Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage


7:15 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this important legislation, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016. The publication of this legislation is delivering on a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government.

Ireland has designated 75 natural heritage areas, NHAs, under national law for the protection of raised bog habitats. These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog in Ireland which have been nominated for designation as special areas of conservation, SACs, in accordance with the EU habitats directive. Additional raised bog habitat within the natural heritage area network makes a contribution to the overall objectives of the habitats directive to maintain or restore these habitats to favourable conservation status.

Since 2011, over €18 million in taxpayers' money has been spent on protecting and conserving the SAC raised bog network. The SAC network remains the bedrock of Ireland's response to the conservation of raised bog under the habitats directive. Indeed, the previous Fine Gael-led Government was the first Government to tackle the issue of turf cutting and EU obligations. Our approach has been based on working with the turf cutters affected in a practical and pragmatic fashion, while also working to ensure we are protecting this rare natural environment and fulfilling our EU obligations. In recognition of the fact that the same legal regime did not apply to NHAs as to SACs, in April 2011 the then Government decided to carry out a scientific review of the natural heritage area raised bogs. This decision was taken in tandem with the work which was ongoing to ensure that SAC raised bogs were being treated in accordance with the habitats directive. The main objective of the review was to look at how the NHA network could contribute to our conservation objectives, while avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters and, therefore, minimising the cost to the taxpayer arising from compensation.

Independent experts, working closely with departmental officials, carried out the review of the raised bog resource in Ireland. They examined over 270 individual raised bogs, including SACs, NHAs and undesignated sites. New scientific survey methods were employed and improved mathematical modelling methods used to identify the restoration potential of sites. A number of factors were taken into account when assessing the importance of individual bogs in terms of their economic, social and cultural contribution to individual communities. This included available ownership information, the number of active turf plots and restoration-associated costs. This has been the most comprehensive analysis to date of Ireland's raised bog habitats.

The selection process for the analysis of sites adopted a sustainable approach. The selection criteria, while including the primary environmental and technical factors essential for a raised bog's existence now and into the future, also included economic and social criteria. At the same time each site was examined by Department staff from a nature conservation and management perspective to ensure that the final outcomes of the selection process were practical and achievable. The review concluded that a reconfiguration of the NHA network was required in order to meet nature conservation objectives more effectively while having regarding to economic, social and cultural needs.

The review of the raised bog natural heritage area network was published in January 2014. It sets out a series of measures to ensure that Ireland meets its obligations under the EU habitats directive, as well as its obligations under the EU environmental impact assessment directive relating to the regulation of turf cutting on NHAs, while at the same time avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and users and minimising the cost to the State of compensation payments. The review concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. The review concluded that this would entail the phasing out of turf cutting on 36 existing NHAs, which will remain designated, including seven sites to be divided, with part to be conserved and part de-designated; the complete de-designation of 46 NHAs, including the relevant areas of the seven sites to be divided where it has been judged that their conservation potential is expected to be marginal and-or that restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved - domestic turf cutting may continue on these sites, while larger scale or commercial turf cutting will continue to be regulated through other consent systems; and the designation as NHAs of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure. These NHAs are being designated to make up for the loss of habitat within the sites where it is proposed that turf cutting can be allowed to continue.

The review clearly set out that the proposed newly configured network would have considerable advantages over the current natural heritage area network: a greater area of both active and degraded raised bog still capable of regeneration compared to the current network; in the short to medium term, losses of active bog will be reduced due to the lower intensity of recent turf cutting in the new network; costs to the taxpayer will be greatly reduced due to the smaller number of turf cutters required to stop turf cutting and requiring compensation - it is envisaged that there will be approximately 2,500 fewer actively cut turf plots in the new network; and increased potential for more rapid restoration of raised bog due to the inclusion of State-owned lands into the new network.

In short, the new network will have more environmental benefits, it will have less negative impact on turf cutters and it will cost less to the taxpayer. The total area of active and degraded raised bog under the proposed new network is 765 hectares, in comparison with an area of 694 hectares in the current network. The area of the new network will also contribute to the national conservation objective target area for raised bog within the SAC and NHA networks.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 provides for a review of raised bog habitats, the making, amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders, and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network arising from the proposals from the review published in January 2014, an assessment of the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review and, if required, any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment undertaken and observations or submissions received during the course of public consultation.

The Bill contains five sections. Section 1 is a standard provision providing a definition of the Act of 2000, which is the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The legislative provisions relating to natural heritage areas are contained within Part III, Chapter II of that Act.

Section 16(1) of the Act of 2000 provides for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order. Section 2 of the Bill amends this subsection to provide for the Minister to publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order arising from the completion of the natural heritage area review.

Section 18(4) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that where the Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order, the Minister will publish a notice of the intention to do so. The provisions of subsections (2), (4) and (5) of section 16 relating to seeking the observations of certain Ministers and public authorities and serving notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order also apply where the Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order. Section 3 of the Bill provides that the provisions of section 18(4) of the Act of 2000 only apply to that section of the Act, as section 4 of the Bill contains publication and notification provisions where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order.

Section 4 of the Bill amends the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 by the insertion of a new section 18A after section 18 as follows. Section 18A(1) provides for the Minister to continue to conduct and complete the review of raised bog habitats.

Section 18A(2) refers to the purposes of the review, including contributing to the achievement of nature conservation objectives of maintaining or restoring raised bog habitats, and selecting the most suitable raised bog habitats to be designated as natural heritage areas or to cease to be designated as natural heritage areas.

Section 18A(3) provides that the Minister shall, in respect of the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review, carry out a strategic environmental assessment, including public consultation, and if required, carry out any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment, including public consultation. This provision arises from a commitment to carry out an environmental assessment in the 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage area network.

Section 18A(4) sets out that on the completion of the review, having considered the proposals arising from it and having had regard to the strategic environmental assessment, any other screening for assessment or assessment undertaken and observations or submissions received during the public consultation, the Minister shall, where he or she is satisfied that a natural heritage area order should be made, publish under section 16 of the Act of 2000 a notice of his or her intention to make the natural heritage area order, and where he or she is satisfied that land should cease to be designated as a natural heritage area, make an order to amend or revoke the natural heritage area order which so designated the land. This provision allows the Minister to have regard to economic, social and cultural needs when deciding that land should cease to be designated as a natural heritage area.

