Thursday, 21 June 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Serious issues were raised by the stand-off in Clonmoylan last night which the Minister needs to address. Fully assembled State forces amassed against ordinary decent citizens. This represents a major new departure in State policy and sets a dangerous precedent. We cannot ignore the fact that this took place against a backdrop of the closure of many rural Garda stations, of women in some areas being told their safety cannot be guaranteed at night because of lack of Garda resources, and so on. In this climate, there assembled last night between 40 and 50 gardaí, more than 20 vehicles belonging to the Garda and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Garda emergency response unit. Dozens of the unit's members assembled on a rural country lane, to deal with what threat to the State?
The incident that provoked this response from the State was an attempt by the National Parks and Wildlife Service to confiscate the private property, a hopper and excavator, of Mr. Michael Darcy. Gardaí attempted to load the property onto a low loader and were met by a peaceful protest by residents of the area.
How did this situation develop as it did? We are talking about private property on privately owned land. It was alleged that the equipment had been used to cut turf on a special area of conservation, SAC. On what basis was the decision to confiscate the machinery made? I would like the Minister to deal with the fact that the property, which cost approximately €70,000, was later burnt out. Who will compensate the owner for that? The owner is in hospital and will remain there for some time. Residents came from as far afield as Castlebar, Kerry, Sligo and Laois to offer solidarity with the peaceful protest.
The incident took place against a backdrop of the House, including the Minister, accepting a Private Members' motion recommending a process that would resolve the issues raised by the turf-cutters and achieve the goal, which we all share, of protecting raised bogs. Why is the Government not pursuing that resolution? Why is it not being worked on? How much effort is being put into securing it? It would cost the State far less money to do that than to assemble the forces that were deployed last night against ordinary citizens.
I would like the Minister to deal with the fact that the report, which the House endorsed, would have allowed a greater proportion of raised bog to be protected but would also have given turf-cutters the right to access their traditional turf cutting. Why is that not being pursued? It is the solution to the crisis.
Why was the armed response unit deployed in this way? It was an attempt to intimidate citizens and to force them to yield to State power. It will not work. It is an incredibly dangerous tactic. Weaponry was assembled against citizens on country laneways last night. Anything could have gone wrong. I am sure most people believe the armed response unit should be used only to deal with a national emergency, such as a kidnapping. It certainly should not be used against ordinary people.
I would like the Minister to deal with these points. How does he think the situation will end? The only resolution, from the point of view of justice and economic and environmental sustainability, is to deal with the issue on the basis of dialogue and discussion and to accept the compromise put forward by the turf-cutters and contractors and endorsed by the House a few months ago.
I welcome the opportunity to affirm the reasons for the Garda involvement in relation to the matters in question.
It speaks volumes that the Deputy has raised the matter by referring to "the use of State forces in Clonmoylan Bog". By referring to the Garda Síochána in this manner she shows an extraordinary lack of respect for the Garda Síochána and for the work it does. This is no more than an emotive attempt to denigrate public servants who are simply doing their job. Let me say with absolute clarity that I support fully the efforts of members of the Garda Síochána to deal with a difficult situation not of their making, but encouraged by Deputy Luke "Ming" Flanagan and other Deputies, who seem to believe there is an Àla carte menu of laws, some of which they can choose to comply with and others which they and ordinary citizens may reject. The gardaí recognise the strength of feeling of those involved in the protests and had no desire for a confrontation with them but, as guardians of the peace, they have a duty to see that the law is observed.
Of course, carrying out this difficult duty is not helped by Deputies in this House who consistently act as if obeying the law is a matter of choice; that if persons do not approve of a law they have no obligation to obey it. However it is dressed up, that approach flies in the face of democracy and the rule of law. The Deputies are simply fooling those whom they claim to support by implying that a failure to obey the law will change the facts of the situation.
The background to these most recent events is well known. Further to Ireland's obligations under EU law to protect rare and threatened habitats, it has been overwhelmingly clear for some time that turf cutting of Ireland's 53 raised bog special areas of conservation, SACs, could not continue. The Government has put in place a compensation package for those affected, involving the option of a financial payment over 15 years or relocation. This process is in place under the independently chaired Peatlands Council and I understand the vast majority of those concerned are engaging constructively along these lines, which is very much to be welcomed.
My colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Jimmy Deenihan and Phil Hogan, have also met the European Commissioner for the Environment and secured his agreement that a national raised bog SAC management plan should be developed in the coming 12 months. This was a major step forward and in keeping with a motion adopted in this House to which the Deputy referred. The plan will be wide-ranging and address each of the 53 sites, looking at the practical aspects of conserving, restoring and managing the affected bogs. It will also allow solutions for affected turf cutters to be explored in detail, including continued cutting in exceptional circumstances if the tests of the habitats directive can be met.
