Wednesday, 8 February 2006
Question 106: To ask the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if his attention has been drawn to the fact that hill walkers are being restricted and pathways are being blocked by farmers in the northwest of the country; and the implications such actions have on reaching agreement on access issues. [4503/06]
I established Comhairle na Tuaithe in February 2004 to address the three priority issues of access to the countryside, the development of a countryside code and the development of a countryside recreation strategy This decision followed consideration by the rural and agri-tourism advisory group of a report presented by the consultation group on access to waymarked ways. The establishment of a countryside council was the key recommendation of the report.
Comhairle na Tuaithe comprises representatives of the farming organisations, recreational users of the countryside and State bodies with an interest in the countryside. They have approached their work in a spirit of co-operation and through working groups, which further components of these aims. To achieve its work programme, Comhairle na Tuaithe has established separate working groups, which report regularly to the full comhairle to address the three specific areas of its mandate. The group working on the issue of access to the countryside, is chaired by an official from my Department and consists of a representative of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, the Irish Farmers Association, the Mountaineering Council of Ireland, Keep Ireland Open, Fáilte Ireland and Comhairle na hÉireann.
The Deputy will agree that the access working group representation takes in the varying concerns and opinions of those with an interest or stake in this issue. It has met on eight occasions since it was established. Through discussion, debate and the application of a pragmatic willingness to co-operate, it has agreed a set of access parameters which Comhairle na Tuaithe has formally endorsed and which it believes will act as a basis for conflict prevention and will integrate a variety of needs and responsibilities. The access parameters agreed by Comhairle na Tuaithe state that access to the countryside must be based on mutual respect and: acceptance of the rights of farmers and landowners over access to their land; acceptance of the need of recreational users to have reasonable access to the countryside and uplands; acceptance of the aspirations of recreational users to lobby for legislative change; acknowledgement of the concerns of farmers and landowners in respect of insurance and liability; opposition to the use of any form of violent or threatening behaviour in relation to conflicts over access and where a conflict arises, rapid positive efforts should be made to resolve it by all parties involved; recognition of the value that recreational activity brings to the rural economy; and acceptance that recreational users in the countryside must be responsible for their own safety.
As for the Deputy's reference to the north west of the country, the Deputy may be aware that the national waymarked ways advisory committee of the Irish Sports Council is the body which is primarily concerned with the development of waymarked trails in Ireland and that it is represented on Comhairle na Tuaithe.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
One of the fundamental principles underpinning the development of these trails is that they are only developed with the consent and full support of all landowners. The staff of the advisory committee, in reply to an inquiry from my Department, indicated that there are currently five national waymarked ways in the north west. There are two in County Donegal, namely, Slí Dún na nGall and the Bluestack Way and three in the Sligo-Leitrim area, namely, the Sligo Way, the Miners' and Historical Trail and Slí Liatroma. Between them these trails cover almost 570 km of walks. The national waymarked ways advisory committee has informed my Department that it is not aware of any difficulties or blockages being experienced on these routes.
I am aware that some landowners in the Sligo-Leitrim area have placed signs on their land prohibiting access. However, I have made clear my view that a local community-based approach is the way forward where issues of access to the countryside arise. Where it is not possible to reach agreement, in a particular location, alternative routes should be explored and developed so that landowners' rights over access to their lands are not interfered with. Any proposal for Exchequer payment for access would not be acceptable.
It is almost two years since the establishment of Comhairle na Tuaithe. Is the Minister satisfied there has been perceptible progress on the issue? Relations have deteriorated on the ground between all sides with an interest in the dispute. My reference in the question to the north west had nothing to do with the legal history in the area. A number of incidents were brought to my attention and that of other elected representatives in Counties Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo. For example, a walking club journeyed to north Leitrim. The members planned a route which they discovered passed through agricultural land and they changed their route to use a public right of way, which passed through commonage. When they reached the commonage, they were stopped by the landowner. He not only said they could not pass because he owned the commonage but he also identified himself as the secretary of the north Leitrim branch of a farming organisation. He stated that not only was he expressing his strong personal reservations about the walkers passing through, he was following the policy of the farming organisation, which was involved in negotiating on an individual basis a compensation package for its members to allow access to their lands.