Section 18A(5) states that where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order which designated land as a natural heritage area, the Minister will place an advertisement in at least one local newspaper to inform the public of the making of the order and cause a copy of the order to be sent to defined owners or occupiers of land, defined holders of valid prospecting or exploration licences and various Ministers of the Government and various public authorities.

Section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that no person shall carry out or cause to be carried out works which are liable to destroy or to alter, damage or interfere significantly with the features of a site without giving the Minister at least three months' prior notice. This obligation applies to land on which the Minister has served notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order. Section 18A(6) clarifies that an amendment or revocation of a natural heritage area order means that the land or the part of it in question ceases to be designated as a natural heritage area and that the obligation arising from section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 is fully removed. Section 18A(7) sets out definitions for "environmental criteria", "habitat", and "restoration potential".

Section 5 of the Bill sets out the Short Title and commencement.

I view this Bill as an important piece of the jigsaw as we continue to deal with the need to protect the environment, live up to our EU obligations and work with landowners and turf cutters on whose lives these obligations can have a very real impact. As I stated at the outset, the publication of this legislation is an important commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government. This legislation will allow for our raised bog network to be managed more effectively and in a more environmentally friendly manner.

It is important to remember that this Bill arises from the review of raised bog natural heritage area network, published in 2014. The reconfiguration of the raised bog network, which this legislation will facilitate, is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the raised bog network.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill, which I commend to the House, and I look forward to hearing Deputies' views on its contents. I recommend the Bill to the House.

7:25 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I understand Deputy Ó Cuív is sharing time with Deputy Cahill.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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That is correct. We should first recognise that we are lucky in this country to have a largely unspoilt countryside and, because the Industrial Revolution passed us by, we retained areas of high natural amenity and of high natural importance in habitats. The second element we must recognise is that all Irish land is farmed and all the rivers were fished. Traditionally, most of the rivers were cleaned, and particularly, if I might say so, there was not a farmer in Ireland when land was scarce who did not clean the drains within his or her farm. We have good farming practice to thank for the fact so much of our natural habitats survived into the second half of the previous century where in other countries that did not happen.

The other element that we must recognise as being unique is our settlement pattern. Most of us know from travelling on the Continent that the people tend to live in close settlements whereas we tend to live on the land that was farmed. It is a strange sight, certainly to me, to go for miles in countries, such as France and Spain, and suddenly see a town where all the farmers are living rather than our much more developed system of living where the cattle are.

Part of that might be that if a farmer was engaged mainly in crop production, there was not the same need to live beside the animals, but if he was milking one or two cows, he would not want the cows to be in a field three miles away. Unfortunately, the European approach with respect to designations often did not have the necessary finesse to deal with the Irish situation. It is a crude instrument in many ways and sometimes I wonder if it is doing more harm than good. I do not know too many farmers who, if it was left to themselves, would not recognise the ecological importance of their own land. To say that farmers did not always care for wildlife would be wrong. The introduction of more advanced farming systems has done the big damage to song birds and so on. That did not happen with traditional farming.

I was on Inis Turbot Island last year with an islander, a lady who grew up on the island. Inis Turbot is a small island off Clifden and I had heard that the corncrake had returned to it. The fascinating aspect of the lesson on the corncrake is that it will not survive where the grass is not cut. If the land is let go wild, the corncrake will not survive. The grass has to be cut but the trick is to cut it at the right time. That lady explained to me that when her father used to cut the meadow in the old days, he always made it his business not to interfere with the corncrakes. To think that people in the past did not value the habitats in which they lived as much as the greatest ecologists of today is to misunderstand totally the incredible traditional relationship between traditional farmers and the land they farmed.

These designations eventually became Irish law in 1997, having been signed into an EU directive prior to that. I am talking about special areas of conservation, SACs, in the first instance. Síle de Valera, who was then my senior Minister, came into the Department in 1997 after that was signed and she and I took a unilateral decision to take out all of the commercial cutters and compensate them because, for them, turf cutting was a business. We left the domestic cutters because it more than a business for them. The Minister used the word "cultural" and I might use the word "traditional". For the domestic cutters, it was not only a source of free fuel, but a way of life, and it was a type of fuel they liked. They liked the ambience it created, it was one with which they were familiar and it was part of their life. In doing that, we got rid of 96% of the effort at that time, or so we were told by the Department and I have no doubt that it had the correct figures. The domestic cutters at the time comprised only 4%. I stress for the record that we did not get a derogation from Europe, rather we gave a derogation. The then Minister, Síle de Valera, and I went to Europe and I remember the meeting well. We looked the officials in the eye and told them that we intended to tell the individual domestic bog cutters that they could continue cutting turf for ten years, to which they replied: "We hear you, Minister." We took that to mean, and we were proven right in hindsight, that they were not going to take us to court within that ten-year period if we took out the 96% commercial element. That is how it happened.

I welcome this Bill for many reasons. I congratulate Deputy Fitzmaurice who fought a long campaign over this issue. It is interesting sometimes how creativity comes into play when one is told something cannot happen. If I understand it correctly, the nub of what the Minister proposes is to dedesignate some natural heritage areas, NHAs - I stress these are NHAs and she might clarify if any parts of SACs are involved at any stage - and redesignate other lands to be NHAs as compensation. Therefore, she will make the case to Europe that there will be more conservation after this process is completed than there was prior to it. It is a pity this was not done ten years ago. Sometimes things take time and they take negotiation. I congratulate Deputy Fitzmaurice not only for standing his ground, but for reaching a solution with the Department. Standing his ground without getting a solution would not have served anybody well.

My understanding from a quick perusal of the Bill, and we can go into this further on Committee Stage, is that it is a general enabling one. Under it, the Minister will be able to relook at all NHAs in the country under certain criteria and identify if they are of major conservation value or if there are other places with a higher conservation value. It does not seem that there is a requirement in the legislation for compensation in terms of compensatory NHAs. It seems to provide the Minister could withdraw a designation if she decided it did not serve any major ecological or conservation issue and that there is not a legal obligation to compensate. I made have read the Bill too quickly and I will read it in much more detail when we come to deal with Committee Stage, by which time I will have read every subparagraph. I did not see a provision in it that specifically states that if a NHA is dedesignated, some other designation must be inserted. I stand to be corrected on that but that is what I have taken from it. It is quite a short Bill.