Notwithstanding these developments and the unambiguous legal position, cutting has continued in a number of what seem to be organised instances. This activity is misguided but I dare say encouraged by grandstanding by some Members in this House and elsewhere. In these instances, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has a duty to uphold and enforce the law and has endeavoured to do so in a sensitive fashion and with care to avoid unnecessary confrontation. The Garda has maintained close liaison with the service to ensure the law and public order are upheld.
Turning to the events near Portumna, I understand the National Parks and Wildlife Service legally impounded some equipment at Clonmoylan bog giving rise to protest. In view of the circumstances and the large number of people involved, a significant number of gardaí have been present there to ensure the law is upheld. Policing is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána and in situations such as that which occurred it is a matter for the Garda authorities to decide on the appropriate deployment of personnel and the relevant policing strategy. As Minister, I have no direct role in such matters, but I have every confidence that the Garda has carried out its duties in a fully professional manner.
The House will appreciate that the situation at Clonmoylan has evolved. However, the latest briefing I received before coming into the Houses indicated that the Garda, in the discharge of its duties, had removed a piece of equipment for the purposes of technical examination, with a view to preparing a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions. On conclusion of that examination it is intended to return the equipment to its owners on the basis that it will not be used in breach of the law. I also understand the protest has ended.
Neither the Garda nor the Government has any difficulty with peaceful protest, but people do not have a right to break the law or obstruct those implementing it. I encourage those involved in protests to step back from unlawful activity and engage, as others have done, with the process in place. The Government maintains an open door for engagement to find an accommodation for turf cutters within the law. Apart from anything else, this would allow the Garda to get back to meeting the ordinary policing needs of communities, for which it has my support and that of the public at large. It is a bit rich of the Deputy to make reference to gardaí being deployed at this location where people were engaged in serious illegality and then criticise gardaí for not being elsewhere.
I was not criticising the Garda at all and I certainly was not grandstanding. I was wondering how the Minister for Justice and Equality could stand over a situation where people in my constituency in Malahide, Rush and other areas were bereft of Garda resources and yet at the drop of a hat, ordinary citizens in Galway could be met by 40 to 50 gardaí at any one time assembled throughout the night. The Minister made the point that laws had been breached, but he did not specify which laws had been breached. What took place in Galway last night was a peaceful protest engaged in by ordinary citizens. The response of the State forces - that is what they are - to an assembly on a country lane, of the armed response unit-----
That means people who work for the State and who are armed were assembled against elderly, rural people who were out to cut turf. Does the Minister deem this to be an acceptable practice that an armed response unit should be sent to respond to ordinary citizens engaged in peaceful protests? That is the nub of the issue and what led to it. The reality is that this House asked the Government to implement an arrangement and to seek a transitional arrangement in the European Union to allow turf cutters to continue to cut turf while an alternative plan was being constructed. As everyone knows, it is now common knowledge that the Government did not do this. The incidents last night were not incited by anyone; ordinary people were responding to the Government's lack of action on a decision made by this House. That is where the responsibility lies. If the Government thinks it can achieve things by heavy-handed tactics against ordinary citizens, I am sorry to say it is very much on the wrong path, as the turf cutters have been strengthened by the incident. They are resolved to moving towards dialogue and a peaceful solution, but the Minister must meet them half way. Carrying on the way the State did last night can only serve to alienate otherwise law-abiding and decent citizens. I would like the Minister to answer the question on whether he will continue to use the armed response unit against peaceful protesters, be it on the issue of turf cutting or others.
It did so in circumstances that were totally lawful and to enforce the laws of the State, but it was obstructed by the protesters from so doing. The numbers who had accumulated at the location required a deployment of members of An Garda Síochána so as to ensure the law was upheld and appropriate steps were taken. It is absolutely clear that what the Deputy and her colleagues are engaged in is provoking ordinary people to engage in conduct that is unnecessary and misleading them into believing the Government has not done everything possible at European Union level to implement the motion passed in this House, which is untrue. It is time the Deputy and her colleagues in the Technical Group worked out whether they are parliamentary democrats or perpetual street protesters encouraging others to engage in protest. Irrespective of the depth of feeling of those involved in protesting, we cannot have a situation where implementation of the law is compromised. Members who are elected as legislators have a particular duty to enforce laws either passed by this Parliament or that the State is obliged to meet as a member of the European Union. The Deputy cannot have it both ways. One cannot be both a law breaker and a law maker or encourage others while one is a law maker to break the law.
At a national level it is clear that a failure to fully implement EU environmental law in this area leaves the State open to significant fines which could amount to €25,000 a day. The European Commission is being vigilant in its monitoring of the situation. All members of the community will be at a loss if fines are imposed. I hope those involved in illegal turf cutting will reflect again on these consequences. I again encourage them to cease such cutting attempts and avoid further confrontation of the nature we saw last night. The Government maintains an open door for engagement on the basis that we can work together to find an accommodation within the law for turf cutters. I acknowledge and thank the many people who have worked with us in this regard. I thank the Garda Síochána for the work in which it was engaged last night and I am pleased to note the protest is over. I hope we will not see a repetition of similar protests.