What’s the Story with ‘Divestment’?

Depending on which echo-chamber of Facebook you live in, you may already have heard a lot about divestment. You’ve probably seen the term used recently in relation to Deputy Pringle’s divestment bill which has just passed through the Dáil. But if you’re here, you want to know more about it actually means. So this is the crash course:

Divestment 101 – History of the Movement

Divestment is a form of social activism through which individuals and organisations indicate their ethical disapproval of certain companies or industries by removing assets from them. The approach is two-pronged, intended to starve the target of funds and to remove their social license as investment is also often seen as an endorsement. In the past it has been used by the anti-apartheid movement to put pressure on the South African Government, and to show disapproval of the tobacco industry by defunding advertising campaigns. Ireland and Irish institutions have a history of divestment, being both the moral objector and, in certain cases, the target. In the 1980s and 1990s, Northern Irish companies that had not adopted the MacBride Principles –  a set of 9 principles to promote employment equality – were targeted by investments bans and selective purchasing legislation from American states. In October 1998, this became federal law. And last year, the Irish Strategic Investment Fund sold its remaining investments in tobacco manufacturing.

Divestment 102 – The Fossil Fuel Industry

In what is claimed to be the largest and most rapid divestment movement in history, the Fossil Free movement has so far resulted in almost 700 institutions – with a collective value $5.44 trillion – divesting from the fossil fuel industry. While pledges range from avoiding coal and tar-sand industries only to complete fossil fuel divestment, the collective message is that it is wrong to wreck the climate and it is wrong to profit from that wreckage. So far, institutions committed to divestment include the Church of England, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. In December of last year, Trinity College Dublin joined the growing list of colleges and universities such as Oxford and Stanford in pledging to redirect the €6.1 million of its endowment fund that it had, directly or indirectly, invested in fossil fuel companies. This was the result of a yearlong, student campaign by Fossil Free TCD. NUI Maynooth has also adopted a fossil-free investment policy, and student-led divestment campaigns are active in NUI Galway and Queen’s University Belfast. The argument for fossil fuel divestment claims, not only the ethical ground, but that market volatility, narrowing margins and the potential for legislation against the industry make it an unwise investment.

In January, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill passed through the Dáil without the support of Fine Gael in a 90-53 vote. If it is successful in the committee stage, the bill will pass into law and the Irish Sovereign Investment Fund – worth €8 billion – will be divested from the fossil fuel industry. The bill was brought forward by independent TD Thomas Pringle and supported by Trócaire, Friends of the Earth and An Taisce.

By Lorcan McLaren

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