When the Minister is finished dealing with the specific bogs listed in the Bill, and it is quite a long list, we do not yet know what she will put back in but I hope they will not cause any controversy. Many of them are on public lands but I understand some of them are not. I hope the ones that are not on public lands will not create a new hornet's nest and it will not be a case of she stepped out and they stepped in again and we find that all we have done is transferred the row. I trust the Minister and her officials have looked after that angle.

There is a wider issue. As the Minister knows, some of the most eco-sensitive farmers in the country are getting to the point where they are very against designations. They are not against the ecology but they are against the way the designations are being used to halt all rural life in certain areas. Unfortunately, I live in the area with the most designated land - 80% of the land west of the Corrib is designated. Extending north between the Tourmakeady Mountains and the sea, I understand that 80% of the land between Leenane and Westport is also designated. We get into farcical situations, part of which, I accept, is due to planning law brought in during my time in office, not when I was Minister for the Environment but when I was a Minister. We can talk about unintended consequences and we are trying to watch every element. I see the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is laughing, but I am sure he spends a good deal of time late at night reading small items of legislation and trying to check that nothing is going through any Department that he has not proofed down to the last degree for unintended consequences. I used to do a great deal of that and I would not say that I caught every pinkeen in fish of the provisions in Bills.

In all the legislation on this area, it is provided that if one is building a house within 15 km of an SAC, one has to carry out a screening operation. It is farcical the way this requirement is applied in places. I will cite the example of an area where a mountain has been designated as an SAC and the house in question is in the valley. In my part of the country, the water flows downhill. We have not yet found a trick to get it to flow uphill, although there was a road in County Louth that I was shown by a council one time where a car rolled up the road. The Deputy might know about that road in County Louth.

7:35 pm

Photo of Kevin  MoranKevin Moran (Longford-Westmeath, Independent)
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I fell up it.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Everywhere else the water flows downhill. How could a house located downstream from an SAC possibly affect the mountain behind it through its septic tank? In this case, the poor house applicant has spent €300 or €400 on a screening operation to show it will not do any damage.

One is located 10 km from the lake, yet this little house is supposed to destroy the lake in some way. All these tests are carried out by the county council on the most vulnerable septic tanks and we then discover that the tanks are doing virtually no damage and that municipal wastewater plants are the biggest single cause of pollution. That is a fact that we all know. These designations are being used to stop the building of houses in the countryside. There are zealots who will try to use anything to stop houses being built in rural areas. The problem is that a public that wants to love its countryside and to be at one with nature is finding that regulation is making it a lot less sympathetic.

The Minister is aware of a farcical situation that we will discuss in another forum. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has planning permission for a road through Connemara but it cannot agree method statements to allow the road to be constructed. In the meantime, people's lives are at risk every day because they are obliged to travel on a substandard road as a result of the fact that we cannot find a way of building the new road. It would be much better for the ecology of the region if the new road was built without putting the habitats at risk or without levels of testing that are impossible to meet.

There are two things I find very difficult to understand. One is the way the precautionary principle is applied. If one applies the precautionary principle to its ultimate level. none of us would get up in the morning. We would not even stay in bed, however, because that might harm us also. The reality is it is impossible to guard 100% against something that might happen.

The other big bugbear relating to all of this in the context of small developments and, particularly, where public infrastructure is concerned, is the cumulative effect. Something needs to be done. Perhaps if it concerned private homes, there could be another and another but it is very foolish for the State to keep saying that there might be a cumulative effect in the case of some facility or whatever that is needed for the greater public good. I guarantee that TII will not build the second road to which I refer through the middle of Connemara and the SAC. We will be lucky to get the first one built. This idea of a cumulative effect is nonsense. When it comes to public infrastructure, we need to differentiate our approach from the one we take to private infrastructure. There is a fundamental principle in our Constitution which one keeps finding laid out in all of the provisions, particularly those relating to private property. When one has weighed everything up, all rights are subject to the exigencies of the common good. It is important we never lose sight of that.

We must impress on Europe that in employing these laws, it will get a much higher level of voluntary compliance if it recognises the need to see there are competing interests. I was talking to somebody recently about this principle and I said that we must preserve the ecology, the SAC and habitats but that we should measure the index of risk to this. One the other side, in the case of a public road that is badly needed, we should also have an index of the danger of a major fatal accident. We should determine how much we could reduce that risk with a minimum increase to the potential risk to the environment when the road is being built. One cannot say that ecology trumps human safety at all times. We should try to find the happiest medium, reduce the risk to the ecology as much as possible but, equally, reduce the risk to human life by accident on a defective road. This applies again and again across everything we do.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has the competing interests of protecting something that is more valuable because it is more unique to Ireland than the natural heritage. There are natural heritage sites in other places in the world but other than very small populations in Scotland, there is no other country in the world that has native Gaelic-speaking populations. If it dies, it is truly dead as a community language everywhere in the world. One cannot be so absolute in the measure of a piece of ecology. Gaeltacht communities cannot be sustained without basic infrastructure. We will not hold our populations and we know of the massive decline in more rural areas. We have to have balance when making our ecological decisions.

The Minister has taken a very constructive route. She has opened up the possibility of looking at all of this. My only concern is that we cannot do the same thing to SACs that do not have a designated high value.

We will fully support the Bill. We will examine it carefully and table amendments. We absolutely support the principle behind the Bill. I hope it will resolve the issue of the turf cutters and that it will not open another box of problems. Perhaps it will not do so. It raises wider issues that people have been shy about debating for years. There is nothing absolute in human existence. There are competing ecological and cultural rights all the time. There is also the basic right of people to live in their communities. There is also the value of very old, indigenous communities.

