Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Private Members' Business

Turbary Rights: Motion (Resumed)

6:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Stanley and Colreavy.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I commend the work of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association.

As outlined by my party colleagues in their contributions last evening, Sinn Féin supports the Technical Group motion and will vote accordingly tonight. It is fair, however, to acknowledge that the Government's amendment comes a considerable distance to meet the demands of the TCCA. The commitment to a comprehensive process of engagement is to be welcomed. Looking at all the information, it really does appear, if the political will is there, that a reasonable and sensible solution is possible which will see turf cutters, the Government and the EU alike contented. One way of demonstrating such political will would be to withdraw the Government amendment and to allow all party support for the Technical Group motion tonight.

That said, the practical implications of the proposed national plan for SAC raised bogs remain to be seen. Mar a deir an seanfhocal, "Is in ithe na putóige atá an chruthú." Whereas the Minister states he is asking "that the communities affected by the designations sacrifice, or change, part of their cultural heritage", there was talk of manoeuvrability and flexibility. This flexibility will be absolutely essential. The success of this process will be measured by the ability to reach agreement in all instances, but particularly in the 14 most difficult cases.

I am very familiar with the position on the Moneybegs and Clareisland bogs, and those who work them. Relocation is not an option. Compensation is not an option. The TCCA has proposed co-existence. The turf cutters in that area are willing to provide alternatives.

There is considerable solidarity between the individual turf cutters. They are determined not to see those difficult cases isolated and exposed. Domestic turf cutters, like so many of us, know their history. Evictions, killing people with kindness or a strategy of divide and conquer will not succeed. The Government should be aware of this as it proceeds. I repeat my call on the Minister to withdraw the Government amendment and allow this House respond with one voice on this issue.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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First, I commend Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan for putting forward this important motion. It is one of the most important motions to come before this House.

Before being elected, I gave a commitment to turf cutters, particularly in my area, from Coolrain, Castletown and surrounding areas, that I would do everything I could to protect their rights. That is why I am speaking and why I have worked with Minister over the past 12 months.

I welcome the protestors outside, those who have come from all parts of the country to protest and to defend their rights, which they should not have to come here to defend.

I welcome the forum organised by the Government, Mr. Justice Quirke's report and the notion of a national plan. The plan must be welcomed, but it needs to be done properly and in good faith. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association has done excellent work and has actually done a national service in producing and putting forward an excellent plan, which offers a way forward. I thank Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice and his colleagues for that.

The whole issue has to date been handled very badly by previous Governments and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Little or no notification has been given in regard to designation. Some turf cutters received letters, others did not. Notices appeared in local newspapers, such as the Leinster Express in County Laois, which on 21 December 2002 referred to commercial turf cutting but not domestic turf cutting, which was totally misleading. Previous Governments brushed this under the carpet and hoped it would go away but it has not. It is here and must be dealt with. It should have been sorted out prior to the sites being registered in the EU habitats directive in 2002.

A national plan must deal with the bogs where turf cutters cannot be relocated to more suitable bogs. The problem of those bogs must be solved or there is no point in a national plan. I hope the Minister will not try to pick them off one by one. To take the Laois situation, where two bogs in the south of the county were designated side by side, what was done to the turf cutters at Knockacoller and Coolrain was a grievous wrong, as I have discussed with the Minister. The two bogs are the best bogs but were designated as a special area of conservation, SAC.

We have looked at all the options with the turf cutters and we have brought forward proposals, which I gave to the Minister a number of weeks ago. There are options for compensatory habitats, which I welcome, and options to relocate the designation. We have worked with the committee, which has gone to the forum to put those options forward. The Killamuck bog outside Abbeyleix is 93 hectares, almost twice the size of the Coolrain bog. It can be designated and, in fact, the locals in that area want it designated.

The whole issue of consultation must be dealt with carefully. Mr. Justice Quirke recognised that it will take a lengthy and tortuous process of negotiation over a protracted period of time. He said that what is most required is a determination on the part of the State to explore every avenue to accommodate those communities gravely affected by measures over which they have had little control. There are options for the small number of bogs where relocation of turf cutters is not an option. We need to tell Europe that the process to date has been flawed and that we need to start again. There has to be compromise. If necessary, we need to fly over the senior officials from Europe to show them the extra habitats that can be preserved without encroaching on turf cutters. We need to explain to them that this is a win-win situation.

We have two possible situations, namely, we can compromise or we can have confrontation. If it is confrontation, I know which side I will be on. I hope that does not happen. I hope the Minister has entered into this in good faith. He has made a good start. I notice his speech yesterday gave a chink of light where he said there may be the option of re-designation in some cases, a point I read carefully. Let us work together. Let us move forward to get a solution. Let us look after our own people, not the bondholders. Let us look after the turf cutters in rural Ireland.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Flanagan on bringing forward the motion, the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association on its very detailed and excellent report and the people who travelled to Dublin today to protect their rights. No one is more concerned about the natural heritage of the Irish countryside than those who live in it. Rural people have been the guardians of this heritage despite the attack of speculators and over-zealous developers during the Celtic tiger years. Those guardians of our natural heritage cannot be isolated or vilified now.

There is a balance to be struck between conservation and utilising our natural resources. Domestic turf cutting is part of the guardianship of our natural heritage. Ireland should not attempt to model itself on the method of conservation that is prevalent in the United States, where vast areas of land are preserved with no human interaction. Ireland does not have the land mass to sustain such a measure. It would be far more prudent to pursue a policy where conservation goes hand in hand with rural dwellers, a policy where the guardians of our natural heritage are supported rather than punished.

There are people and organisations in Europe and in this country who would like to see parts of our rural areas fenced off and left underdeveloped so that visitors can come to see the native people in the natural habitat. We are not museum exhibits and we will not be treated as such.

In the current economic climate, fuel security is a major concern of many people. Recent harsh winters have forced people to make tough financial decisions to keep their homes warm. Domestic turf cutting provides rural dwellers with a reasonable level of fuel security. Families who own their own bank of bog can attain fuel security for a year at a reasonable cost. In such circumstances, it should be a priority of the Government that these households and their successors should be able to retain heat for their homes at a time when the Government is taking so much else from them.

The proposals by the TCCA are reasonable. It has asked for a fair deal for turf cutters and that no one who owns a bank of bog should be left out. They have also asked for fair conditions for those who are relocated to other bogs. There is an example at Flughany, near Tubbercurry in County Sligo, where people are being relocated to a bog at Derrykinlough, where the condition of the new bog is deplorable. That is not good enough.

