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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 3 Dec 2013

Vol. 823 No. 2

Other Questions

Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme

Denis Naughten


6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if he will review the content and conditions of contracts issued to turf cutters under the cessation scheme; the number of contracts issued and the numbers returned to date; the number under each compensation or relocation category; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51402/13]

My question relates to the binding agreement that was issued by the Department to bog owners and turf cutters regarding the cessation of turf cutting.

The difficulty is that if people do not have a relocation site in place within the time period, the Department can provide them with an alternative, which might be just a €1,500 compensation package, without access to bog relocation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter this afternoon.

Under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme, three types of legal agreements have been and are being issued by my Department. First is a legal agreement for qualifying turf cutters who are signing up to the annual payment of €1,500, index-linked, for 15 years. Second is a relocation interim legal agreement for qualifying turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation, but where no relocation site is currently available for them to relocate to. This relocation interim legal agreement provides for the payment of €1,500, index-linked, or a supply of 15 tonnes of cut turf per annum, while these applicants are awaiting relocation to non-designated bogs. Third is a relocation final legal agreement. This agreement has been issued to qualifying turf cutters where a site has been assessed as suitable for relocation and is ready, or can be made ready, for use for domestic turf cutting. Turf cutters who sign and return the applicable legal agreement to my Department will also receive a once-off incentive payment of €500.

The interim legal agreement is required in the case of relocation sites because, for the majority of raised bog special areas of conservation, the relocation site and the terms and conditions applicable to those sites will take time to finalise. Turf cutters are being asked to sign the interim agreement, on the understanding that when a relocation site is sourced, assessed and agreed, they will be asked to sign a final legal agreement at that time. If it is not possible to find a suitable relocation site, for example, for reasons of quality or quantity of turf, planning requirements or issues relating to the purchase or lease of a site, my Department will consult with turf cutters as to the best option to take at that time. I am satisfied that the legal agreements as set out are appropriate to the circumstances in these cases.

It is the aim of my Department to secure a relocation site for every person who has applied for one and progress is being made in that task. However, relocation is a complex process that takes time to deliver. The agreements being issued reflect this reality. The interim agreement is designed to give all stakeholders the time to deliver relocation options that work for turf cutters. The clear directions that I have given my officials is to examine all relocation options with a view to securing alternative cutting locations for as many turf cutters as possible within the shortest timeframe.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Some 1,689 legal agreements have been issued and my Department is continuing to issue agreements to qualifying applicants. Applicants have been requested to return the completed legal agreements within four months of the date of issue. Some 1,151 legal agreements have been returned to my Department thus far. To date, in the region of 700 once-off incentive payments of €500 have been made to applicants in respect of these legal agreements. The numbers of legal agreements by type issued by and returned to my Department are not available at this time because the Department is prioritising the making of payments and the finalisation of contracts.

I thank the Minister for his response. The difficulty is that the officials in the Department are supposed to have been looking at relocation options since 1996. How much more time are they to be given? In regard to the interim legal agreement, the contract as it stands allows for compensation to be paid only for a maximum of six years. What happens after the six years if an alternative bog is not available? The contract is heavily weighted in favour of the Department and during the period of the contract the Department has access to the individual's bog and could carry out works that would make it impossible for the bog owner to start cutting turf there again. Is it the intention of the Department to do that? Does the Department intend to ensure other alternatives are put in place or does it intend to close the door after the six-year period.

Will the Minister confirm that not a single SAC bog issue has been completely resolved to the satisfaction of the turf cutters?

In response to Deputy Naughten's, this is a very complex issue. The Deputy has been raising this issue in the Dáil for a number of years and has been very consistent on the issue. Given the location of the bogs, I would hope it will be possible to find relocation sites for the 700 or so turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation. As the Deputy knows, the majority of turf cutters have accepted the compensation and significant numbers are signing up to the contracts daily.