As a Dublin 4 guy, one of the things that always struck me when I went to Connemara was the surnames. They tell us a lot about settlement patterns in Ireland. If I go into the area where I live, O'Malley and Ó Cadhain are the old Gaelic names that predominate in the Joyce Country. Then there are the newcomers - de Búrca, Seoige or Joyce, and Breathnach, or as we call them, the Welsh people. That is what they are. Most people pronounce it as Walsh but we always call them Welsh because Breathnach means a Welsh person. That is where they came from in the 13th century. Then there is Ó Cuív, which came in the 20th century. In those names, one sees they are not irrelevant communities. They are history. There has been 2,000 years of habitation. Our surnames came in the 11th century and tend to be Christian names with "Ó" or "Mac" before them. We can trace these communities back to the archaeology of the area. They are as much a part of the archaeology as the archaeology itself. The preservation of vibrant communities is hugely important. I hope the Minister's officials do not see this as an end but understand it is the first step in a much bigger process that needs to take place. We need to harmonise all the goods in our society and make sure no one good trumps another and that everything is balanced.

We face a challenge in Europe. I have talked to MEPs about this and they just shrug their shoulders, throw their hands in the air and say they cannot do anything. Europeans do not fully understand our settlement pattern or that people live cheek by jowl with some of the greatest ecology in the world.

I understand that many of the special areas of conservation, SACs, in the north of Sweden, Finland and other countries are far away from human habitation. That is far more common in Europe than in this country.

I will hand over to my colleague. I look forward to debating the specific proposals in the Bill on Committee Stage. However, as I said, I hope we will not view this in a narrow context but in the context of the much wider conversation we must have with landholders, farmers and communities to arrive at a far better balance than occurred in recent years.

7:55 pm

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for sharing time to allow me to make a number of points on the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill. I do not profess to be an authority on bogs, this Bill or compensation. Other Deputies have fought this case for a long time. However, I wish to make a number of points. Fianna Fáil is committed to supporting the Bill and we look forward to making some amendments to it on Committee Stage.

Deputy Ó Cuív spoke about SACs. Significant tracts of my constituency have been designated as SACs. Compensation is an issue for SACs because the designation has made the land virtually worthless to the landowners. There is a blanket ban on afforestation in SACs at present. The principal reason given for the ban is the hen harrier. A number of targets must be met to deal with climate change, yet here we have land that is eminently suitable for forestry but we are banned from planting it. There is no common sense in the argument. Evidence is now being brought forward to show that hen harriers in habitats where there are varying degrees of growth in afforestation can thrive better. The latest figures show that the hen harrier population in SACs where there is no afforestation is declining. We must go back to basics and examine whether the blanket ban is doing what it was intended to do, protect the hen harrier. If we are to meet our forestry targets, this land is definitely the most suitable for it. It would be a huge income source for the farmers in those areas. People tend to think my county has good land, but huge tracts of the land has been designated as SACs. I visited it recently. The land is lying idle. It is not fit for commercial farm production, but it is illogical to prohibit afforestation on it. It makes no sense. This must be reviewed. In the argument about SACs, the Commission must see the common sense of what we say. I do not suggest that we plant all the SACs at once, but a staggered plantation of 70% to 80% of those areas would enhance the habitat for wildlife rather than diminish it.

The other point I wish to make has been brought forward by interest groups, gun clubs and groups interested in promoting wildlife in mountainous areas of the county. It is the restrictions on the burning of gorse on the mountainside. Gun clubs do this voluntarily to facilitate ground nesting birds. In this country burning is prohibited from the last day of February, but in the UK the practice can continue until mid-April. Unfortunately, due to the damp conditions that prevail in this country during February in most years, it is not feasible for the gun clubs to burn the gorse in February. The practice of doing so up to mid-April in the UK is working very well. This must be examined. There are four or five breeds of ground nesting birds that need cultivation to be done on the mountainside. In the Knockmealdown region of Tipperary there are gun clubs and sporting clubs that do this and the population of birds in their area is greatly enhanced by this initiative.

However, this shows the illogicality of the regulations we have. The UK, although it is due to leave the EU, is still a member of the Union tonight. It can facilitate the burning of gorse up to the middle of April, yet in this country it is banned from the last day of February. Again, this would be a practical change to the legislation in this country. It would facilitate the voluntary groups, who are enhancing the habitat on the mountainside and putting a huge effort into ensuring ground nesting birds have the food they need to thrive. I have figures from the gun clubs in south Tipperary which show that when they can do it successfully in a dry month of February, the number of birds in the area in the following autumn is greatly increased. Will the Minister examine this and consider extending the date to the middle of April? Even if we did it for a year or two and then assessed it, she would find that the bird population would be increased and the habitats enhanced.

People fail to distinguish between ground nesting birds and birds that nest in ditches. Obviously birds that nest in ditches would require the ban from the end of February, but it has been shown that ground nesting birds do not breed until well into the spring months. The Minister's Department should examine this matter. It would greatly enhance the habitats in the mountainous regions of the country.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire mar gheall ar an mBille seo a chur os comhair na Dála. Déanaim comhghairdeas freisin leis an Teachta Fitzmaurice mar gheall ar an obair atá déanta aige ar an bhfeachtas seo.

This Bill allows for the de-designation of bogs that were identified as natural heritage areas, NHAs, in 2014. It will allow for a new protected NHA bog network in place of the existing one which will be more sensitive to both ecological and human needs. What is important is that it will also allow for public consultation, something that was desperately lacking since the previous Government made a hames of implementing the EU habitats directive that was first introduced in 1997. To this day it amazes me that we had such a debacle during the term of the previous Government, especially when one sees the Bill before us today. The previous Government was absolutely rigid in dealing with turf cutters throughout the country. We should remember that not long ago we saw the images of gardaí, helicopters and so forth at bogs and recall the efforts by some to criminalise turf cutters, farmers and families simply for cutting turf, something their families had done for generations.

From my perspective, this entire process is one of social justice. It is a process in which people would have a right to heat their homes with the resource they have to hand. No compensation will ever be enough to deal with the anxiety and stress caused to farmers and families due to the threat of legal proceedings and so forth. Many of the turf cutters were not in it for the money. As a young fellow I spent summers on bogs and, as many others who had that experience will say, there is little if any money to be made from it for most families. There is no profit. It is back-breaking work and it is done by the families concerned with the objective of trying to keep themselves warm in the winter.