I wait with interest to see whether the Government and the EU display the same concerns for environmental purity and sustainability when they come to consider the granting of fracking licences in beautiful north Leitrim and elsewhere.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I will be parochial on this motion and discuss my own constituency, Mouds bog in particular. Mr. Justice Quirke in his report referred to the breakdown in communication and a breakdown of trust between the relevant parties. The people of Mouds bog have not been represented or properly communicated with by the State since the issue of designation first arose. That trust is crucial to us being able, on a political level, to continue to work towards solutions to the very difficult situation regarding this bog.

The TCCA report, for which the association is to be congratulated, highlights some of the difficulties Mouds faces. The fact the bog is 12 to 14 miles from any potential relocation bog and that Bord na Móna admits the quality of turf there is pretty much useless for domestic turf cutters are major issues. The risk of flooding to the many houses that have been built on nearby flood plains, should the bog be flooded or drains not maintained, is paramount to all who live at or beside Mouds bog.

One only has to see what has happened in the past in this area to understand why the people of Mouds are so upset and hurt over the designation of their bog. The State owns most bog complexes that surround Mouds bog. For years, the State has stripped these bogs to their core, leaving a trail of destruction and barren deserts behind it, while at the same time the cutters on Mouds worked that bog for fuel for their own use only. The State bogs are not worth preserving, yet due to the level of care and attention that generations of families have carried out at Mouds bog, theirs was decided for designation. They worked the bog for generations, kept the drains clear, made sure potential dumpers were kept away and prevented and quenched many fires. For this painstaking work, their bog was designated as an SAC without them ever being consulted.

What is worse is that groups like the Friends of the Irish Environment will try to portray these same people, who are custodians of the bog and who care more about preservation than anybody, as criminals intent on damaging the raised bog. No wonder there has been a breakdown in trust. Since I was elected last year, I have endeavoured to represent these people to the very best of my ability. I undertook to travel to Brussels at short notice with my colleagues, Deputies Frank Feighan and Paul Connaughton, when the opportunity came to meet Commissioner Potocnik and to explain to him the difficulties we faced. I have worked closely with the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, and Dr. Conor Skehan, whose contribution to this issue over the past year has been immense. I welcome the Minister's speech yesterday, not because it announced an increase in the compensation but because it acknowledged that the genuine turf cutters on these raised bogs throughout the country have been let down in the past by State agencies and representatives.

Deputy Ó Cuív admitted in the House last night that there was no official derogation from the Commission and that not enough was done during Fianna Fáil's time in power. The fact is that nothing at all was done during its time in power. If only three or four bogs had been dealt with each year throughout that period, we would have the issue sorted out by now instead of being up against the clock, with a financial gun to our head due to threatened fines.

I also welcome the Minister's comments regarding the development of a national plan for the management of all the raised bogs designated as SACs, and that it may be possible to bring some limited flexibility for a few of the most difficult bogs where there are no alternative solutions. There is acceptance that Mouds is one of the most difficult bogs to deal with. I also accept that this can only be done within the framework of the habitats directive and that a plan will not be acceptable and will have no credibility if cutting continues this year on the affected bogs.

This is where we come back to trust. The people of Mouds bog need to trust us and work with us as we continue to try to find solutions to many of the problems with this current situation. I, for one, remain committed to representing these people who have been wronged in the past, while also ensuring we stay within the laws of Europe and that we protect the taxpayers of this country against any potential fines.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important issue. It is difficult to believe it is almost 20 years since the legislation pertaining to the habitats directive, as contained in a previous treaty, was passed in 1992. At the time the former Taoiseach, Mr. Albert Reynolds, was in government and came home with €8 billion. What we are dealing with was part of the small print that was not examined and ignored for many years. No more than the water directive and the septic tank legislation, we are dealing with something that has been in place for a long time and we are trying to have the matter sorted.

I commend the Government for its work on this difficult issue for many months. It established the Peatlands Council within the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I also welcome its proposal to commend the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TTCA, for its positive publication on dealing with the various issues surrounding SACs and natural habitat areas.

There is predominantly blanket bog in Galway West, but the position on two small bogs has been raised with the TTCA. One is to be found in Addergoole, near Annaghdown, and the TTCA indicates that there is no other bog in the area to which people could relocate. The second is Monivea bog, near Athenry, which has been allocated objective one status and on which a large number of people depend solely for their fuel. Another bog has been designated as a natural heritage area. Approximately 50% of the 150 acres is raised bog. The bog is available for sale and will cater for 80 to 90 turf owners. The proposals are imaginative. I hope the Minister, together with his officials in the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Peatlands Council, can provide solutions in these cases. Yesterday Deputy Paul Connaughton outlined, in the case of the bog near Mountbellew, how things could be sorted out through negotiation and consensus and by acknowledging the important role turf cutters had to play in any solution.

We welcomed Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan to a meeting I attended in Rossaveal in the autumn. A large crowd expressed concerns about blanket bogs. The problem arose predominantly during the summer of 2011 when special protection areas, SPAs, were designated in parts of Connemara. Some believed what had happened on raised bogs in east Galway would happen on blanket bogs in Connemara and that the SPA designation was part of this process. As I pointed out at the time, the SPA designation affords no greater protection than SAC designation in terms of turf cutting. I undertook to set up a meeting which the Minister attended. Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh from the National Parks and Wildlife Service answered questions from the delegation which consisted of a cross-section of individuals from Connemara on special areas of conservation and blanket bogs. The responses were made available to all Oireachtas Members in Galway West and the local committees. People were happy with the responses received. While there is a need to revisit how turf cutting activities are regulated, this can best be done in consultation with turf cutters.

Turf cutting will continue in the case of blanket bog SACs, but we must undertake surveys of turf cutting within the SACs and map the areas most sensitive to the potential impacts of turf cutting. This approach will be undertaken while engaging with stakeholders to agree a conservation management approach for sites which should provide clarity for all parties on how turf cutting will proceed. The western end of the Connemara bog complex is likely to be included in a pilot area in teasing out the best approach for us to adopt. We will seek to engage with representatives of turf cutters and other interested parties during 2012 to arrive at the best approach for all involved.

There is a general acceptance in Connemara that there is a need to protect SACs and provide management plans for them. There is consensus among turf cutters on the Minister's approach. As long as the owners who cut turf are consulted by the Minister's office, in consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, they will be happy that their concerns are being taken on board. I welcome the Government's approach.

Photo of Arthur SpringArthur Spring (Kerry North-West Limerick, Labour)
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The habitats directive was issued by the European Union in 1992 and transposed into Irish law in 1997. In a statutory instrument the State designated a number of bogs as special areas of conservation. It deemed that in order to comply with the directive turf cutting had to cease completely on the designated raised bogs. It sought and received a derogation from the necessity to cease turf cutting for ten years.