Approximately 1,151 legal contracts have been returned to the Department and we are going through the process. I agree these people are entitled to relocation since they have expressed an interest in it. Unfortunately the quality and quantity of turf of some of the bogs the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, identified for possible relocation sites do not measure up, which means we must consider other alternatives. I am very hopeful we can satisfy the 700 people on the special areas of conservation within the six-year period. I will respond to another question which has been tabled on bog relocation later. Progress has been made in Clara bog and in Curraghlehanagh and Carrownagappul bogs in Galway, and I hope they will be ready for relocation next year. It is not an easy process but I am confident we are making progress.

My understanding is turf cutters on Clara bog did not have to sign away their turbary rights but under the contracts before turf cutters throughout the country at present they are signing away their turbary rights. How many times has the Department issued either letters of clarification or letters of comfort to facilitate the signing of the approximately 1,200 legal agreements which have been signed? The Minister may not have the figure to hand but if he could come back to me on the issue I would appreciate it.

Will the Minister specify which bogs identified by the TCCA as possible relocation bogs have turned out not to be suitable for turf cutting? Will he also tell me how just over 1,000 of the more than 9,000 turbary rights holders on the so-called special areas of conservation signing something is majority? My understanding is even at the round figure of 9,000 turbary right holders a majority would be 4,501.

I am not aware there is a difference between Clara bog and other bogs. As Deputy Naughten knows, we are not taking ownership of the bog from people. They still own the bog and all we are doing is ensuring they do not cut the bogs. With regard to the letters of clarification and comfort, there is a continuous process between the Department and turf cutters. It is a very busy office as the Deputy can imagine. I do not have the information here but I can certainly find out for the Deputy. The contractual arrangement is quite complex. Deputy Naughten has been very helpful in the past in trying to find a solution to this and if he has any suggestions I will certainly hear them. From the very beginning my door has always been open for discussion, even to those who criticise me at times.

I will certainly come back to Deputy Flanagan with the clarification he seeks on the bogs the TCCA recommended for relocation which did not measure up with regard to quality and quantity. Unfortunately, when some of the bogs which we thought were the ideal solution were examined it was discovered they do not have the quality or quantity of turf to satisfy the number of people seeking relocation.

I ask Members to try to adhere to the time limits in the interests of fairness. Other Members would like their questions to be reached.

Appointments to State Boards

Sandra McLellan


7. Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht when he intends to fill the current vacancies on the board of the Arts Council; his views on the length of time for which those vacancies have been in existence; and the process for filling the relevant positions. [51467/13]

In reply to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister indicated that there was just one vacancy on the Arts Council board. Will he indicate whether this is still the case and whether other vacancies will arise in the near future?

At the time there was one vacancy, and that has been filled. However, other vacancies are due to arise and I will now outline how it is proposed to deal with them.

At present, there are no vacancies on the Arts Council. Section 11 of the Arts Act 2003 states that the Council shall consist of a chairperson and 12 ordinary members appointed by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to serve for a term of five years. Details and biographies of the members, along with the dates on which they were appointed and their respective terms of office, are available on the website of the Arts Council at The Arts Act 2003 specifies that no fewer than six of the members of the council shall be men and no fewer than six shall be women. The Act also states that council members, "shall, in the opinion of the Minister, have a special interest or knowledge in relation to the arts or matters connected with the functions of the Minister or the Council under this Act."

Last June my Department advertised for expressions of interest from suitably qualified and experienced persons to fill vacancies that might arise on the Arts Council during the following 12 months. The advertisement specified that, as Minister, I will not be restricted to considering only those who have responded to the invitation. In the near future, a number of positions will become vacant on the Arts Council. Those people who have expressed an interest in becoming members of the council will be considered for those vacancies in conjunction with other suitable people. The vacancies in question will arise during the course of this month.