Our bogs are vital to our culture, environment and heritage. At almost a quarter of our land, Ireland contains a huge amount of bogland. It is a rich source of fuel, but is also vital in preventing climate change as bogs are a deep carbon store.

Once they are damaged, however, they become harmful to the environment and emit carbon into the atmosphere rather than absorbing it. Turf cutting was a way of life for turf cutters around the country, they knew what they were doing and did it on a small scale for their families and because of this, most rural turf cutters managed the pieces of bogland they had in such a way that those bogs did not become damaging to the environment and did not emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The opposite was true when it was done on an industrial scale. Over 80 years, Bord na Móna did savage damage to peatlands in the country. We now have less than 1% of active raised bogs.

It is very important that preservation takes place but that it takes place while we uphold the rights of farmers and turf cutters in the extraction of turf for their families. In 1998, Ireland transposed the EU habitats directive into law. The purpose of the law was to protect our bogland as a natural habitat. Owing to their endangerment, they were given a high priority status. The Fianna Fáil Government at the time chose which bogs would be designated as special areas of conservation, SACs. While the directive stipulated that measures must take account of economic, social and cultural requirements, in other words the needs of the people, it would appear that there was little or no public consultation at the time that these bogs were designated as areas to be conserved. It is no surprise that it was so controversial to the point that a derogation was put in place to kick the can down the road for another ten years. The Government did not, as it could have had done, seek an exemption from the European Commission to allow for the continuation of turf cutting in the public interest. There are now European infringement proceedings against Ireland, which this Bill seeks to mitigate.

Since bogs were designated as SACs, the conservation of degraded raised bogs has actually worsened. This Bill aims to take on board an assessment of how best to mitigate the destructive effects of carbon emission from damaged bogs by the de-designation of those peatlands as well as engaging in public consultation. It is an acknowledgement that management of the conservation of boglands in this State has been a failure. An outright ban on turf cutting in certain State-chosen bogs is not a solution to habitat management in of itself. Best habitat management involves leaving it in the hands of turf cutters who know what they are doing and who have been doing this for generations. In the review and consultation period, we must balance the needs of our turf cutters and adopt an acceptable strategy favourable to all for the management of raised bogs in Ireland. Undoubtedly, this Bill will confer benefits to the State in terms of reduced compensatory costs as well as environmental benefits. However, it is vital that there be a scientific assessment of the impacts on carbon emission that this new raised bog network will have to ensure that benefits to the climate are maximised.

Bogs are beautiful spaces. They are open spaces with wild flora and fauna abounding. We need to make sure that we make the proper use of them and that we develop them for leisure and tourism. There have been a few examples where bogs have been rewilded or at least developed into parks which have become very attractive for local populations and are visited by thousands of people. They are wonderful examples but there are too few of them. The issue of bogs is one of energy. I ask the Minister to ensure that measures to allow turf cutters who seek to retrospectively insulate their houses are continued in the future so that we do not forget about the energy element. If they wish to proceed down this route, the Government should allow it to happen.

I will now address the issue of sustainable energy. In the past six months, Great Britain has produced more solar power-generated electricity than coal-generated electricity. This is a startling fact given that coal was to Great Britain what turf was to Ireland and the fact it is playing such a pre-eminent role in the development of a broad-based sustainable energy package. We do not even have a solar energy industry in Ireland. It is fiercely frustrating that all of the different organisations that are trying to develop solar energy and looking for planning permission know that the route to the grid is years away. Many of the destroyed peatlands of the past and the rural areas in which they are located would make useful places for the development of solar power. I ask the Minister to at least take this into consideration and share this with individuals when she talks to the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources.

The issue of social justice in rural areas is at the heart of this. We have seen the closing down of large tracts of rural Ireland and the rebuilding of those areas on the east coast. I know of between ten and 15 schools in certain places in rural Ireland with as many new students as one single new school in the Dublin commuter belt. The attack on turf cutters in the past has been part of a swathe of attacks on rural communities. I hope that this Bill will play a part in turning this around so that rural communities can be sustainable into the future.

I will now address the issue of sustainable energy. In the past six months, Great Britain has produced more solar power-generated electricity than from coal-generated electricity. This is a startling fact given that coal was to Great Britain what turf was to Ireland and the fact that it played such a pre

8:05 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin is committed to the preservation of our national wildlife and resources, including our raised bogs. It is fair to say that most people in this country who cut turf could say the same about themselves and they would be right. I feel as if I have to say this because there has been an inclination among environmentalists to suggest that turf cutters, even those cutting only for their own personal use, are somehow careless when it comes to the environment. This could not be further from the truth, a truth that can be seen in the regard in which Irish bogs are held by environmentalists at home and abroad and the amount of wildlife which survives and thrives in our boglands.

This Bill provides the legislative basis for the implementation of the review of the raised bog natural heritage area network which was published in January 2014. This review was needed as the first designations were very badly conceived. We support this Bill noting that as result of its enactment, there will be more and bigger areas of active raised bog and degraded raised bog still capable of natural regeneration. In addition, fewer turf cutters will be required to cease cutting turf on their bog. It seems like a lot of blood, sweat and tears of frustration and rage have been shed in coming to this conclusion which was going to happen anyway. It should not be the case that a Government has to act in haste to implement an EU directive such as the habitats directive which after all has been around since 1992.

In this case, due to years of failure to protect our bogs, mainly by Fianna Fáil Governments, the situation reached crisis point with the EU threatening a fine of €9 million plus €25,000 per day thereafter due to that failure to protect our raised bogs. There were people who were led to believe that because they were involved in domestic turf cutting only, they were working under a derogation but it seems that the derogation was granted by the Minister and not by the EU. All of this involved kicking it down the road. It did not lead to anything. It kicked the problem further ahead, left us in a situation where we were not really dealing with it and we created a bigger mess as a result. This neglect of the issue led in the end to disgraceful scenes of gardaí dragging people off bogs to prevent them cutting turf as their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had done before them. The whole business had a devastating effect on some communities, made many people very angry, hurt people and put people under severe financial pressure because, of course, many of them were depending on their turbary rights to heat their homes. There were other effects as well. In my own area, people with farmland on the edge of bogs that were also designated could not farm the land properly because it came in under this area. This has created significant problems.

