I congratulate the Green Party on introducing this Bill. The Labour Party will support it at 1.30 p.m. Like much legislation that comes before the House, the Bill requires amendment. Many authors of legislation are willing to facilitate such amendment and, no doubt, the Green Party will be willing to do the same.
I wish to declare my interest at the outset. I am a member of Keep Ireland Open. I am a weekly hill walker now that I have more time to indulge in the activity. I have experienced at first hand the ranting, foaming, raging anger of aggressive and intimidating farmers who have screamed and roared at people, including women and young children. It is not a pleasant sight. In this case the people were not trying to go on to clearly designated private land but to walk up a tarred road that was a continuation of what appeared to be a public road. I refer to an area in Bunowen-Ballyconneely in Connemara. I met tourists who were trembling because they had been confronted and shouted at by farmers on the side of Glen Inagh and who inquired if it would be possible for them to walk up the Maam Turks down which I had just descended. The figures speak for themselves. They have decreased from 322,000 to 241,000 people. We do not know how many of these individuals are walkers because we do not posses the raw data. It might be interesting, in the context of rural tourism, for the CSO and the bodies responsible for policy to provide a breakdown of these figures. Perhaps some qualitative research could be undertaken in order that we could deduce whether there is a problem.
As a citizen of this Republic, I have a problem because access to the countryside is a presumed convention, not a right. While the legislation may not be complete or satisfactory, there is no doubt that we need to consider the legal basis upon which we can construct an integrated policy. The legal position, referred to with some authority by Deputy Deenihan, on the right to roam and rights of way is — for a host of legal and historical reasons with which Members will be familiar — fundamentally different from that in Great Britain. The Labour Party studied this matter and published its view in its policy manifesto for the most recent general election. The manifesto states:
Labour recognises that hill walking and countryside rambling have now become pastimes that thousands of our citizens and many tourists enjoy. We firmly support the right to roam. We will, in consultation with local community groups and landowners, explore ways how this can be recognised and enhanced while protecting the property and livelihood of the farming community. The social partners, including farming organisations, have a positive role to play in this development.
The logic of the establishment of Comhairle na Tuaithe follows this path.
The right to roam, as distinct from rights of way, is what hill walkers want. They do not necessarily want to be corralled down a series of lanes. Most hill and recreational walkers will state that, given a choice, the last place they want to be is on a waymarked way on a tertiary or minor road because they must walk in fear of their lives. In summer, when the hedgerows have not been trimmed back, visibility for both drivers and walkers is limited. It is dangerous to walk or drive down such roads during the summer months. By definition, many of the waymarked ways, including large sections of the Wicklow Way, run on tarred road surfaces which are open to multiple vehicle use and which, consequently, are not as safe as one would like.
Hill walkers, including me, many others and members of Keep Ireland Open, want the right to roam across open countryside above a certain level. Historically, the land to which I refer has been the commonage. It amounts to 500,000 acres and is owned by 12,000 farmers in a complex and old form of legal ownership which makes legislation extremely difficult to construct. What we are seeking — as are Keep Ireland Open and others interested in this matter — is the right to roam, subject to codes, conditions, etc., above a certain level. The figure frequently touted in respect of the latter is 150 metres or 500 feet above sea level and above all arable farming activity. However, getting from a public roadway to that level of commonage causes problems in many instances. It is in this context that we need to consider the introduction of legislation following consultation. I am convinced that some form of legislation will be required and that this will probably entail amending the Occupiers Liability Act 1995 which my former colleague, Mervyn Taylor, introduced.
Farming communities have legitimate concerns, particularly when one reads the judgment handed down in the Donegal case. I wish to refer to part of that judgment in the interests of balance. If this happened to me, I would be incensed. In the case in question a young woman who had sustained elbow and leg injuries after falling down a cliff at a County Donegal beauty spot was awarded damages of more than €84,000. Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1995, it was found that she had been 25% negligent and that the owner of the land had been 75% negligent. The woman involved left a local restaurant and walked to a nearby and well known beauty spot where she slipped and hurt herself. Whatever about the validity of her claim — the judgment in the case is under appeal — it has understandably helped to transform the debate.
We must all openly recognise — I include myself — that landowners faced with that kind of judgment have legitimate concerns. We can do two things: first, we can simply do nothing and allow the status quo to remain in place in the hope consultations involving Comhairle na Tuaithe will resolve matters; or, second, we can recognise that there is a need to change the law. It is my view that there is a need to change the law. Pending the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment, however, the precise form of that change remains unclear. I ask the Minister, or some other speaker on the Government side, to respond to this matter at some stage. From the way the taking of this legislation has been dealt with by the two Ministers involved, Deputies Roche and Ó Cuív, it is clear that there is a shared political responsibility between their Departments. This is a serious issue.
Deputy Dennehy asked why this matter had come to the fore now rather than five, ten or 15 years ago. The answer is that it has become an issue, on two fronts, because of money. First, farming incomes are static, if not declining. Over 70% of farming income comes from taxpayers. By and large, farming incomes have diminished relative to those earned by the remainder on this island and they are increasingly, regardless of how many in urban areas would like to assert the opposite, falling behind. The second reason is — this is, in part, one of the given reasons for the reaction in Sligo — that farmers have discovered in local book shops guides to walks in their areas. These guides which recommend walking routes and trails over lands owned by such farmers and offer advice on suggested points at which people may enter and exit those lands, are being sold commercially and involve no consultation with the farmers to whom I refer. The profits from the sale of these books go to the authors, not the farmers. It is understandable the latter are of the opinion they should obtain part of the profits these authors are getting from organising these walks.