I thank the Minister for his reply. When I visited the website it came to my attention that a number of vacancies would arise in the coming weeks. I understand one of those vacancies is the position of Ms Pat Moylan, the current chair of the council. Has Ms Moylan expressed an interest in reappointment and, if not, is there a process in train to appoint her successor? It is clear that this particular vacancy will have to be dealt with very quickly. Are the remaining members of the board interested in reapplying for their positions? In the current climate it is vital that there be transparency, and we must ensure there are no conflicts of interest in respect of any new appointees. We do not want a situation to arise in which colleagues on the board could vote in favour of top-up payments for one another.

The chairperson has given the Arts Council almost her full-time attention for the past five years. I met Ms Moylan recently and we had a conversation. Contact will continue until the position is filled. A number of people have expressed an interest in both the chairmanship of the Arts Council and the other vacancies that will arise. We will consider those expressions of interest and make a decision shortly. We will certainly take the issue of conflicts of interest into consideration. Obviously, it facilitates the work of the Arts Council if the people making decisions in respect of huge grants are not directly involved themselves. At the same time, however, it is important to have people on the council who may have practical day-to-day experience of running organisations, etc. It is vital to ensure that a balance is achieved.

I will take what Deputy McLellan has said into consideration. To date, my appointments to the Arts Council have been generally welcomed. The individuals involved have a high level of competence when it comes to the arts. I will certainly continue to appoint people along those lines.

I previously highlighted the fact that appointments by the Department - particularly those to Údarás na Gaeltachta - were not made in an ideal way. However, I also commended the move to publicly advertise for expressions of interest in positions on the Arts Council and a number of other bodies. There are 13 members on the board of the Arts Council. It is clear that there will be a regular turnover in the membership of this extremely important body, which is responsible for spending substantial amounts of money across a wide variety of organisations and bodies. It is essential, therefore, that the board of the council should operate as close as possible to full capacity.

The profile and competency of the current membership of the board of the Arts Council is extremely impressive.

All of its members are arts practitioners with a long history of contributing to the development of the arts. My policy on appointments will be similar. However, in appointing new members of the Arts Council I will be very much aware of the need to strike a balance between experience of the visual and performing arts and governance. As a result, the council will acquire certain expertise which current members may not have. I concur with the Deputy that the allocation of funding to the Arts Council is substantial. In assessing applications for funding, the Arts Council must deal with all applicants fairly, properly and in a balanced manner and ensure all sectors of the arts community are recognised.

As Deputy Adams is not present, we must proceed to Question No. 9.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.

Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme Relocation Options

Bernard Durkan


9. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the number and location of turf cutters affected by SACs, NHAs or other conservation measures who have so far been offered and have accepted alternative turf cutting facilities; the number and location of those yet to be resolved; the extent to which progress is reported in respect of such negotiations over the past 12 months; when it is expected that full and final agreement is likely to be reached in all cases; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51459/13]

Denis Naughten


17. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the number of bog relocations that have been completed; the number where an alternative location has been sourced that will meet the demand for relocation; the number where alternatives have yet to be sourced; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51401/13]

Bernard Durkan


206. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht notwithstanding his reply to previous parliamentary questions in this regard, the extent to which his Department has engaged with traditional turf cutters at the various locations mentioned that have been affected by special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas throughout County Kildare; the extent to which agreement has been reached in each case; those still outstanding; his expectations as to when final agreement will be reached; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51910/13]

The questions relate to the extent to which the Department has entered into arrangements with traditional turf cutters at various locations who have found themselves displaced by virtue of the application of special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas arrangements.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 17 and 206 together.

Some 2,839 applications for compensation under the cessation of the turf cutting compensation scheme have been received and acknowledged by my Department. Of these, 797 applicants have expressed an interest in relocation to non-designated bogs.

Deputies will appreciate that relocation is a very complex process in terms of investigating suitable sites for turf quality and quantity, the infrastructure and drainage works required, establishing the number of turf cutters who can be accommodated on the site, the cost and feasibility of land purchase or lease and possible planning and environmental impact assessment requirements. Notwithstanding this complexity, progress in relocating turf cutters to non-designated bogs is being achieved in a number of cases.