From when I was a child, we cut turf and reared turf on the bogs.

Like Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice, I am a bog man. There is more than one bog man in the Dáil. More than anything else, working the bog was about providing for one's family. That is what the people were doing. It was a disgrace that derogations were brought in which prevented people from doing something which they had always done in the past. It was totally wrong. While I welcome this day, it is regrettable that it took so long to get here.

The ecological destruction of our bogs by people cutting turf for domestic use is negligible compared to the massive destruction caused by the State and its neglect of environmental concerns in its turf cutting, mainly in the midlands, over many decades. Bord na Móna destroyed more bog in a couple of years than Irish people cutting turf for their own use have done over centuries. I am not just talking about turf cutting but peat milling. Across entire areas of the midlands, there are massive areas of bog where peat was milled. Bord na Móna took the surface of the bog away, piled it into big mounds, dried it and exported it for profit. This, more than anything else, has brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves. Never has any Government admitted it was responsible for doing it and was blaming the people who cut a bit of turf for it.

While the Bill is welcome, we must ensure that a similar dispute does affect our blanket bogs, where issues are arising. Domestic turf cutters in Connemara who thought they were permitted to cut turf on blanket bogs received letters from the Department last week telling them they would have to carry out an environmental impact assessment, EIA, in order to cut turf on their bogs. The Department has already carried out an EIA on the area, but despite numerous requests during the past three years, it has failed to provide it to these turf cutters. It does not seem to make sense that local people engaged in domestic turf cutting - more people are dependent on their own turf due to the financial pressure and the fact that we have a non-recovery in the west of Ireland - are being asked to fork out up to €5,000 to do an EIA when the Department has already carried out its own. The kind of pressure these people are being put under does not bode well and they hope it does not start another conflict-ridden and highly-charged dispute between the State and turf cutters. I have a copy of the letter people received from the Department telling them that an EIA statement had to be done. I hope the Minister will take the time to meet these people and come to a resolution with them. This situation must be resolved in order to avoid another debacle which might take years to resolve and impose a heavy toll on so many of those who might try to resolve it.

It is regrettable that it has taken so long to come to this conclusion. I know people who cut turf in west Cavan and around Lough Sheelin, in the Minister's constituency, who have been in a very serious and difficult situation regarding this.

8:15 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I have met them. They are sorted now.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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While I accept that great work has been done in a very short period, it is regrettable that it took so long and caused so much anguish among so many people and communities the length and breadth of the country to bring us to this day. I will support the Bill and I thank the Minister for her efforts in respect of it.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The country's bogs are very important. The Bill sets out to deal with the 75 raised bogs, most of which are in the midlands. As a Deputy representing Laois-South Kildare, this matter is very important to my area. The Bill makes provision for the redesignation of 46 NHAs, the retention of 36 NHAs and the new designation of 25 bogs previously not designated. Some of the changes make a great deal of sense, particularly as there will be a better outcome environmentally and for turf cutters. It will be impossible to restore some of the bogs designated as natural habitat areas where turf cutting was taking place. The size, shape, topography and location of many of them meant the hydrology could not be restored to a level where these bogs could become active growing bogs again. Turf cutting for domestic purposes cannot be phased out overnight. This is the one lesson to be learned. Going in and trying to bulldoze over domestic turf cutters did not work. Previous speakers covered that aspect very well. Five years ago, I said in this House that turf cutters would have to be fully involved in developing the plans. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, and other entities throughout the country have been very active in it and want to be involved in decision-making around the future of the raised bogs. I raised the issue with the Minister's predecessor, former Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, and with the Minister in the previous Dáil.

The move on the NHAs has the potential, if done right, to bring about improvements for the environment and for turf cutters. However, the Government cannot phase out turf cutting overnight. Over five years ago, we had an all-party motion in the Dáil for a national plan to be put in place for the bogs that would be designated SACs. Although progress has been slow, there are signs of movement, and I recognise this. Consultations are happening with turf cutting groups in some areas, which is welcome. In the context of a number of bogs, relocation of turf cutters is not an option. People have worked hard to try to do it. Deputy Fitzmaurice did it in different parts of the country and I was involved in my county, Laois, with turf cutting groups trying to find alternative locations, particularly regarding Coolrain bog.

Coolrain in County Laois was designated under the term of the most recent Fianna Fáil Government. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív was a Minister in that Administration. That Government also designated Knockacollier, which is right beside Coolrain. That was a strange thing to do. Several options had been examined for the relocation. Turf cutting has ceased in Knockacollier but not Coolrain. Some of the turf cutters who cut on Knockacollier want to relocate onto Coolrain, which is a very small bog. Options have been considered to relocate the turf cutters but, for various reasons, they were ruled out because they were not practical or workable. There are bogs such as Coolrain that should never have been included as SACs and sent to the EU to be included in a national plan and in the EU register of SACs. Deputy Ó Cuív will know this because he was a member of the Governments that were involved.

Four years ago, we took the trouble to go and meet people from the European Commission. We met the European Commissioner. Deputy Martin Kenny and Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh were with me. The Commissioner clearly told us the plan and the list were sent to him by the Irish Government. The Commission wanted to see a credible plan that included substantial raised bogs, and was prepared to work with the Irish Government to facilitate making changes and putting in place a plan that environmentalists and turf cutters could live with. Some work has been done on it. This happened under the watch of Fianna Fáil, who were asleep at the wheel. Worse, having made a mess of it, subsequent Fianna Fáil Governments, throughout the 2000s up to 2011, tried to give people the impression that the EU had sanctioned the derogation to allow turf cutting to continue on the SAC designated sites. The deputy Commissioner was not aware of any such derogation. There was no word of a derogation on any sheet of paper, even a sheet of paper the size of a postage stamp. The deputy Commissioner made it clear to us that no such derogation was in place.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It was not from the EU.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Ó Cuív messed up.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois, Sinn Fein)
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While the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government may not have handled it well, it inherited an awful situation. I was often critical of what the former Minister, Jimmy Deenihan did, with gardaí going onto bogs and everything that happened during the past four or five years.

