(Laoighis-Offaly): I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is good to have an opportunity to discuss this very important issue not alone in its own right but as part of the wider responsibility which the Minister and the Department have for heritage and conservation. While welcoming this debate I was most disappointed to hear Deputy de Valera personalise and in some cases try to trivialise this debate. Phrases such as “the Minister dancing excitedly to his desk” etc. may go down well in a student debate in a university but they do not do justice to the seriousness of this issue or to the work the Minister has done since coming into office. Having listened to Deputy de Valera last night one would think the Minister had done nothing since coming into office. She claimed vicarious association and compliments for everything the Minister had done as having been done by previous Fianna Fáil Ministers, that Teilifís na Gaeilge had been in operation for the past four or five years and that the film industry had been revived somewhere in the last decade. No attention was paid to the great strides made in protecting our natural heritage, greater policy direction and greater administrative and financial backup. The Minister's record in this regard bears no comparison. Deputy de Valera almost said there was no need for this Department although the achievements of the Department and the Minister in recent years indicated the need for this Department.
The directive we are discussing has been around since 1992. Prior to this Department being set up little attention had been given to it. In the intervening years between 1992 and 1994 we had the split function of the Office of Public Works whereby policy was decided by one Department and implemented by another. That too was unsatisfactory. It is only since the transfer of the heritage services division to the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht earlier this year that there has been real action on this and many other issues. Deputy de Valera more or less said this area of activity was fine when it was a subsidiary section of the Department of the Taoiseach and there had been definite achievements in that Department. It is more desirable for this matter to be treated in its own right in its own Department rather than remain as the personal playground of any Taoiseach or Minister. That we can have accountability for this type of activity through a Minister and a Department is preferable in terms of the interest which Members have in monitoring what is going on and influencing that process.
This matter and indeed many others would not receive the same attention had not the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the National Monuments and Historic Property Service and the Inland Waterways Service been transferred this year to the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Those services now have a higher profile, better policy direction and more funding at their disposal to implement their plans. An example of this can be found in the type of work being done by all three services under the National Development Plan where large sums of European funding have been secured by the Minister through negotiation for those important areas of our natural heritage. Deputy de Valera and everybody in the House will make every effort to be associated with the developments taking place in all our constituencies but it is only because a specific Department was set up with specific functions assigned to it, funding provided and policy direction given that we are witnessing action in that area.
In this debate we are concerned about the implementation of the 1992 habitats directive. Sometimes people are confused by the titles of these directives and think we are talking about another planet. We are talking about an important part of our natural heritage, elements of which make this country attractive to visitors. It is important therefore that we afford them proper protection to ensure that our heritage continues to be a major source of attraction to overseas visitors.
The habitats directive deals with the introduction of provisions to cover two areas: the protection of species and the protection of habitats. These measures are necessary to conserve the most important flora and fauna habitats and to ensure Ireland is well represented at the NATURA 2000 initiative of the European Union — that is the designation and promotion of a community wide network of sites of natural heritage importance. Given the pride in our natural heritage it is imperative that as many elements as possible are recognised, protected and promoted at European level. It is important to be at the forefront of this movement and not be seen to drag our heels. When we advertise our wares in the stalls of the European Union to attract visitors here we display, first, our natural heritage and, second, our cultural heritage. We should be seen to be the vanguard of this type of protection. Obviously this type of policy development needs to be implemented with sensitivity following consultation with other interests. The concerns of people who are affected at local level need to be addressed.
In his contribution last night the Minister stated that all interests, farming, environmental and conservation, need to be consulted as all share a common objective to protect our environment in a way which enhances rural development. I welcome the Minister's commitment prior to this debate, to ongoing consultation in implementing the directive. That is the only way to proceed and ensure local support for the types of initiatives we are endeavouring to have implemented.
I was very heartened that the Minister acknowledged the farming community's contribution as custodians of our national heritage. With proper consultation and the necessary elements built in I am hopeful this type of initiative will represent a landmark in the practical recognition of the role of members of the farming community in this respect.
Since entering the EEC in 1973 the farming community has been pushed and pulled in many different directions. They were initially encouraged to modernise, develop and increase production. Then there were policy changes in Brussels, the wind blew from another direction, when farmers were pressured into set-aside, production limitations and capping of many developmental projects they had previously been encouraged to undertake. With the positive engagement of the farming community in the conservation of our natural heritage, this type of initiative will complement those already in train under REPS. This process has the potential to build on lessons learned in other member states where farmers are clearly recognised by the wider community as performing a function in the protection of their national heritage for the common good. As we move beyond the expiry of the present tranche of Structural Funds in 1999 into the 21st century this type of approach will become ever more important. Whatever about the overall Community budget, tremendous pressure will be brought to bear on its agricultural element. In enhancing farmers' role in the conservation of our natural environment we shall ensure the existence of a genuine explorative element in respect of rural Ireland when the next round of Structural Funds come on stream.
Within the proposals being discussed by the Minister's Department, a number of different types of areas are being proposed, including natural heritage areas, their proposed and designated aspects, special areas of conservation and special protection areas. Under the heading of proposed natural heritage areas there are approximately 1,200, comprised of some 750,000 hectares, a large portion of the country, for listing as important wildlife conservation areas, most of which have already been advertised in local and regional papers. We are now talking about converting them from proposed to designated areas.
The designation of national heritage areas to some degree has already been taken into account under REPS. I urge the Minister to introduce and implement the necessary legislation for their designation as soon as possible. It is important that Members are afforded an opportunity to examine that designation procedure. The Minister has said these areas will have to be taken into account by local authorities in their local development plans.
I understand that an amendment of the 1976 Wildlife Act will be necessary to allow that procedure to take place. I presume the amendment will provide for an appeals procedure. Where necessary, I urge the Minister to clarify the compensatory arrangements that will arise in certain cases.
A number of natural heritage areas will be selected for designation as special areas of conservation, selected from the best NHAs, identified initially by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I anticipate a process of advertisement and public notification, with provision for an appeals procedure and that our national list will be finalised as soon as possible for submission to Brussels for inclusion in the European network of such sites. As best practice dictates — I accept the Minister's assurances in this respect — the National Parks and Wildlife Service will consult the farming community on appropriate changes in farming practices with regard to special areas of conservation ensuring that, whenever and wherever action is necessary for the protection of a site, compensation will be forthcoming.
Similarly, under the birds directive, in the case of special protection areas, proposed action will be advertised in local and regional papers with a similar appeals mechanism applicable. I am aware that many farmers in such areas adopt measures amenable to the conservation of various species within their locality. Whenever and wherever such changes are necessary to implement these protective measures I hope that level of financial support will be payable. While critics may allege that the farming community is looking for more money that is not what we are talking about here. The Minister has clearly recognised their value and importance in the protection of our national heritage. I anticipate that the consultation process to which he has committed himself will result in measures on which all party consensus can be reached. He has already indicated his willingness and that of his departmental officials to compromise in this area and acknowledged that, whenever financial support is necessary — in some cases to ensure that our objectives are attained — it will be forthcoming.
I commend the Minister's action in this area, I support his amendment to the motion and urge him to proceed expeditiously with the introduction of the relevant legislation.
With the permission of the House, I should like my remaining time shared between Deputies Ring, McCormack and Nealon.