Article 2.3 of the habitats directive states measures taken pursuant to it "shall take into account economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics". I do not wish to lecture my constituency colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, on bogs, as I empathise with him as the bog at issue in north Kerry is the very one on which his grandfather cut turf. Given that I was deemed to be the perfect height for turning turf when I was out of nappies, I understand our legacy. I have been involved in the issue for the past 20 years. My father was one of the first to say the designation of the candidate special areas of conservation would present an enormous problem for the country. At the time candidate special areas of conservation were analysed with a view to determining what it meant not only in environmental or fuel security terms, to which previous speakers referred, but also culturally and, more importantly, societally. I recall the days spent on the bog with one's family and friends and the endeavour and toil involved and what it meant to a group and the attachment to the land. There is a line by Christy Moore, "If talk of turf drives you crazy ... make for Inch". Unfortunately, Inch is where my interest lies on this issue.

The landmass designated as a special area of conservation here is bigger than anywhere else in Europe. We have to go back to the European Union to say we thought that there would be a process of analysis of candidate special areas of conservation to the point where the National Parks and Wildlife Service would state some areas would be converted to special areas of conservation but others would not. One must take the human dimension into account as it is more important than anything else.

It is welcome that the issue has come to a head tonight. I say to those gathered outside Leinster House that there is more than turf cutting at stake. Those affected include people who are trying to develop their land, while farmers also have a stake in the issue. As long as we have a consultation process, we can come up with a solution. I welcome the Minister's statement that there will be comprehensive engagement and that a national plan will be put in place. In some cases, relocation is probably not the solution. We must examine what is coming from the European Union. The Government has a big cleaning-up act to do and we will have to do it on the habitats directive also.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, for bringing the motion before the House. This is a sensitive issue, one that would not have arisen if Departments and previous Governments had listened to people on the ground. Having worked on it for five or six years, a little over a year ago I addressed a meeting in the Hodson Bay hotel in Athlone at which I said I would sign my name in blood to ensure everything possible would be done to address the needs and concerns of turf cutters in the light of the restrictions imposed by the European Union. I have honoured that intention and will continue to fight hard to ensure a workable solution is found which meets the satisfaction of turf cutters. That is what co-operation is about.

We said, working with all stakeholders, we would set up an independent Peatlands Council, under the supervision of Mr. Conor Skehan who has done an amazing job in working with all those involved in turf cutting to try to ensure their concerns are brought to the table. The Europeand Union and the previous Government were inflexible. Departmental officials showed scant interest for the concerns of turf cutters. Last July when we were worried that fines would issue from the European Union, I said at a parliamentary party meeting that we should bypass the officials in the Department and go directly to Brussels. I thank those who supported me in making that call. We received support from strange circles. I thank Deputy Peter Mathews, the Deputy for Dublin South, for supporting us in that move.

I travelled to Brussels with Mr. Skehan and Deputies Paul Connaughton and Martin Heydon. It was horrifying, when we mentioned a ten year derogation to Mr. Potocnik, to hear him say there was no such derogation. How could a Government have stated there was a derogation when there was none? The actions of the Friends of the Irish Environment group have been corrosive in this situation. When we went to Brussels, we were shown a file sent by this group stating that turf cutting should not continue. There was nothing in that file from Government or anyone else stating that turf cutting should continue. Who are the Friends of the Irish Environment? Whom does this group represent? It does not represent me or the people on the ground.

I have not shied away from attempting to ensure those most affected will be financially compensated. I went to the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, over a month ago and told him that the €1,000 per annum compensation over 15 years was not enough. I am delighted that the Minister ceded to my request to increase that €1,000 to €1,500 per annum. I thank him for the work he has done in this area. I also thank the Taoiseach for his huge interest in this difficult situation. I will continue to work in government to ensure that turf cutters rights are protected. We are not fools. We will protect the environment and will ensure that people working together get along. I thank everyone for working together in trying to resolve this difficult situation.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I thank Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and his colleagues for bringing forth this motion.

A series of Governments ignored what needed to be done in terms of consultation with people on this issue, resulting in genuine and decent people being at odds with the directive. This Government has taken a positive approach to this issue. I welcome the establishment by the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, of the Peatlands Council and the forum under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Quirke and the putting in place of a national peatlands strategy, all of which should have be done a long time ago. However, I am delighted it is being done now.

As has been said, this is an emotive issue. It is easy to engage in negativity. The real challenge is to work together to achieve a solution. I am delighted the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, which enjoys the trust of turf cutters throughout the country, is using its leadership role to engage and make positive suggestions. Its contribution and that of Mr. Justice Quirke will be critical in terms of engagement with people in finding a resolution to this issue. Many other people have worked hard to bring this matter to a conclusion. In this regard, I commend Irish Rural Link and Mr. Seamus Boland on their work in finding alternative bogs for people in Clara wishing to continue to cut turf. Through the relationship built up with Bord na Móna by Irish Rural Link, people came together and reached a conclusion, as in the case of Mountbellew. Through my engagement on this issue with people I discovered that while many people had received forms from the Department, they had forgotten to fill them in and return them. I urge people to make an informed decision on this issue and to fill and return their forms.

Our business around the environment has gotten a little lost in the debate on this issue. We have enjoyed the benefits of turf cutting for 400 years but we must now look to the future in terms of the type of country we will hand over to our children and the next generation. We must not lose sight of the fact that we need to reduce our carbon footprint, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. We must look to the future in terms of what we will leave behind for our children.

Many bogs have the potential for other uses. People will not lose ownership of their bogs. I urge the Minister to involve landowners in management of their bogs. Landowners will get involved and will look for other uses for the bogs that will not result in the type of damage caused in some areas.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will be brief in my contribution on this emotive issue which has been badly handled, or not handled at all, for years. Turf cutters and the people of rural Ireland who have taken care of the environment for centuries have been criminalised owing to mismanagement of this issue in recent years. Trust and respect went out the window and as a result of the crossfire, which has been ongoing in recent years in particular, no solution could be found. There now appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel. I hope a solution can be found which is acceptable to the turf cutters, rural dwellers, the Minister and Europe.

I compliment the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, on the work he has done in the past year which illustrates that the only way to resolve a matter is to tackle it head on. The Minister engaged with the people through the establishment of the Peatlands Council under the chairmanship of Mr. Conor Skehan and the forum under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Quirke. All of us on this side of the House worked in the background with the Minister on this issue. I compliment two Members in particular - Deputy Frank Feighan and Deputy Paul Connaughton - who, when other people were jumping up and down, as it were, about this issue, were working hard behind the scenes to find a solution.

