Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs

Preserving Ireland's Natural Heritage: Discussion

2:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome all the witnesses. I have a few interesting questions. Most of them relate to An Taisce. The representatives of the Heritage Council raised issues like upland farms and fires.

To be honest, I would echo much of what Deputy Danny Healy-Rae said about An Taisce. I come from a rural community. An Taisce was founded in 1948. I was born in 1968. This is the first I have seen of An Taisce and I have been in the community for many years. I was a member of Cork County Council for many years before I was elected to the Dáil. Does An Taisce have any idea of the anger and frustration it has caused among rural communities and rural people?

Deputy Tóibín spoke about creating solutions. An Taisce could have created solutions, but has not done so because it is faceless. Nobody could find it or talk to it. An Taisce was a law onto itself. No organisation in this country should be a law onto itself. I accept that An Taisce must abide by the directives that exist. When one deals with planning matters at council level, one gets a chance to sit down and talk to someone. One sometimes loses the battle and one has to accept that. In this case, there was nobody to talk to. In most of the planning cases in which An Taisce got involved, it made a decision and it walked away. It destroyed people's lives. There was no understanding. No one came in.

An Taisce seems to have a strange rule about beautiful country houses and farm families. People are trying to return to rural communities. We are trying to rebuild communities. An Taisce seems to have rules in certain circumstances, but it does not seem to have any rules governing solar farms, for example. We have not heard much from An Taisce about solar farms. There is quite a lot of frustration about wind farms.

Mr. Lumley mentioned the kelp farm in Bantry. It is alleged that this 1,880-acre project could cause serious destruction to our nature. It is going ahead, but the once-off house in the rural community will be stopped. Why can there be a rule for one and not for another? Where does An Taisce come into play? Where is the vision for nature in that? I do not see any such vision, to be quite honest.

Mr. Lumley said that 40% of marine species are being overfished. This exact kind of report came out ten years ago when the inshore fishermen were chased off from fishing salmon. Ten years later, we are told that there are still no salmon in the water. The fishermen have been chased off the water. Where were the reports there? I do not entirely agree with many of the reports that come out. I would like to know whether there should have been a cull on seals. Such things should have been looked at. Maybe the inshore fishermen should not have been chased off the water. The decision in question was meant to be reviewed after seven years, but ten years on there has been no review whatsoever.

Burning and other issues have been mentioned. Gougane Barra is in my constituency. Many more areas in my constituency were basically destroyed. Any nature-minded person would be frustrated and annoyed at the like of it. I would put the blame for that solely in the hands of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Do any of the witnesses realise what the Department did to the farmers? It chased the farmers. It fined them tens of thousands of euro for having gorse - for having pure nature - on their land. That is why frustration set in. They basically had guns put to their heads.

Many fingers have been pointed at farmers. Many farmers have never set fire to these hills. They would not do the like of it. They love nature. Why would they set fire to their own animals, their own fencing and their own wires? The Department's vision is to fine farmers if their farms are burned, even if they did not set their farms on fire in the first place. There is a complete misunderstanding of farming. Farmers are being accused. The finger is being pointed at the farmer for starting these fires even though they have little or nothing to do with it. When I spoke to officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Portlaoise four years ago, I said they would be the cause of an inferno in this country and sure enough they were. Sadly, they did not realise that I was right.

Mr. Lumley suggested that the rural environment protection scheme was not great. I think it was a good move in the right direction because it created habitats. Unfortunately, the farmer then got fined by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for having a habitat. The whole thing is like a chicken and egg game. There is no real understanding of the farmer. The rural environment protection scheme had its own use. It assisted birds and other forms of nature.

Deputy Healy-Rae spoke about verge-cutting. The frustration down my side of the country is the same as the frustration Deputy Healy-Rae hears in his constituency. It is frightening to travel in a rural community. It is quite scary to come around a bend and see two or three children stuck in briars trying to get away from a car. It is unbelievable, to be honest. The witnesses do not understand. They have to visit the country so they will understand. I said to someone recently that if they want to talk about farming, they should wear wellingtons. If the witnesses want to talk about rural Ireland, and really understand the way of living there, they have to wear wellingtons.


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