A group from Clara Bog special area of conservation in County Offaly commenced turf cutting at a relocation site in Killeranny, County Offaly, in June 2012, where 23 qualifying turf cutters have now been accommodated. Turf cutting for the 2013 season took place on this site in April last. Qualifying turf cutters from Carrownagappul Bog and Curraghlehanagh Bog special areas of conservation in County Galway are expected to be able to commence turf cutting in a relocation site from the 2014 turf cutting season. Relocation of seven qualifying turf cutters from Ballynafagh Bog special area of conservation to Timahoe North, County Kildare, which is in the ownership of Bord na Móna, is progressing, with the expectation that qualifying turf cutters will be able to commence cutting in the relocation site during the 2014 turf cutting season. Relocation of two qualifying turf cutters from Ballynamona Bog and Corkip Lough special area of conservation to Togher, County Roscommon, which is in the ownership of Bord na Móna, is also progressing, with the expectation that qualifying turf cutters will be able to commence cutting in the relocation site during the 2014 turf cutting season. Lattins Bog, also known as Mouds North Bog, in County Kildare has been identified as a potential relocation site for turf cutters from Mouds Bog. Bord na Móna has undertaken a full suitability assessment for the site and my Department has provided a copy of the assessment report to the secretary of the committee of the Kildare Turf Cutters Association.

I am advised that of the remaining 49 raised bog special areas of conservation, potential relocation sites have been identified for a further 33 bogs and work is ongoing on identifying and investigating sites. Relocation is unlikely to be required or is likely to be small-scale for another 16 raised bog special areas of conservation due, for example, to the small number who had been cutting turf on these sites during the relevant five year period and would qualify for the relocation option available under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme.

Bord na Móna has been contracted by my Department to assist the process and has so far assessed in the region of 100 potential relocation sites. It has also entered into negotiations with landowners on the purchase or long-term lease of number of sites. A payment of €1,500, index-linked, or a supply of 15 tonnes of cut turf per annum is available under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme to applicants while awaiting relocation to non-designated bogs.

On raised bog natural heritage areas, my Department is finalising a review of the position in accordance with the programme for Government. This review will provide clarity for turf cutters and landowners in advance of the 2014 turf cutting season. My Department will contact individual landowners and turf cutters on these sites in due course.

Has it been noticeable the extent to which agreement can readily be reached between the bog owners who have traditionally had a right to cut turf but have not exercised that right for a number of years and those who have traditionally exercised their right and have found the relocation to be a considerable inconvenience? Has the Minister examined the possibility of offering alternative special areas of conservation, SACs, or natural heritage areas, NHAs, in cases in which it is possible to determine that the hardship being created for those who are traditional existing turf cutters is significant?

The conditions for compensation and relocation were set out quite clearly. It was for those who had exercised their right for the previous five years. That has been quite clear, unless there were other reasons those concerned did not cut turf. For example, if they were in a REPS plan, consideration was given to that.

As regards the substitution of SACs by NHAs or anything else, there are three plans coming out shortly. There is a national plan for SACs, as requested here in March 2012, a plan for the NHAs which was committed to in the programme for Government, and a national strategy for all peatlands regarding how people will cut turf and look after their peatlands for the future. That is how people can manage their bogs in the future while, most importantly, continuing to cut turf. The plans will be going out for public consultation. They will not be a fait accompli. That will open a major debate on the peatlands strategy of this country. The debate has been ongoing for a number of years, but it will open the debate on those three critical areas. Some of the questions Deputy Durkan asked here will be answered in these reports, which will be published shortly.

I am aghast at the last comment of the Minister. It is bad enough that SACs have been designated and we are trying to deal with that headache, and that the issue of NHAs will arise next year, but now the Minister is telling us that there will be issues regarding every other bog in the country. Has he not got enough on his plate without looking for more trouble?