I welcome that a management plan is to be put in place for the cutting of turf on blanket bogs, of which there are many in my constituency, and that it will continue into the future. In putting this plan in place, we are being proactive rather than reactive. An advertisement in a newspaper to the effect that cutting of turf on blanket bogs was to be restricted, which was a mistake, resulted in a near meltdown of phones in my constituency office. I commend the Minister on ensuring this situation was remedied quickly. I have no doubt that through engagement with communities, we will not end up in the type of mess we have been in recent years and which is now being addressed.

What we need in this debate is not a victory for anyone but a solution to the problem. I suggest that the Minister withdraw his amendment and that Deputy Flanagan withdraw his motion in order that the progress made can be brought across the line, thus ensuring turf cutters and rural dwellers can live in harmony using the resources for the betterment of our children.

Photo of Anthony LawlorAnthony Lawlor (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I compliment the Minister, Deputy Hogan, on his appointment of Mr. Conor Skehan as chairman of the Peatlands Council, which has done a great deal of positive work in the past year. It must be acknowledged that it was the fault of the Government in place in 1992 when the habitats directive was introduced that no one understood what was going on. As stated by a previous speaker, all we saw was the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, coming home with billions. We took no heed of what problems would arise as a result of the introduction of that directive. This will never happen again. We will not be caught out in respect of future directives from Europe.

I compliment Mr. Conor Skehan on travelling the country to meet turf cutters and other stakeholders and to engage with people in a positive manner. There is a coolness and calmness about Mr. Skehan that disarmed people who might otherwise have responded in an aggressive manner. As for Mr. Justice Quirke's forum, I note that although it only took place last week, a report issued therefrom within seven days. Had this been the case for the Mahon tribunal and all the rest, it would have saved us a fortune. A man like that must be complimented on his hard work. I am very disappointed with Deputy Ó Cuív. Although he was the Minister for a number of years, last night he stated that nothing was done for ten years and blamed the Department. There is an old phrase that if the driver of a cart is no good, the cart can go nowhere. I will leave it at that.

As a young fellow, I took turf from blanket bogs in County Wicklow and it was all sleán turf. In this context, I must compliment Mr. Colm Harrigan, who is the only person who hand-cuts turf in all the special area of conservation, SAC, bogs. He is a vital heritage emblem who should be recognised. In addition, it should be recognised that potentially, he is a tourism asset and this should be taken on board. While the Minister has done much work, there is a great deal more work to do. I approve of his flexibility and long may it continue. In addition, I approve of the manner in which the Minister put in place a national plan.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Briefly, I call for a compromise on this issue. I urge all parties to continue to sit around the table in an effort to find a satisfactory solution to this delicate and sensitive issue. In my constituency and in particular in County Laois, it is not about compensation but is about relocation and there are consequential difficulties in that regard. I congratulate Mr. Conor Skehan for his great efforts, as well as the Minister, Deputy Deenihan. However, I cannot say the same about the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has acted in a high-handed and insensitive manner and to my mind, a public body that does so must be condemned. I believe it has a duty to act in good faith and to be sensitive to the needs of the local turf cutters. I believe there are probable grounds for a successful legal challenge, particularly with regard to the unfairness of the selection of the SACs in the first instance, as well as in respect of breaking agreements between the State and turf cutters over the years.

I urge mediation and conciliation. The House should not divide and I urge my namesake, Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, to withdraw the motion in the interest of continued roundtable discussions in order that a reasonable and common sense approach can be found to what is a highly difficult and sensitive issue.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I am relieved the Minister has offered an enhanced compensation package to the bog owners and acknowledge his rational and fair-minded approach to what has been a 20-year communications breakdown between the State and turf cutters. However, I greatly desire an assurance that the Minister and the Government are singing from the same hymn sheet on this announcement. I do not wish to see a scenario in which the Minister announces a measure to defuse rising anger only for the European Union or officials subsequently to rain on his parade to the detriment of turf cutters. While I do not suggest this will happen, there has been a long history of disconnection between the State and turf cutters. Consequently, it is important to be assured that the full resolution of the State is behind this announcement.

I have lobbied through the many stages of the turf cutters' battle for fair treatment. In the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, many bogs have been affected and there is great fear. This constitutes a huge blow to the farming community in my constituency, which has some of the finest bogs in the country. I have seen the anger and frustration among turf cutters in Longford-Westmeath and there should be a great easing of tension following this announcement of what will amount to a total of €23,000 for effected bog owners. Moreover, I have every confidence the Minister also will see the overall picture encompassing the heritage and traditional skills. I acknowledge the presence in the Gallery of huge numbers of people from my constituency of Longford-Westmeath.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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These people are the salt of the earth and I welcome them. It is a pity they were obliged to leave their chores back home in Longford-Westmeath to come to Dublin to fight for their rights in this Chamber.

Photo of Tony McLoughlinTony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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In common with many others, my constituency has a long history of turf cutting. In respect of self-sufficiency, this fuel ensures a sustainable method of heating homes in rural areas in particular. Given the increase in recent years in the price of oil and coal in international markets, the loss of this fuel is a real concern to many people who use turf as their solid fuel. A dilemma now exists with regard to balancing the 1992 habitats directive against the wishes of the aforementioned turf cutters. The Commission has moved to issue a reasoned opinion with regard to turf cutting and it is clear it expects the Government to act on what it perceives to be illegal turf cutting on SAC raised bogs. The only option open to the Minister and the Government is the provision of adequate compensation packages for turf cutters in those sites where continued turf cutting is no longer possible for reasons of environmental protection. Last night, the Minister announced an enhanced package for turf cutters in the SAC areas. I believe it is fair, while one wishes that most of those who qualify for this scheme are to continue to be allowed to cut their own turf.

I commend the many Deputies who have worked hard to find solutions, together with the Minister. I wish to single out my colleague, Deputy Feighan, for his work on the ground and in government. He has done much behind the scenes in providing an option on the compensation package. I also acknowledge the work of Mr. Conor Skehan as chairman of the Peatlands Council. He has worked extensively in meeting many groups and securing an agreement on many areas such as his council's pursuit of alternative compensation for individuals, together with an annual supply of turf on non-designated bogs as an interim measure to meet the energy needs of turf cutters for house energy upgrades.