It is not for me to defend the Government that entered power in 2011 but, by any objective analysis, it inherited an almighty mess that had been allowed to build over a period of 12 or 13 years by previous Governments. Let us not go back over that again. We are where we are and we must try to pull the situation together.

More than four years ago, we discussed Articles 6(3) and 6(4) of the habitats directive with the Commission and raised the possibility of de-designating some of the sites under them. We found an openness on the Commission's part that would have been relayed to our people in Ireland. Officials from the Department have been working to try to find a solution to the outstanding difficulties in respect of some bogs. While we may be critical at times, their efforts are to be commended and should be encouraged and facilitated. This is the situation that is in play, including in the case of Coolrain. Logic would dictate that it is a step in the right direction. What a pity it was not done sooner. The sooner one tries to sort out a mess, the easier it is. We were walked into this problem throughout the 2000s.

Coolrain bog cannot be restored. I have raised this point with the Minister's officials. Anyone who has read the scientific report on Coolrain bog will see that it cannot be restored as an active growing bog. It is too small and too high to retain water. Its topography does not allow for that. The scientific report is a number of years old. Works in the area mean that the chances of the bog ever being restored are zero. The Minister has many sectors to worry about, given her wide brief as Minister for a lot of issues, but this is a win-win situation. I call on her and her officials to note it.

When does the Minister hope to have the plan completed? Taking County Laois as the example, other bogs could be conserved. Abbeyleix bog is nearly four times the size of Coolrain bog and can be conserved. We want to preserve some bogs for ecological purposes, for example, as carbon sinks and for their habitat value. The Abbeyleix bog committee has installed pathways, boardwalks and signage, turning the bog into a visitor attraction. Not only will it be a carbon sink and a habitat, it will also have an amenity, tourism and educational value. It is a good example. If one wants flood attenuation, Abbeyleix bog will hold ten times as much water as Coolrain due to its topography and size. I am not an expert, but any casual look at them would show that.

We need to progress the special area of conservation, SAC, and natural heritage area, NHA, process. Hopefully, the review will allow us to achieve better outcomes for turf cutting and the environment in terms of habitats, carbon sinks and flood attenuation, all of which are important. We must facilitate the small number of domestic turf cutters, in particular on those bogs that cannot be restored. Along with that, we all have a responsibility to develop renewable sources of energy. That is where our future lies.

I hope that the Bill moves the NHA process on and that we use this opportunity in respect of SACs. I also hope that the Minister and her officials will take my points on board. I am being a little parochial but Deputy Fitzmaurice, who had a national remit with the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association and did a great deal of good work, knows of other examples around the country. It could be win-win in Laois if the Minister, her officials and the turf cutters work together.

8:25 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Bill and the debate around it highlight everything that is wrong with this and previous Governments' attitude to all environmental issues, their contempt and disregard for our natural heritage, their weasel words and pretence of concern, and their attempts to con us into believing that they are taking action when they are doing the opposite. The Bill also highlights the problem with how the environmental movement itself deals with issues that involve a conflict between ordinary people and environmental concerns.

The Bill's explanatory memorandum reads:

Section 18A(6) clarifies that amendment or revocation of a natural heritage area order means that the land in question (or the part of the land in question) ceases to be designated as a natural heritage area and restrictions relating to a natural heritage area, arising from section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, are fully removed.

We have been told by the Minister and her press office that the Bill and the review from which it came were designed to see how Ireland could "more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network". They also told us: "This will entail the phasing out by 1 January 2017 of turf cutting on 36 [sites] ... the complete de-designation of 46 natural heritage [sites] where ... restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved." I applaud the Orwellian language of "reconfiguring the network" but, to paraphrase a certain US army general, we are destroying the village in order to save it. Let us get this straight - in order to save our raised bogs, which are in areas that we designated as NHAs, we are going to de-designate them, remove whatever protection NHA status afforded them and allow further commercial and other forms of turf cutting. We are legislating in order to speed up the destruction of raised bog habitats and dressing that fact up as a reconfigured attempt to save them. Under all of the spin and nonsense is a gem of truth: we are doing this because restoration would be "prohibitively expensive".

The Minister has assured us that this de-designation will not matter because, in order to compensate for the loss of habitat within these sites, 25 undesignated raised bogs in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure will be newly designated as NHAs. What confidence can we have in any environmental commitment from the Government, given its record and the wider record of the State in dealing with this and related issues?

The last report of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, on the state of our raised bogs in 2013 found that no site was in good conservation status. Raised bogs specifically were given a bad status because of a decrease in their range, habitat, structure, function and area. Past attempts by the State to safeguard raised bogs have failed miserably. Their health, extent and survival have diminished despite the NHA status afforded them. Now it is proposed with a straight face that de-designating them will save them. This farce is incredible and insulting. As noted in the report, the active raised bog area in the whole country is less than 4,000 hectares as a result of Government failures. The Minister assures us that the Bill will protect 290 hectares of active raised bog.

As noted by the Irish Wildlife Trust, if the Government was serious about the issue, it would recognise that:

[The] value of peatlands in adapting or mitigating climate change cannot be understated, in addition to the benefits they provide in mitigating flooding and protecting water quality. It would be far more progressive and proactive to designate the additional sites while enforcing conservation of existing NHAs and SACs.

The uniqueness of the raised bog as a habitat and a natural sink for storing and sequestrating carbon is well known. Peatlands absorb 57,000 tonnes of carbon every year and store more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. Conversely, more than 4 million cubic tonnes of carbon are released from burning peatlands every year. I note with sadness the facts to which others have alluded, for example, that more than 93% of our natural heritage is gone forever. Not at the hands of individual turf cutters, but as a State policy via Bord na Móna and the ESB, with the increased commercial use of peat in gardening and so forth and as a consequence of mechanised turf cutting and commercialisation.

Even as late as 2009 and 2010, Bord na Móna extracted 1.8 million cu. m. of peat for horticultural purposes, 90% of which we exported abroad. This is neither sustainable nor necessary and should be stopped. The resources devoted to this extraction should be funnelled into preservation and conservation and those working there could be redeployed into sustainable jobs managing and extending these vital habitats.