This represents a disincentive for people to travel to rural areas and for the promotion of rural tourism. In addition, the perception is that the Government is being manipulated by one organisation in the wider negotiations. Ultimately, this issue raises questions about the effectiveness of Comhairle na Tuaithe. I would like the Minister to address these issues.
I refer to two basic principles, the first of which is that a landowner owns the land and he or she is not under a legal obligation to allow anybody on his or her land. The second is no compensation will be paid by the State for the provision of access to land. I have made those two principles clear time and again. It is, therefore, within a landowner's right to say he or she does not want a person crossing his or her land. Commonage in Ireland is not defined as it is in England where such land is community land. Commonage in Ireland is normally undivided land in which there are more than two shareholders. They are as much owners of the land collectively as a person who owns land outright. Rights of way are different. No one can be prevented from walking on a right of way.
The Deputy referred to the north west, which is home to a significant number of walkways on which full agreement has been reached regarding access. The national waymarked ways committee has a policy of ensuring it has the agreement of various farmers before it advertises walkways. The following walkways are accessible in counties Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim: Slí Dhún na nGall, the Bluestack Way; the Sligo Way, the Arigna Miners Way and Historical Trail and Slí Liatroma. They provide 570 km of walks and more walks will be developed over time.
One can always bring the horse to water but one cannot make the horse drink. If people feel it is not in their interest to promote rural tourism and so on in their areas, so be it because that is their right. However, we should advertise those areas where people are only delighted to attract rural tourists and are more than willing to allow them to roam the hills freely. That is the case in the vast majority of areas. If this is done in a focused way, a top quality product can be promoted without conflict and it can be marketed internationally in the knowledge that tourists will not only have the acquiescence of the landowner but also his or her encouragement to visit. That is the way it should be. A céad míle fáilte should be given to those who wish to visit our countryside. Plenty of communities would give a dhá chéad míle fáilte to anybody who wishes to visit their areas as long they respect the countryside code agreed with Comhairle na Tuaithe.
I appreciate the Minister's comments, which will be reassuring to many. However, he did not address the commonage issue, which should be addressed legally as soon as possible. If walkers travel across land owned by two or more people, seeking permission to access it will be very difficult. The Minister's Department must take the lead in resolving this issue and put thought into tackling it legally.
This is always a problem. The ownership issue was a problem when the commonages were destocked. In most upland areas, the landowners are more than willing to allow people cross them. The consensus in Comhairle na Tuaithe is that upland areas should be accessible and, as long as people are not doing damage, there should be no difficulty accessing them. There is a large number of mountains where I live and the tenure system in place means they are in commonages while other large mountains are in private ownership. The general approach to is treat them similarly and the owners tend not to object to people walking across the mountains. We should keep it that way and presume that, unless otherwise stated, there is no objection to crossing mountains.
The issue was discussed by Comhairle na Tuaithe and there is little difference between the landowners and recreational users. Crossing enclosed fields is a different issue as this raises safety concerns relating to gates, machinery, livestock and so on. The solution to this is a little more sophisticated. Where people want access from a road to a mountain I wanted to try to secure agreement with the landowners to build pathways through the granting of a licence or other arrangement such as the rural social scheme.
I have lived in the countryside for approximately 30 years and I am absolutely convinced that whatever chance there is of resolving this by dialogue, the heavy hand of the law will not resolve the underlying issue because a law which people do not buy into is unenforceable in a situation like this. We are going the tedious, slow way, but it will achieve the best result.
My other basic principle, which I have made clear to the farming organisations, including the organisation referred to by the Deputy, is if there are areas in which farmers do not wish to promote rural tourism, so be it. The vast majority of people living in uplands and areas of attraction for rural tourism recognise the benefits for them. The rural social scheme is helpful in this regard because it covers farmers and a large number of rural tourism Leader groups using the scheme are anxious to work on walkways. When the farmers are working on the walkways, it is unlikely their neighbours will oppose them.