In conclusion, both the present Administration and its predecessor have found themselves in a difficult situation when trying to satisfy the concerns of the aforementioned European Union directive, as well as the genuine case of the turf cutters. I believe the compromise set out by the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, is very welcome and I commend him on his work.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy Joan Collins.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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A well-known turf cutter.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Catherine Murphy, Tom Fleming, Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath and Wallace.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Obviously, I support this motion put forward by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, which I signed. I also welcome the opportunity to express my solidarity with my rural brothers and sisters. Attempts often are made in the Dáil in particular to create a rural-city divide and opportunities such as this debate demonstrate that one should have solidarity with one's rural brothers and sisters in this regard. In general, this is a national class divide, not a rural-city divide. Opportunities such as this are important to make this point.

The motion represents a reasonable and sensible solution, which meet the needs of conservation of the bogs and the domestic turf cutters. I congratulate the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association for its work in consulting turf cutters, which it carried out in a highly professional manner. It brought into focus the views of people who felt excluded and unrepresented. This approach contrasts sharply with the bureaucratic and cackhanded approach of the Government and the European Union as far back as 1986, when negotiations on the habitats directive commenced. People today, in both urban and rural areas, are very much aware of the need to protect their environment and heritage. I take this opportunity to point out the threats to our environment do not come from ordinary citizens either in Ireland or internationally. In general, they come from multinational corporations and big business. As I stated, people are open to issues regarding their environment and are open to change. However, nothing can raise their hackles like unknown, unelected and insensitive bureaucrats in Brussels or elsewhere taking such top-down decisions without consultation or reference as to how they might affect ordinary people. The Minister has offered to increase compensation but as far as I can ascertain, this is not the issue. This motion, which is based on a detailed survey of domestic turf cutters and contractors and utilises their knowledge, is the way forward. It would conserve 98% of raised bog in special areas of conservation. Moreover, turf will only be cut in small group areas, which will limit any damage to a negligible level. Furthermore, this will apply only in a small number of bogs and in the vast majority of bogs, people will be able to relocate to a nearby bog under these proposals. It is a reasonable and sensible approach that should be adopted by the Government. I request all Members to support the motion tabled by Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. Moreover, the Government should withdraw its amendment and support the original motion in full.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan for drawing up this Private Members' motion. Other members of the Technical Group and I were very happy to put our names to it because we view the proposals it contains as very reasonable. I was determined that conservation would be one of the issues to be discussed in this debate and this has proven to be the case. The motion was tabled some months ago but we ensured it would be taken over these two days when Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan identified this as a special week.

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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It was seconded by Deputy Ross.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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Yes.

Several previous speakers referred to a particular issue, namely, that which relates to process. It is easy to blame Brussels. We must begin to look to ourselves rather than blaming Brussels. We must accept our own culpability in respect of certain matters. I do not know the number of occasions on which a Part 8 process would have been initiated - as part of which newspaper advertisements, etc., would have been placed - and it would not have been until the machines rolled in or the letters arrived that people realised the impact the said process would have on them. We must learn from matters of this nature. An impact assessment process must be put in place in order that we might avoid the kind of unnecessary conflict which can arise. It often takes a massive effort, at both official and voluntary level, to resolve conflicts of this nature. We should look to ourselves in the context of seeking solutions in the future.

Cutting bogs did not merely begin a couple of hundred years ago. Turf cutting dates back thousands of years. Many archaeologists attribute to it an almost mythical status. Bogs were often seen as the crossing over point between the human and spirit worlds. Many of the artefacts which have been discovered in bogs were buried for just that reason. Bogs have proven to be virtual treasure troves and people out cutting turf have discovered some priceless artefacts. I refer in this regard to the terrific manuscript that was uncovered only five or six years ago. Clonycavan man, who was discovered in a bog, is now part of an exhibition and his body has given us so much information about the past. The acidic nature of bog water and the lack of oxygen within bogs does not allow the type of decomposition which would occur at other locations to take place. We have gained so much more from our boglands than mere turf.

There is a strong cultural aspect to turf cutting which was missed when the habitats directive was under consideration. I am concerned with regard to whether we are using the correct conservation methods. We received a briefing on the Fernandez report in recent days. This report indicates that some of the raised bogs which have not been cut during the past ten years have diminished to some extent. It also states that the opposite is true of some of the bogs which have been cut. If we are to approach this matter from the point of view of conservation, the evidence in the report to which I refer gives rise to a number of questions to which we must seek answers. Those answers must be found if the object of the exercise is to conserve what is unique about the habitats of raised bogs.

I return to the issue of process. We have encountered so many difficulties in this regard. One need only consider what happened at Rossport to realise that this is the case. Everyone in the House could highlight matters which escaped people's attention until they realised they was going to impact on them in a very negative way. In addition to finding a solution to the matter under discussion, we must also find a solution with regard to how we go about our business. We are not particularly good at resolving matters and this is certainly an issue which demonstrates that.

Photo of Tom FlemingTom Fleming (Kerry South, Independent)
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As a result of our high regard for land and property in this country, initiatives which interfere with the rights of landowners will be always contentious. In many respects, this is a result of our history and the fact that for many years Irish people were subdued by and lived under a foreign regime. Land has been always seen as being of high value. In many instances people were banished from the land and were fortunate thereafter to obtain unpredictable rights of tenancy in respect of it. Much of this is due to that which we inherited from the past, when people were obliged to try to make their livelihoods in very tough conditions.

People have an attachment to land, be it arable, mountain or bog. Land is generally a priority for them. This is even more the case at present as a result of the rising cost of imported fuels and the long tradition of bog owners having discretion to cut and harvest turf. The latter is a precious resource and it will be even more valuable in the future. The owners of bogs have been excellent custodians of their properties over the years. Fortunately, these individuals have ensured their properties are properly drained and that there is no unnecessary damage to habitats. Sensible and sustainable annual maintenance has ensured that the bogs to which I refer are environmentally-friendly in the context of wildlife, fauna, etc.

I commend all the stakeholders involved on trying to resolve this divisive issue in a practical manner. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, the turf cutters, the contractors association and the bog owners have been extremely proactive over a long period and have arrived at a satisfactory and agreeable resolution. The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, has for many years promoted and enhanced the heritage of his native county, Kerry, and other places throughout the country. On many occasions, he has - in both a political and voluntary capacity - done a great deal to assist various organisations and to promote different projects in his native county. The Minister is a pragmatist and he takes a good, practical approach to all issues. He understands the unique importance of striking a fair balance with regard to accommodating the rights of members of the general public in the context of carrying on with existing traditions and making provision for their own domestic fuel needs. I welcome the sizeable increase in compensation and the once-off financial incentive. The Minister has taken an extremely positive approach in the context of negotiating these measures at Cabinet level.

Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and the other members of his delegation informed me that they received an extremely favourable reception when they visited the EU Commission, which was a fitting reward for all their efforts. The Deputy and his counterparts put forward very logical, practical and workable proposals. As a result, some 98% of bogs will be conserved. In addition, plot holders will be facilitated. Particular sections of bogs will be set aside and those parts that are not cut will remain intact under the mechanism of compensatory habitat exchange. I understand this proposal is acceptable to those in Europe and if it provides a solution, we should pursue it. It may take some time but if we can get an assurance that this will eventually be acceptable, we should come to a firm agreement.

Both the turf cutters and the preserved bog can live side by side in co-existence. I am hopeful that with the minority of bogs where there is no suitable alternative location with the same quality of turbary rights adjacent to existing bogs, under the conservation measure we can seek a resolution to these matters. We should certainly put the matter to bed tonight in this House and we will carry it to the European Commission.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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I thank the Technical Group Members for sharing some of their time with me. I thank Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan for bringing forward this very important Private Members' motion, and I thank the excellent people, such as Pat Fitzpatrick, who worked with the Deputy and have put much time and effort into the issue. I acknowledge the work of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, including Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice and his great team of people. I compliment them on their excellent work going the length and breadth of this country to endless meetings, with site visits to bogs and for putting together an excellent set of proposals on each of the 57 raised bogs. I acknowledge and welcome the sound people who have travelled from all parts of Ireland to the Gallery and outside on Kildare Street. They are most welcome in coming here tonight to show their support for the Private Members' motion. A massive amount of detail was put into the report and it must be appreciated by all of us.

There was a breakdown of trust in the past on this very important matter. The cutting of turf is one of the most important and basic rights of rural dwellers and any threat to that way of life would always have been resisted in the strongest possible manner. The TCCA proposal, which would ensure the protection of 98% of the raised bogs, is very generous and much thought, consideration and negotiation went into seeking agreement from turf cutters to congregate in 2% of bogs. We should remember that there are bogs where there is no alternative and relocation is impossible. Those turf cutters must be allowed to continue to cut turf.

Having studied the data in great detail, it should be noted that over the years, bogs which have lost much of their natural habitats may not have been cut at all. In other words, bogs that are worked have a greater chance of retaining their habitats than neglected bogs. This flies in the face of EU directives but it would not be the first time what people in the EU were telling us what to do would lack common sense. God help us but many of these people writing rules on raised bogs would not know one end of a slean from another; they would not know what is a sod of turf, the majority would never have seen an open fire in a house and if they did, they would call the fire brigade and run.

The studies do not support statements made by the Minister last night when he referred to the dramatic decline in raised bogs. I listened very closely to the Minister's contribution and his amendment following from Mr. Justice Quirke's report. I acknowledge the Kerry turf cutters, who represent people who have cut turf all their lives and who have constantly spoken of the lack of contact by present and previous Governments on this very important matter. I will cite the example of the turf cutters who worked in a bog just outside Listowel, where there is no alternative place to cut turf. I am alarmed by what the Minister proposes. We cannot have a position where anybody who cut turf traditionally over the years will face into the next couple of months-----

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Minister, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Kerry North-West Limerick, Fine Gael)
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It must be a five-seat contest the next time around.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Bí ciúin

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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-----without going about cutting turf as they have always done. I certainly take no comfort from the Minister increasing compensation because the real traditional turf cutters do not want compensation; they want to cut turf. In many instances, it has been stated that the only people who wanted compensation were those who did not exercise their rights to cut turf in the past. Turf cutters are not for sale and will not sell out on their heritage.

It is a sad day for Ireland when we must debate this motion at all as the people who came before us would turn in their graves at the idea of European law being passed into Irish law in order to stop people cutting turf anywhere. Nevertheless I thank the people who put so much work into trying to reach a solution, including Bord na Móna, the Peatlands Council, the TCCA, officials in the Department, the Minister, and most important, the people who work in the bogs. I thank Deputy Flanagan for his work. May Paddy Concannon rest in peace. We are continuing the fight and we will not lie down now or ever. Tonight is not the end, it is only the beginning.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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I am delighted to be able to speak to the motion tonight. I compliment Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, his colleague, Mr. Pat Fitzpatrick, and Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice of the TCCA. I compliment these people on the hard work done and the leadership shown to many other groups in rural Ireland. They have illustrated how compromise is achieved. It does not come about by sitting at a gas fire or in a plush Dublin 4 apartment but through people power, with the population in rural Ireland saying to this and previous Governments that they should be listened to. The people of rural Ireland have a voice, make sense and are decent, law abiding and pay their way.

The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, should be complimented on entering into negotiations with Deputy Flanagan and the TCCA. I also note Mr. Justice Quirke's examination of the issue. We begged for action from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, "big Phil the enforcer", as people like to call him in the environment committee and in the Chamber. We wanted him to enter consultation but he did not. People must be consulted and listened to. We cannot have diktats from Europe added to in Dublin and we cannot have the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, getting pats on the shoulder from Angela Merkel and others. We asked people to put on the green jersey last week and renegotiate the criminal amounts that we owe but that did not happen. The Taoiseach signed the treaty and was all smiles. Bhí sé ag gáire but we must do better. We are a reasonable and fair people who will pay our way.

Deputy Coffey knows there is a bog in Port Láirge freisin. We pay our way and we are an honest and proud people. We are proud of our heritage and nothing is more a part of that heritage than the bogs of Ireland. Our forefathers were able to live and eat because of the turf they saved in all kinds of weather, barefoot and working with the sleans mentioned by Deputy Healy-Rae. There were no machines at that time. They made a living and paid for children to be educated. Unfortunately, many people had to emigrate.

The European Commission and Irish officials want to change this. I do not blame Governments much, rather officials and the bureaucracy in Ireland. The people involved sign off on everything. We have seen figures in documents such as the Fernando Fernandez Valverde report, which indicates a 90% decrease in habitat in eight neglected bogs in comparison to bogs that were worked. I remember ABBA's song "Fernando" in 1974. Do you hear the drums calling Fernando? I say to Enda, Eamon and Jimmy-----

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Minister-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Sorry. I say to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister, Deputy Deenihan, that the drums of rural Ireland are beating loudly and they will not be silent. Rural Ireland has had enough anti-rural legislation, intimidation and bullying.