Peat is used to produce 13% plus of our electricity and, scandalously, we are extending the use of peat-fired power plants despite our pathetic failure to reach existing targets for reducing carbon dioxide. Not only are we failing to reach these targets but the continued commercial use of our bogs will ensure an essential part in storing carbon will be destroyed in future. Instead of dealing with this, the elephant in the room, we are content on one hand to demonise ordinary rural dwellers who use small amounts of peat while simultaneously, in this Bill, de-designating natural heritage areas, NHAs, and refusing on costs grounds to allocate the resources necessary to deal with the preservation of this habitat. It is possible to conserve bogs with small-scale local use, and some of the better preserved bogs have been preserved because their small-scale usage acted to ward off the possibility of more mechanised use for afforestation and so on. I note with interest that the previous Deputy spoke at length about the Abbeyleix bog as an example of what can be done.

The question is why have we failed our environment so miserably and why this has often been presented as a conflict between environmentalist and ordinary rural dwellers seeking no more than the use of a resource used for generations to heat their homes. I am not the kind of environmentalist who cares nothing about rural people and only about rural people. I want to preserve our unique environment but believe that can be done in a way that brings the skills and knowledge of turf cutters and many in rural communities into the campaign to preserve this habitat. Any environmental protection measure that sets out in opposition to the needs of ordinary people and which often portrays them as the cause of environmental damage is bound to fail and, worse, lose the very people who are both needed in such campaigns and who should be at the forefront of such a campaign. Any environmental campaign that ignores the fact that many turf cutters come from areas of severe disadvantage, where access to fuel is an essential way of making ends meet, will not only alienate those who rely on turf for fuel but will fail at its chief goal of protecting the bogs.

Let us look at the demonisation of turf cutters in this debate and the attempted imposition of laws to stop them accessing fuel and a resource they previously and traditionally had access to. Why did we not, before designating areas as NHAs or as conservation sites, go to these communities and enlist them in the campaign for preserving these bogs? Over the past decades, the attempts to stop people harvesting turf in NHA sites have been marked by incompetence, hypocrisy and brutality. There was incompetence because a severely under-resourced National Parks and Wildlife Service did not try at the outset to win people over to the need to preserve these areas. There was hypocrisy because the levels of compensation offered were a fraction of the loss people would suffer and people would not be fooled by that. No real resources were invested in these areas and no real attempt was made to win people over or to see the potential of turf cutters and people in these areas as possible stewards who could play a vital role in restoring the health of these bogs.

If we were serious about these habitats, we should have offered free heating and energy to those affected. In a decade in which fuel and energy bills of ordinary people have rocketed, we told many rural people they could not access their own form of energy . We expected them to accept this. We should have offered jobs and opportunities in the conservation of our environment and the production of renewable energy by local co-ops. We proposed a measure in the recently passed energy Bill that would have given small-scale, local co-operative producers of renewable energy access to the national grid, but it was opposed and defeated by the Government. We could have looked at using the more than 500,000 acres of public land in Coillte's hands that cannot be used sustainably for forestry and seen how we could use them with local communities affected by NHA sites. We could have, inventively and with proper resourcing, won allies in local communities in the fight to preserve our environment and raised bogs. We could have funded local co-ops in forming renewable energy hubs and sustainable land management practices. We could have done this with the same vigour and largesse with which we throw tax incentives at multinationals and corporations. Instead we understaff and under-resource the National Parks and Wildlife Service, we offer derisory compensation to turf cutters and we pretend that individual turf cutting is the reason for the destruction of our bog habitats instead of the greater commercial exploitation of bogs overseen by vested interests.

Unfortunately, many in this debate play into the idea that the divide in this and other environmental issues is between an enlightened environmentalist lobby and a rapacious, greedy local bunch of gombeens. That is a huge mistake. With proper resourcing, rural dwellers can be advocates and defenders of these types of habitats and they can be the front line in preserving our unique environment. As long as we offer no real alternative to them, however, bar to tell them to stop using this resource and take the financial hit for the rest of us, we will never convince them or ever really win allies in these environmental battles. We oppose the de-designation of the NHA sites, and as the record of this and previous Governments suggests, this is not an attempt to preserve our heritage but to facilitate its destruction, as I have stated.

I want to end by emphasising that I believe this destruction is not at the hands of individual turf cutters but at the hands of State-sponsored bodies for commercial and industrial extraction. It could have been a sign that we are serious about our raised bogs if we had kept the existing NHAs and added to them while addressing the genuine concerns of local people and turf cutters. If we did that while switching from peat use in electricity generation and in horticulture, we could take the Government seriously. Instead we have another shameful chapter in the environmental record of this and previous Governments.

8:35 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I welcome this legislation. In 2014, RPS scientifically examined many of the bogs that we have said for years were not suitable for conservation. It formulated a list of bogs used by ordinary domestic turf cutters throughout the country and especially in the west. I have listened to this debate and it is domestic turf cutters, ordinary people living in rural villages throughout this country, who have been affected by this right throughout the midlands.

We heard the debate earlier and, rightly or wrongly, Ireland decided to set up Bord na Móna. It gave us much employment and people did their best at the time. It is very easy to come in 40 or 50 years later and be scathing about the objectives when Bord na Móna was set up. It provided much employment in the midlands and heated houses. People around the west sleáned turf during the Emergency and it was brought to the Phoenix Park to keep the people of Dublin warm. We should not just slate the company for what was done as there were many pluses in its time. As chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, I have always spoken for domestic turf cutting. This involves people who just use enough for their own house each year. They are in many socially deprived areas and places with small farms or marginal land throughout the country.

The bogs being de-designated now will provide a way forward. I see Mr. Brian Lucas over there, and since he came on board, things have moved forward in a more positive way.

There is a lot of fear on both sides of this argument, where relationships developed that were through the years became strained. At long last, however, we are starting to build those relationships again. I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation before the House. It was promised earlier in the year but did not materialise. I thank the Minister for bringing it before the House now.

Debate adjourned.