroughly condescending that somewhere in mansplaining heaven a little devil’s advocate probably blushed:
“What I’d advise the deputy to do is to work harder, be respectful and polite to colleagues, try and build support for her bill, and try and build a coalition for it, and to work much harder at the climate change committee for example, around the whole issue of carbon tax. But the truth is the far left have no interest in climate change, they just want to do this stuff.”
Blocking the Climate Bill
Let’s go through what is actually going on with this bill. The Climate Emergency Bill seeks to ban any future oil and gas exploration on Irish soil or in Irish waters. At a time when we know we need to leave 80% of remaining fossil fuels in the ground, this ban should be a logical and foregone conclusion for anyone who wants to avoid catastrophic climate change. Varadkar’s talk of carbon taxes are a red herring that will punish ordinary people who don’t have access to proper public transport, and will do nothing to tackle the major polluters. Nor can we just put a monetary price on carbon—the price is planetary. We have to tackle this issue at the level of production and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energies. There is no other option on this. Ireland has one of the worst records in Europe for dealing with climate change, but passing this bill could be the beginning of our contribution to what has to be a global fight.
As with many of the machinations of bourgeois democracy, the process surrounding this bill is convoluted and complicated, but I will try to explain it as succinctly as possible. Having been voted through second stage by the Dáil, the bill comes before a Joint Committee of TDs and Senators. This committee does not have the power to amend the bill, but must subject it to “detailed scrutiny” before providing a report to the Dáil. The report has no legal weight in terms of passing the bill and is merely a recommendation. The bill then goes to the Dáil Committee, where it can be amended by the TDs that are on this committee. The opposition currently have a majority on the Dáil Committee for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment. Fine Gael and their allies have therefore used a procedural trick to prevent it from getting that far. They held a vote at the Joint Committee on the report, which was tied at 6 votes apiece. This has now been their justification for refusing to send the report on to the Dáil Committee, thereby halting its progress.
When you break it down, it becomes clear that this is a farce. If the vote were in favour of the bill, the report would be sent on. If the vote were against the bill, the report would likewise be sent on. Either way, the bill would be sent forward to the amendment stage. Again, the report itself is merely a recommendation and carries no legislative weight. But by claiming that the tied vote means the report cannot be sent to the Dáil at all, six people have ensured that the bill remains in limbo.
Indeed, the six people in question are worth mentioning. The chair of the committee is Hildegarde Naughton, a bog standard Fine Gaeler. The Junior Minister is Seán Canney, a Fine Gael-dependent “Independent” TD. Next up we have Michael Lowry, that bastion of clean, honest politics. Of the three senators who voted against the bill, Michael McDowell is the only one who was voted through by a university panel. You may remember him as the architect of the racist 2004 Citizenship Referendum, which denied automatic citizenship to children of foreign parents who were born here. Lastly there was Joe O’Reilly and Tim Lombard of Fine Gael. Neither of these senators were voted for by ordinary people, but were selected by TDs and Senators.
These six people, with the backing of Leo Varadkar, have completely subverted the democratic process. So in the Dáil on Wednesday, Bríd Smith raised the issue of this “procedural trickery”, which has delayed any government action in the midst of an impending climate catastrophe. She was met with Varadkar’s utterly maddening response.
The sheer arrogance of Varadkar is all the more infuriating when you take stock of the context. A majority of the Dáil has voted to put this bill through to the next stage. The climate justice movement in Ireland has gathered serious movement over the last year or so, with groups like Extinction Rebellion, Not Here Not Anywhere, Friends of The Earth and others organising protests and direct actions against government policy. There is a global climate strike planned for March 15, where school children will walk out of their schools in protest of the inaction of our global leaders. The effects of climate change are already setting in and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is rising rapidly, not falling.
Varadkar’s response therefore had all the feeling of a gangster who knows you don’t believe him but doesn’t care because he has the mob behind him.
Sit down while we help the oil companies screw you. Be polite while we subvert the democratic process. Be nice to us while we tell you how we’re going to keep destroying the planet. He might as well have told Bríd Smith to smile.
The only thing these people understand is power. And that power will have to be expressed by us in our thousands at the Dáil gates, and by millions of ordinary people the world over in the climate justice movement. If they and their institutions will not act, we will have to tear them down.
In the words of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg:
“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past, and you will ignoreus again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”