A letter from North Tipperary County Council was sent with regard to the development of the Nore Valley bog on 27 February 2012. It was addressed to dear sir or madam. This is nice language; the county council could not address the person by name. The letter stated it had come to the attention of the planning authority that the person may have carried out unauthorised development consisting of peat extraction at Nore Valley bog, Timoney, Roscrea, County Tipperary. What next? We cannot harvest our bogs. My goodness. Skyscrapers were allowed to be built in Dublin and the Seanie FitzPatricks got away with murder. No one has been sent to jail. However, people are being threatened with fines over turf. The letter sent by North Tipperary County Council is a disgrace.

A colleague of the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, stated a letter was sent in error last week. The officials who send out these letters should be censured. I will not say they should be demoted or sacked but they should certainly be censured. Why should they undermine the Government? Why do they cause people fear? Why do they create an urban rural divide? Is it because of their selfish need for promotion? It is callous, ignorant and unfair to rural people.

We can take a leaf out of the book of Deputy Luke "Ming" Flanagan, and we can also do so with regard to the legislation that will create Water Ireland. This would mean listening to people and sitting down and engaging with them. We are a fair people and we will not be portrayed as a dirty people. What is most disenchanting to rural people is being portrayed as not caring for the environment. They are the best carers for the environment and for our built and natural heritage and they will continue to be so. Turf will be cut no matter what the bureaucrats say.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath should be on stage at The Strand Theatre.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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He is like the angry man on "The Muppet Show".

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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I am no expert on bogs or turf and knew nothing about them until I met Deputy Luke Flanagan.

Deputies:

The Deputy is no expert on anything.

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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Kindly do not say he is no expert on anything. You do not know the man.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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There are a lot of experts around.

I do know if one has a problem in business one must address the issues and deal with them. One finds a solution and moves on. I find it strange that the problems surrounding bogs and turf cutting have been around for a long time without resolution and I wonder why this is. There is little doubt the people protesting this evening and the turf cutters who have fought for so long have engaged in what is known as active citizenship. If one wants to change how things are done in this country active citizenship is how to do it. One cannot depend on us politicians to change the world. It is important that people develop a voice. Getting a vote once every five years is not enough. One needs a voice to raise one's concerns and be heard. If one wants to challenge the status quo, which must be done sometimes, and if one wants to challenge the bureaucracy which impedes progress, one must develop this voice.

As an outsider looking in I believe if the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, was a private body it would have lost its contract a long time ago. Over 14 years a total of €750 million has been spent with no resolution. The performance of the NPWS leaves much to be desired.

Bogs were designated behind people's backs with only 27 of the people being informed. There was a lack of clarity with regard to commercial and domestic turf cutting. People were denied access to information. They could not even get the Fernandez report without using the freedom of information process. There was no transparency or accountability. Have we ever heard this before?

Domestic turf cutters were threatened by the agency with legal prosecution. People had their doors kicked by those working for the agency. It entered into 1,200 agreements, reneging on almost half of them. The NPWS felt it had Europe behind it. It certainly had the money. However, an EU Commission report found that 94% of the people of Ireland did not know anything about the habitats directive; so much for what it was up to. The task of progressing this further should not be left with those who have failed for the past 14 years. A lack of trust has developed between them and the turf cutters. We need a new body that will build trust with the people, take forward the turf cutters' initiative and develop a national plan for the bogs and fairness for everyone concerned.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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There is no difference in the objective of what the two motions before the House set out to achieve. Much of the language in the Government's counter motion is taken directly from the Technical Group's motion as proposed by Deputy Luke Flanagan. The key difference is that the Government amendment builds on the original motion to include reference to the Quirke report, which was not available when the original motion was submitted on Friday. The Government amendment goes further than the motion proposed by Deputy Flanagan by commending the Government's acceptance of Mr. Justice Quirke's central recommendation that all bogs should be considered in a single national plan. In the context of such a plan it may be possible to bring limited flexibility for the most difficult bogs where there are no apparent alternative solutions.

While we cannot second-guess the outcome of this process I know my area in south Galway is one of those where obtaining suitable relocation bog is proving very difficult. This plan offers a way forward and a way to examine the case of this and similar areas in real detail. Such a plan would build on the proposals put forward by the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, relating to all the affected raised bogs. The Government's counter motion, using the language of the original motion, explicitly acknowledges the TCCA's proposals. The Government acknowledges the commitment and leadership of Michael Fitzmaurice, and his colleagues in the TCCA, in developing proposals to address the very difficult issues we face.

The Government's motion also reflects the general commitment to work together with all parties to develop a shared understanding and future of the special area of conservation bogs as well as the specific commitment to work with each affected local community. It further acknowledges the enhanced compensation package announced by the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, last night.

Thanks to the work of Mr. Justice Quirke, the Government can now begin to give concrete commitments to a shared way forward over and above those contained in the original motion. We have endured a saga of options taken and not taken, procrastination, wishful thinking and denial which has led to a serious breakdown in communication and trust between many turf cutters and the State. Turning this relationship around will not be easy but there is hope. The Peatlands Council chaired by Conor Skehan has started the difficult process of building clearer communications between turf cutting interests, relevant State parties and NGOs. The peatlands forum under Mr. Justice John Quirke has given the communities on all 53 sites the opportunity to air their grievances and concerns, present their proposals and engage with the State to start the process of finding solutions and rebuilding valuable trust.

The pioneering spirit of turf cutting communities in Clara and Mount Bellew, working with Bord na Móna and the NPWS, have shown trust can be rebuilt and relocation can be successfully delivered. The honest and constructive engagement of the Irish Farmers Association through Padraic Divilly has contributed significantly to finding acceptable solutions. The Government has now provided clarity on the enhanced compensation and has demonstrated its resolve to move ahead in delivering relocation options. The European Commission has also indicated its willingness to work with all parties to find a long-term resolution to this issue in the parameters of EU law. The Taoiseach indicated to me this evening that he will organise a delegation to travel to Brussels to engage with the Commission at the very highest level to work towards securing this resolution.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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In just one year the Government has travelled further on this issue than was travelled in the previous 12 years. I hope the House will acknowledge our earnest endeavours to protect the rights of turf cutters and the State's interest in the face of litigation and secure the long-term conservation of these sites. Deputies such as Frank Feighan, Paul Connaughton, Martin Heydon and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, to name but a few, have also worked hard to bring parties together. This is a time for strong leadership from all sides. The honest, hard-working and law-abiding people to whom Mr. Justice Quirke listened last week are anxious to achieve an agreed way forward on this difficult issue. We owe it to them and the wider community to accept Mr. Justice Quirke's advice and move ahead. Together we can develop a new relationship of partnership, co-operation and trust.