The size of the walks to which I refer is different. The Minister will be familiar with the position at Scar, County Wicklow. Four weeks ago we encountered a group of 35 people on one particular walk there. Some of the individuals involved also had mountain bikes. If one is walking in an area where the land is being used for grazing and other purposes, damage can be done. Standards must be set. Fortunately, Scar happens to be part of the public property. One of the reasons publicly owned uplands in County Wicklow are heavily used is they are one of the few areas of uplands to which one can go without feeling uncertainty as regards the reaction of landowners. I know of a particular guided tour walker in the west who has effectively had to move out of the business because of this ambiguity. His customers were being berated by farmers and were then asking him if he had them there on false pretences because they had paid €15 or whatever per head and appeared to be in breach of the law.
There is an absolute need for legislation and legislative clarity. The Green Party's Bill provides the basis on which to proceed in that regard. There is a need to address the question of obtaining rights of way, in terms of access, from the public domain — public roads and network systems — across privately owned lands and on to uplands commonage where people have a right to roam. If we are going to do this, I suggest that it should be done in an integrated way. We must clarify legally the right to roam on uplands. We must also agree access and rights of way in moving from the public space of a road through a series of fields in order to reach the uplands. The limit of liability should be designated very clearly to the point of zero if that can be done properly. It is a matter for lawyers and others to get the balance right. We must clarify to the minimal point possible the exposure of property owners in respect of allowing people to walk across their land. Those tracks must be clearly designated and there must be provision of stiles and other physical artefacts to enable people to cross boundaries without damaging them. I have seen damaged walls where inconsiderate walkers have taken down stones to get over a wall or have climbed over a stone wall and have not had the decency to take the extra ten or 15 minutes to put the stones back in again. Consequently sheep are lost or some damage is done to livestock in the area.
This is a two-way process and it must be a partnership. There are responsibilities as well as rights for people like me who want to enjoy ourselves on other people's land, which is what we are asking for the right to do, in effect. Where a local authority has, following consultation, recognised that in the designated area of that authority there may be a need for four or five kilometres of defined tracks and defined points of access to rights of way, the owners of that land or people close to them could be given some kind of payment for the maintenance of the upkeep of those stiles. Somebody must be responsible to ensure that the stiles and the crossings are kept in good condition. The local authority would have a role to play in this regard. I suggest to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that a local authority, particularly in those areas where this is a significant activity, would be responsible for maintaining a watch on rights of way and access and ensuring that any potential problems, such as a stile in a clearly dangerous condition, are rectified so that they do not cause a person serious injury. These matters must be considered.
The potential for integrated tourism is enormous. I received a letter which describes what was done in County Leitrim but the writer says it would not be possible to do the same thing now:
We returned to Manorhamilton and set up a Glens Hillwalking Committee. We raised £5,000 approx to pay for our marketing tools, namely Brochures (in German, French and English), Hillwalking Videos, and Guidebooks. Thirty two different suitable routes were identified, which involved finding out who the owners were — over 150 landowners were approached and consents obtained; the start of each walk was signposted and given a number; each walk was tested before final publication and public liability was taken out. We set up and promoted our Hillwalking Festivals held here each Easter and October. Finally, having done all this we got all the accommodation provided in the area to join together and form the North Leitrim Accommodation Co-Op . . . I firmly believe that if some person or group were to set about the work detailed in the above paragraph today, they would find it impossible to make any progress due to the anti-hillwalking feelings now prevalent and the problems with insurance.
Integrated rural development groups may be able to undertake these kind of activities. Under the derelict sites legislation of the late 1980s, in the case of a derelict building of which the ownership is unclear, there is a provision for a local authority to put a confiscation order on the building following due process. That property can be acquired by the local authority and renovated for use as a hostel. Alternatively, groups of farmers in particular areas and with financial assistance could provide overnight accommodation for campers and charge them for that service and for food, as referred to by the Minister for Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs in his contribution.
This is more than just about access and rights of way although of necessity those are the narrow confines of the Bill. It is about how recreation in rural Ireland is dealt with. An eminent Irish landscape architect, Mr. Conor Skehan, said at a recent conference that if one were to look at the future of commercial farming on this island when the reforms in agriculture have concluded in 15 to 20 years' time or probably even sooner, one could draw a line from Dublin south-west to Limerick and everything north of that line would be outside the territory of viable commercial agriculture. In those circumstances the configuration and appearance of the landscape will change dramatically by virtue of the change of its use. If we wish to use land for recreational purposes and sustain rural communities, not all of whom are directly involved in agriculture, we need to have an integrated and proactive plan which is not in place. One of the reasons for that is because of the legal uncertainty about compensation, insurance liability, rights of access and the right to roam.
This is fundamentally a legislative problem which the Oireachtas must address. The Green Party Bill goes part of that way and it is welcome. I ask the Government to accept the Bill, refer it to a relevant committee of the House and bring forward constructive measures to add to and improve it.