Thursday, 23 September 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for being here to address this issue. There are many things that need to be fixed in Ballycroy and County Mayo, including broadband, mobile phone coverage, roads, housing and health. However, one of the things that did not need to be fixed was the name of Ballycroy National Park, which has been changed to Wild Nephin National Park. The people of Ballycroy and its diaspora throughout the world are extremely angry that this decision has been made. Nobody asked for it and nobody was consulted about it. Who made the decision and when was it made? When we know that, I will expect that person to reverse or overturn the decision.
I do not want the Minister of State to give me the letter that Deputy Calleary and I have already received as an answer on this issue. It points out to me the names of areas such as the parish of Kiltane, Bangor Erris, Ballymunnelly, Bellacorick, Newport, Mallaranny, Srahmore, Derra, Tubridge, Keenagh and Altnabrocky. I come from Ballycroy, next door to the national park. I know all those places, where they are and their size, so I ask the Minister of State to please not repeat that to me. The letter states that the wish is to reduce confusion. The Minister of State might tell me who is confused. It is certainly not me, Deputy Calleary, the people of Ballycroy or the members of its diaspora who are confused about this. It seems that the Government is confused and completely out of touch with what is happening in these areas. People ask me many things but nobody has ever asked me to change the name of Ballycroy National Park.
Ballycroy National Park was established in 1998. The visitor centre at Ballycroy was opened in 2009. At establishment, it had 11,000 ha of some of the most rare and precious bogland in the world and that was to be at its heart. There was never any difficulty with the name Ballycroy National Park. Ballycroy is a centre and a community. It was the people of the area who campaigned for the visitor centre in the first instance. It was they who put their land up and who are the guarantors of the land we are supposed to be protecting.
The national park was added to in 2017 with another 4,000 ha from a Coillte industrial process. That is now being used as the reason the name of the park needs to be changed to Wild Nephin National Park. We are also being told by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, that Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park is too long. I point out to the Minister of State that there is a national park in Scotland named Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Killarney National Park comprises 10,500 ha that extend way beyond Killarney but nobody is suggesting removing Killarney from its name.
This decision speaks to more than just a name. Deputy Conway-Walsh referred to the lack of consultation. Nobody will take responsibility for this. The fact that a decision such as this can be made without any engagement with the community or public representatives speaks to a system that thinks it is not answerable to anybody. It speaks to a system that thinks it does not have to answer for decisions. That is happening across so many areas. As Deputy Conway-Walsh stated, the name of the national park is incredibly important to the people of Ballycroy and its diaspora, but this is also about the principle of how this was and is being done. There is a hope that we will go away and accept it. I know that Deputy Conway-Walsh and I will not do that. It was previously agreed that it would be known as the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park. Why was that changed and who changed it?
When the extra land was added, it was identified for rewilding. Experts proved at that time that the direct participation of local communities would be essential to rewilding. With this decision, the NPWS is destroying participation by communities. It needs to be stopped now.
I thank the Deputies for raising this very important matter that I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who sends his apologies for not being able to be present. He has asked me to assure the Deputies that his Department is deeply committed to the development of the national park in Mayo.
In December 2017, the Department with responsibility for heritage announced the expansion of Ballycroy National Park to include the area known as Wild Nephin. This expansion was the result of a long-standing collaborative project between Coillte and the NPWS of the Department. The addition of the Wild Nephin area and, separately, a private acquisition of 1,200 acres at Altnabrocky have expanded the total size of the park to more than 15,000 ha of the Nephin Beg mountain range. The expansion adds significantly to the overall biological diversity of the national park, which will be augmented further under park conservation management.
With the consolidation of the entire Wild Nephin area into the ownership of the NPWS, the potential for the park is enormous. One of the major advantages of this consolidation of land is that access to the national park, which historically had been problematic, will be greatly improved. The expanded park will be the key link from the Great Western Greenway going north into Bangor Erris and Ballycastle and will be an important tourist hub and a gateway for cyclists and hikers from the greenway into north Mayo.
