Stench from the woods

It was reported on Six One News (14th item) yesterday that the State owned forestry company Coillte is considering selling an historic 200 year old forest in Moyode Co Galway. The forest is to be felled so that the entire area of 175 acres can be turned into a giant limestone quarry.

Residents of the area are very upset at the plans but Coillte has stated that no decision has yet been made on the matter.

So why would a State owned company responsible for forestry, want to destroy such a valuable national asset?

The answer, I believe, lies in the actual status of Coillte. In effect Coillte is a private company owned by the State. Yes, I know what you’re thinking but please, keep in mind, this is Ireland.

Writing in 2006 (Sub req’d) about the farce that was the Millennium Tree Project, Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole had some interesting things to say about Coillte. Here’s some of his points (My emphasis):

One of the reasons for the millennium forests debacle is the bizarre status of Coillte. When, in late 2000, environmental activist Tony Lowes wrote to Coillte seeking information of the environmental aspects of the millennium project, Coillte replied that it was a private limited company which operated on a commercial basis. It argued it had no public administration functions or responsibilities, and was not obliged to provide any information.”

“This is an astonishing position for a company whose only shareholders are the Ministers for Finance and Agriculture, and it has been repeatedly rejected by the European Court.”

“Coillte sees itself as a purely private, commercial operation, with no public responsibilities.”

Here are some important and interesting facts from the Coillte website.

In 1985/86 the Government set up a review body to advise on structures for the future management of State owned forests. Subsequently the Government decided to set up Coillte Teoranta as a private limited company to manage State owned forests commercially

Coillte was established in 1988 as a private limited company under the Forestry Act 1988.

When Coillte was established in 1989 it acquired ownership of the State’s forests in return for shares valued at IR£575 million (€730 million).

(No harm to remind ourselves that Haughey, the most corrupt politician in Irish history, was in power at this time).

The company is owned by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture and Food. (Wrong; it belongs to the people of Ireland).

70% of all Irish forests today are owned by Coillte – 70%.

In 2005, Coillte had a turnover of €215.6 m, a profit of €19.6 m. All of these profits were re-invested in the business

Coillte owns approx. 7% of land cover in Ireland – just to repeat that – 7% of land cover.

I’m certainly no expert on high finance or legal matters but here’s what I believe is the situation.

The key fact is “acquired ownership of the State’s forests in return for shares valued at IR£575 million (€730 million).” This transfer of ownership under the Forestry Act of 1988 is the mechanism by which Coillte is, in theory, a State company but is in reality a private company. The Act and transfer of shares creates a clear divide between private and State ownership.

For the whole deal to work it only requires the acquiescence of co-operative politicians.

That’s why the company can tell Irish citizens to take a hike when they have the effrontery to question its motives. That’s why the company, which owns 7% of the land mass of our country, can buy and sell pretty much as it likes…

It’s yet another example of how things are done in Ireland. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about the deal, every angle is covered. But as with all these things the stench is overpowering.