Dáil debates

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Adjournment Debate (Resumed)

EU Habitats Directive

5:00 am

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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It is ironic that I rise possibly for the last time on the Adjournment on a matter I have probably raised more often in this House than any other Deputy, namely, the effect of the EU habitats directive on the 32 raised bogs. I have a personal interest in the matter which I always declare in the House.

Just before last December, I and thousands of people throughout the country received a letter from the wildlife section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stating that as and from 1 January this year I would be prohibited from cutting a domestic supply of turf on our bogs, as we have done for generations. In that letter, the Minister stated that negotiations would take place about price and alternative local arrangements that may come to pass between the stakeholders and the Department with a view to ascertaining whether there is any middle ground. To my knowledge, nothing has happened in that regard, as nothing happened in the previous two years.

I want to put on the record that this was a daft decision - I must put it that strongly. I accept that Ireland must implement the EU habitats directive, and Fine Gael has no difficulty with that. However, the method in which this directive has been handled in recent years is outrageous. This is at a time when the cost of home heating oil is at a high and is rising by the day, and when the Departments of State have not a penny to pay to anyone and will not have for some years. How will they find compensation for people who cannot cut turf on their bogs when there is not a penny in the Exchequer? I emphasise that this concerns people's domestic rather than commercial supply of turf. The freedom to cut this turf would ensure that the cost of importing oil was reduced somewhat.

Nothing in this affair makes sense. A halt should be called at this stage. An independent chairperson should be put in charge of an overall board where all the stakeholders, including the Department, are involved. The independence of such a board is crucial. The turf cutters should be allowed to cut for this cutting season and a management plan should be drawn up for every one of the 32 complexes of bog throughout the country. If the issue was approached in this manner, I have no doubt the Department and the Government of the day, whoever that is, would find the bog cutters would be helpful and flexible in coming to an accommodation.

My grandfather got this bog from the Land Commission in the 1930s, he transferred it to my father, I got it in due course and I am in the process of transferring it to my son. I am lucky enough to have a grandson and I hope his day will come. I do not want to be the link that broke in a generational chain or that I was in some way the cause of a situation where people could not cut their own supply of turf for domestic use in the middle of rural Ireland. Irrespective of what the culture of the day was, that would not make sense. I ask the Minister of State to do what he can. This is an issue that must be dealt with in his constituency as well.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I have heard Deputy Connaughton speak about this issue, which is clearly of great interest to him, on many occasions. I have been associated with turf-cutting in my own constituency of Laois-Offaly over the years. I may have plenty of time to cut turf in the future.

The State has a legal obligation under the habitats directive and under the Wildlife Acts to protect sites it has designated for conservation purposes. A number of sites have been designated for the protection of raised bog habitat within special areas of conservation, SACs, or natural heritage areas, NHAs. These make up just over 4% of bogland in the State where turf extraction is feasible.

Ireland's raised bogs are important and unique habitats hosting ecosystems that are extremely rare. In recent history almost all of western Europe's peatlands have disappeared or been severely damaged. While Ireland has approximately 60% of the remaining uncut areas, less than 1% remains of our active raised bog, that is, raised bog on which the indigenous flora are still growing and where peat is forming.

Scientific evidence has shown that turf-cutting and associated drainage, including cutting for domestic supply only, is incompatible with the preservation or restoration of raised bogs. For this reason, in May 2010, the Government confirmed the ending of the derogation which allowed a ten-year continuation of turf-cutting for domestic purposes on raised bog SACs and NHAs. Cutting is no longer permitted on the first 31 of these sites without the express consent of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Government has also decided that cutting will cease on a further 24 raised bog SACs from the end of this year and on 75 raised bog NHAs in 2013. The Government decision related to domestic cutting applies on selected raised bog protected sites - not blanket bogs, which are much more extensive in area. However, restrictions introduced in 1999 relating to turf-cutting on designated blanket bogs continue to apply.

It is not possible to reconsider this matter. Ireland has a clear legal obligation to protect these sites. To fail to do so would inevitably render the State liable to significant financial sanctions imposed by the European Court of Justice. The Government accepts there is a need to compensate those who have a legal right to cut turf in these designated sites and who will suffer a loss due to the restrictions arising from the protection of such sites. An interim compensation scheme was established to compensate those who have been cutting turf on the 31 raised bog sites on which cutting was no longer permitted from 2010. Just under €200,000 was paid out in 2010 to ensure those affected by that cessation had the means to provide alternative winter fuel.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Office of the Attorney General are examining how the interests of affected parties can be addressed in the longer term. The Minister, Deputy John Gormley, intends to revert to Government shortly regarding the arrangements for those affected by the requirement to cease turf-cutting on protected raised bogs, including putting in place appropriate compensation arrangements.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 January 2011.