These acquisitions also mean that some 65% of State-owned lands making up the park are outside the Ballycroy catchment area. Of the circa 15,000 ha making up the national park, 33% is in the parish of Ballycroy, 26% is in the parish of Kiltane, approximately 20% is in the parish of Burrishoole and 20% in the parish of Crossmolina. Included in this are the 4,200 ha leased from Coillte and the acquisition at Altnabrocky, neither of which is within the parish of Ballycroy.
The name change is intended to assist the integration of the original park and the newly acquired land fully into the Nephin Beg mountain range in the north Mayo landscape, to integrate with all the communities in the townlands in question and to provide a clearer indication of the location to tourists and reduce confusion, especially in terms of the Nephin wilderness area.
The new name provides a clearer indication and reflection of the entire landscape, which fully represents this unique area on an international platform, with International Union for Conservation of Nature recognition for Ireland's sixth national park.
The Minister of State has not answered any of my questions. He did what I asked him not to do, which was repeat the written answers that Deputy Calleary and I have been given already. We asked who made the decision, when it was made and whether it is going to be overturned or reversed. Nobody has asked for this. If there is nobody capable, within the Department or politically, of marketing, advertising and branding Ballycroy National Park, and the name needs to be changed to Wild Nephin National Park when nobody asked for it, then its capacity needs to be looked at seriously. Why does this Government do these things to people? Why does it insult people, when national parks and wildlife and Government have enjoyed the co-operation of landowners and people around the national park? For many years, relationships have been built up but they have been destroyed.
The make-up of the national park and the percentage of parishes within it has not changed much with the addition. It was always thus and it was always fine when it was called Ballycroy National Park. There was no demand for the other parishes to have their name attached to it. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is not the line Minister. I ask him to go back to question the process. We need to know who is responsible and who has the power to take such decisions.
Finally, the Minister of State said that the name change is to provide a clearer indication of the location to tourists. I assure him that somewhere such as Ballycroy can be found. It is not just a place; it is a community that is strong and proud. It fought hard for this park and for the creation of it, and made sacrifices doing so. It will fight hard to retain its name in the naming of the national park. Wild Nephin is not an area. It is a marketing concept, which we all support and we see the benefits of, but it is not immediately identifiable to visitors. I ask the Minster of State to talk to his colleagues and get them to see sense on this, and to challenge the process that ignores people in the way this is.
I thank the Deputies for bringing up what is clearly a most important matter for them both and for County Mayo. I am not in a position to answer the specific questions on who made the decision and when it was made, and on the issues in respect of consultation, but I understand and hear the incredible importance of the name to the Deputies. I will certainly bring those points to the relevant Minister. I thank the Deputies again.
While the name has changed to better represent the areas the national park inhabits, the commitment of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to both Ballycroy and the national park remains unchanged. The official state-of-the-art visitor centre remains in Ballycroy village. The Department of is currently developing proposals, in conjunction with Mayo County Council and Fáilte Ireland, to upgrade and invest in this area, including examining the potential for a planetarium and observatory to complement the national park's designation as a gold tier dark sky park. The location of the visitor facility in Ballycroy village and the associated walks and educational facilities, which attract visitors to Ballycroy, will remain on all road signage in the region as we continue to grow the visitor numbers and new link to both the parish of Ballycroy and the wider north Mayo region, with the support of Mayo County Council.
Overall, this reflects the ongoing commitment of all stakeholders to improve the recreational potential of this area while ensuring the high standards of nature conservation. This Government is committed to preservation and presentation of our natural heritage for future generations of citizens and visitors alike to enjoy. In a nutshell, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is looking to improve the recreational potential and visitor amenities of our national heritage sites, whilst also ensuring the high standards of nature conservation. I hear the Deputies' questions and comments and I will convey them to the Minister.