Seanad debates

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and look forward to the good news, if that is what he has for me. This matter has gone on too long and it is time to lance the boil once and for all. Everyone realises it is only through dialogue that one makes headway. I tabled this Adjournment matter seeking an immediate, binding and independent mediation process for that reason. It is the only manner in which I can envisage this conflict being brought to a satisfactory conclusion. All Members realise from their life experience and the various matters with which they have been obliged to deal before entering this House and thereafter that matters only get sorted through dialogue. This is how all disputes end sooner or later. Consequently, I ask loudly, why not sooner and why not now?

Valued jobs in tourism are at stake because of this blockade which I believe would be lifted immediately were there to be dialogue or were a mediation process to be put in place. There is no point in allowing it to fester or to get further out of hand. As for the picket before Killarney National Park at Muckross, which is the jewel in the crown of tourism, many people have a natural respect for pickets and will not pass them while others regard such pickets as intimidation. In any event, business is suffering seriously as a result and the tourism season had been poor even without this dispute.

I should stress there are two bodies of jarveys in Killarney. The town jarveys have initiated a court action in the High Court against the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, and only God knows when it will be heard, although I believe it has been up for mention a few times. I am referring to the other group and to the blockade of Muckross House. I am assured the jarveys at Muckross House have nothing to do with the town jarveys' action against the Department. They both have been locked out of the park because of their failure to date to use the dung catchers. Rightly or wrongly, they believe their case has not been heard. While I am not here to defend anyone, I am greatly concerned that the blockade of Muckross, to which the Garda has been called a number of times, constitutes a great hindrance to the tourism industry and everyone in the general area is concerned.

An important point is that there is an innocent injured party in this affair, namely, the shop and the fine garden restaurant to the side of Muckross House which is run by a trustees' company, the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Limited. Apparently the takings in these enterprises have fallen greatly on foot of this ongoing dispute. They are completely innocent in this matter, the protest is not against them and they have no axe to grind. I must confess that in common with about 15 others, I am a trustee. We worked harmoniously with the Office of Public Works when it had responsibility and now do so with the Department in the form of the NPWS. Huge losses are being incurred and that company cannot trade at a loss. There are corporate governance procedures involved and there is company law and consequently we cannot trade at a loss because that would constitute reckless trading. If this continues for another week or three, protective notice will have to be issued to the staff there. This would be sad because they all are good people who provide a wonderful service.

I will not labour the point further as the Minister of State has the picture. I hope there can be dialogue. I appeal to the Minister of State and to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, to use their good offices to provide for dialogue because were it given the green light, there would be an immediate lifting of the blockade. Moreover, once such a process was binding, a satisfactory solution would be forthcoming.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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As the Senator is aware, the national parks and wildlife service of my Department is trying to resolve the issue of horse dung in Killarney National Park by requiring that jaunting cars must be equipped with dung-catching devices when entering the park. The horse dung on the roads in the park is unsightly and smelly, is at odds with the national park ethos, conflicts with the beautiful landscape and is unattractive to tourists. It also is a health and safety issue because it can cause dangerous underfoot conditions for path users, including people on bicycles, and could also give rise to cross-contamination, for example, from shoes or children's buggies bringing dung into family cars, the Muckross restaurant and so on.

The national parks and wildlife service manages the park for the enjoyment and benefit of all. Jarveys benefit financially from their utilisation of the park. The Department believes it is entirely reasonable that those who are responsible for the soiling of the roads in the park should co-operate in minimising the degradation of the environment of the park for others and should not expect the taxpayer to foot the bill for cleaning up after them.

There has been a long process of consultations with the jarveys for approximately two years. A process of practical trialling of the devices has been carried out and repeated demonstrations of the device have been provided by the NPWS. These demonstrations, backed up by expert equine and veterinary advice, show the dung catchers do work and are safe to use. The national parks and wildlife service has made its experts available for discussion and consultation during the process but this has not been availed of by the jarveys who have not engaged in any meaningful way on this issue.

This matter is currently the subject of a High Court judicial review case being brought by the jarveys. Last July, the High Court ruled against an injunction application by the jarveys seeking to restrain the national parks and wildlife service from prohibiting access by them to the park for not using the devices. Following that High Court ruling, in an attempt to advance matters in a peaceful way the NPWS decided to allow the jarveys back into the park and proposed the use of an independent facilitator to facilitate the introduction of dung catchers. The NPWS experienced further delays in trying to put such facilitation in place and in the event, when the facilitator finally managed to initiate the process in mid-September 2009, he advised the NPWS that he could not advance matters as the jarveys would not engage with him. This was a most regrettable turn of events for all concerned.

The NPWS has at all times been more than reasonable and patient in its dealings with the jarveys. At this stage, in the face of non co-operation and in the wider public interest, the NPWS has once again been left with little option but to implement the requirement that dung catchers must be used on jaunting carts. While NPWS could have done this in July following the jarveys' failed High Court action it did not to do so at the time and waited until towards the end of the visitor season to minimise any implications it might have for the jarveys.

I reiterate that the decision to require dung catchers was taken after a long period of effort, consultation and investigation on the part of the NPWS and the jarveys have had more than ample opportunity to engage in the process but have chosen not to do so. The NPWS is obliged under statute to manage the national park and this obligation has already been affirmed by the High Court. The matter is now before the High Court again for judicial review and in all the circumstances there is no merit in revisiting all the previously discussed issues anew through further layers of mediation. The NPWS has received much support for its actions in dealing with this issue locally, including from the trustees of Muckross House.

In conclusion, it is not the NPWS that excluded the jarveys from the park but rather it is the jarveys who have taken the deliberate decision to exclude themselves by their non co-operation in using this safe and internationally successful device, which is being offered free of charge to them and which would improve the environment of the park for all. Now that we are into the quiet tourism period, I call for co-operation from the jarveys and I appeal to them that they use this time to accustom their horses to the devices and so that we move forward in co-operation to the mutual benefit of all.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I am not in a position to argue with the Minister of State on the facts. The Minister of State is correct in commenting that the park is beautiful and that we all want to keep it correctly but I see the courts as a last resort. I refer to the Muckross jarveys, not the town jarveys who initiated the judicial review process to which the Minister of State refers. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Department had predetermined the case. I am not aware that this is the case. I do not act for them, nor do I hold a brief for anyone in this matter. I hope the Minister of State sees me for what I am, namely, an honest broker. I want to see resolution of this dispute and I do not want to see the interests of the trustees of Muckross House, no more than those of the Department or the park, suffer any more.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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It was not the Department that initiated a High Court action. The opportunity for consultation exists and I have no doubt the NPWS is open to discussion. It is appropriate that consultation and discussion take place during the quiet tourism period to see if this matter can be resolved in time for the new season. The decision on the device has been taken.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Can the Minister give me a name of someone who will enter into genuine dialogue with the jarveys? I emphasise that I want to get the blockade lifted from the gates of the national park. That is the only issue I am dealing with. I appreciate what the Minister of State said and I am aware of the court action, which was initiated by the town jarveys. The Muckross jarveys have nothing to do with it. They have stressed that they will lift their blockade immediately if there is someone they can mediate with. The mediation should be binding. I would appreciate if the Minister of State gave me a name.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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The consultation concerns the fact that the devices must be put on the horses or vehicles by the jarveys. I will ask the Department to consult with Senator Coghlan but the decision has been made and these devices must be worn.