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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To those outside who are listening to this debate, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for travelling up here so late in the evening on a school day. This was very difficult to do but you did it. When we organised this debate, we knew this would be a major challenge. Fair dues to those who travelled. They have stepped up to the mark and I am proud of them. It is unbelievable that so many have turned out today. It is because of them that I am in this House, sitting in its comfortable seats. I am their servant and I am serving them today.

This is not a new battle. Some may say it began in 1992 but it started 106 years ago in Cloonerco bog when people in the area were told they could no longer cut their turf because the powers-that-be at the time found someone more important to make use of it. When they took the turf banks off local people, Father Michael O'Flanagan, who was, coincidentally, the first man to utter words in Dáil Éireann when he said the prayer at its first sitting, stood by them. He went into the bog, cut turf with them and won the battle. This event showed the depth of passion and importance of turf cutting. Even when the church turned against Fr. O'Flanagan, local people who would have been terrified to stand up to the church on many other issues boarded up the windows and doors of Cliffoney Church. While having lunch yesterday, I met a man whose father hammered some of the nails into the church. He is still proud of what his father did.

This is not an issue that can be solved by money. If that were the case, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. This is about much more than money or keeping one's house warm, although that is the most important aspect of the issue. This is about our culture. Turf means everything where I and the Taoiseach come from. Incidentally, I appreciate the Taoiseach's presence in the House for this debate. Turf cutting is part of our humour, a way to meet people and work with our families that townies like me have never been able to share. When turf cutters see a Ferrari on television, they will usually comment, "I wonder how good that would be at pulling turf out of the bog." If we see a helicopter, we do not wonder if it is the National Parks and Wildlife Service but ask whether if it could pull turf out of the bog. When we see the desert of Dubai on television someone will always say, "One would not be long drying the turf there."

The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, has engaged with the State all along the line. We are good citizens and do not seek conflict as it is not in our interests. We first engaged with the interdepartmental committee on the cessation of turf cutting. Despite its title being abhorrent to our organisation, we gave the interdepartmental committee our report and engaged with it. We then engaged with the Joint Committee on European Affairs and told it our story. The joint committee told us we had one hell of a case and needed help. We subsequently engaged with the Peatlands Council and told it our story. None of these engagements has produced a successful result.

Last week, in Athlone we attended the peatlands forum. While one could argue that someone who has been bitten by a dog is wary about rubbing the dog's head again, we went to the forum and met Mr. Justice John Quirke. The judge listened to us, documented our stories and showed compassion. He was obviously moved by what was said which is easy to understand because men from the country do not cry easily, even if it would be better for us mentally to do so. The hardest of men, those who believe crying makes them soft, stood in front of Mr. Justice Quirke and cried their eyes out. A lady, with whom we became friendly over the course of the meeting, came to the forum to record people's feelings. She was amazed that one person after another broke down and cried in front of the camera. None of the men or women in question will be given an Oscar for acting because there was no acting involved. This is a serious issue. Mr. Justice Quirke heard how suicide had come into families because of the strain this issue has caused. He listened to those who spoke and showed compassion. The Judiciary is sometimes accused of being a little aloof. Mr. Justice Quirke was anything but aloof. While I could be described as the ultimate cynic, I felt strongly that he listened and cared. For that, I must say "well done" to the Government for choosing the right man. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association recognises this.

The Minister gave us a little hope yesterday. I am grateful for that because I am not in this for confrontation. As I have stated to friends on many occasions, my ambition is to be a postman and live in a country where I can be happy with what is going on around me. If we can solve this problem, I will take one step further to realising my ambition. Yesterday, the Minister stated that turf cutting could possibly take place on a small number of SAC bogs where it is not currently permitted. This approach is consistent with what the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association seeks. All we need is a small amount of bog. Having engaged with and listened to people all over the country at public meetings held in cold halls and having subsequently visited all the bogs in the area - Michael Fitzmaurice did most of this work - the TCCA worked out that its members would be happy to have access to just 2% of the bogs in question. This would provide us with turf for the next 300 years. The TCCA is agreeable to such a scenario, which means our position and that of the Government are closer together than ever. However, for this proposal to work, the House must be united. There is no point whingeing to the European Commission if we do not unanimously support the proposal. That the Taoiseach will accompany us when we speak to Commission officials will be of assistance because it gives a stamp of authority and shows we are serious about this issue. We will then have a great chance.

I plead with the Government to withdraw its amendment to ensure Deputies from all sides sing from the same hymn sheet and we are able to go to Europe united on this issue. The Government appears to agree with every statement in the motion. As it is already on side, we now need it to support the motion. To do so would also strengthen its position in communities in turf cutting areas. This is a win-win scenario for everyone.

If we can win on this issue, we will give people hope on many different issues. Many people are living in despair for various reasons. If they can see a little bit of hope on this issue, perhaps they will see a bit of hope for the future of the country because the Government would be agreeing with all the people on these bogs that what have said is relevant and that they matter. That would be the first time ever that anyone officially said that they matter. That would be amazing and that is the way to win this one.

If the Government parties vote for the motion and we are all united on this, let no one be under any illusion that this will solve the problem. They know this will not solve the problem but this would be the new beginning we need and, from there, we can drive forward and solve this problem. It will not be easy. If it was easy, we would most likely have solved it. If we talk about the entire picture along the lines we have proposed, putting together a national plan and not talking about individual bogs or certain areas being in or out, then it could work.

We are looking for three actions to be taken and they are outlined in the motion and the amendment. On bogs where people have good quality turf within a reasonable distance of their home, they should be allowed to relocate. They are prepared to move because we are dealing with reasonable people. On the bogs where turf cutters have nowhere close by to move to and there is no good quality turf, we require that they be allowed to consolidate into one area on those bogs in order that co-existence can take place. In one case, we need complete compensatory habitat exchange. In other words, there are so many people on that particular bog that moving them around would not make a difference because we would be just getting them to march around in a circle. In that case, we need complete habitat exchange.

With regard to the 2% of bogland we will use, we did not just go out and look at the bogs we owned that were under threat. On Christmas Eve, an hour before Santa should have been arriving at our houses, Michael Fitzmaurice, our chairperson, was in Leitrim identifying a bog that was perfectly intact with no turf cutting taking place on it and with a lake in the middle of it in order that we could guarantee there would be just as many bogs designated in the end in the context of the entire picture and turf cutting could continue.

The TCCA approves of conservation but we believe and now know that conservation and turf cutting can go hand in hand. Everyone can win on this. We need the support of the Government parties tonight and, subsequent to that, we need their support in Europe. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Minister, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; Kerry North-West Limerick, Fine Gael)
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The motion and the Government's amendment are similar and have the same intention. In a spirit of partnership, co-operation and trust, I will withdraw the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 March 2012.