On the designated bogs, my understanding is that, out of a possible 800 turf cutters who are looking for relocation, to date 32 have been relocated. In the context of the report on NHAs that is due out, can relocation to NHAs be considered where there are no alternatives available? That is the particular problem in my part of the country.

As the Minister is aware, the Department designated special areas of conservation, SACs, and then went back and designated all the alternatives as natural heritage areas, NHAs. Will the new plan regarding the non-designated bogs have an implication for the possibility of relocating some of the turfcutters?

The proposed plan will be out shortly. The national peatlands strategy was part of an agreement with Europe to address the court case but people have nothing to fear about it. It is very important for the continuation of turfcutting in the future. When Deputy Naughten sees it I am sure he will appreciate that there has been input from several agencies. The Peatlands Council has had been working on this for some time. There is an input from all the relevant agencies and from the non-governmental organisations. It is a comprehensive discussion document.

I will hold my breath.

The focus will be on SACs and NHAs but there is a broader discussion to be had here. The plan will be available to the public and everybody will get an opportunity to discuss it.

The NHA plan to which our Government gave a commitment in the programme for Government will be announced shortly. It will go out for consultation. It will contain solutions to some of the existing problems; obviously, I cannot announce what is in the plan today. I can, however, assure the Deputy that it is completed and it will go out for consultation.

I do not know if the Minister heard himself say this but he said people have nothing to fear. Three years in prison is a lot to fear. The families of contractors could be dragged before the courts on Christmas week, and he claims there is nothing to fear. How can that be if there is the potential that a person could be jailed for three years for trying to make a living. The Minister said that when the document is published we will start the debate. With whom will he have the debate, with himself and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, or will he have it with the people? If it is the people with whom he will have the debate, perhaps before he starts it he should call off the hounds. He cannot bring people to court on Christmas week and threaten them with imprisonment for three years. One would get less time for rape, in some cases, in this country. There is nothing to fear, is there not? There is nothing to fear if one is in the Minister's position in that he has money to put oil in his tank. There is plenty to fear because the number designated is moving from 53, to 128 and, as Deputy Naughten said, to a position where they will be all up for grabs. When the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, said this originally we were put down as exaggerating the position, but, guess what, we have been proven right again. It is getting boring at this stage.

If it is okay with the Minister, I will bring in Deputy Durkan and then the Minister can wrap up the discussion.

In view of the general debate that is to take place on the SACs and NHAs over the next few years, will it be possible to review the ongoing debate that is taking place and to identify those areas of contention about which traditional turfcutters feel aggrieved at being asked to relocate, given that the State's agency, namely Bord na Móna, does not have to comply with the same relocation and given that in the North and in the UK it has been found possible to accommodate the needs of the traditional turfcutters? Will the Minister encourage the possibility of engaging with all concerned with a view to achieving a final resolution on a broader playing pitch which that would present?

I will take a brief supplementary from Deputy Naughten.

Why are we replacing turbary rights on the original bogs with a generation contract on the relocated bogs in that the turfcutter will not receive turbary rights on the new relocated bog?

The national peatlands strategy has been discussed by the Peatlands Council for a number of years and, unfortunately, the TCCA decided to withdraw from the Peatlands Council after it had signed up to an agreement that it would not cut any more turf on the SACs.

That was a signed agreement back in June 2011-----

These are fantasies.

-----and then they withdrew, which was unfortunate. They should have been discussing whether it was the SAC, the national heritage areas or a strategy for the future. There is nothing to fear about the national peatlands strategy. The law is very clear. European law, transposed into Irish law, states clearly that we have 53 SACs that we promise to protect and allow no damage to. This was in place long before I was in this job. There was a postponement of the decision by the previous Government. It was unfortunate it did not go ahead at the time but it did not have the guts to do so or perhaps the issue was too political. If it had, the matter of the SACs would be solved and we would not be discussing it today. In response to a Private Members' motion, which I accepted and was passed in the House, we carried out a review of the 53 SACs. Unfortunately, the Deputy's organisation, the TCCA, did not involve itself after calling for it in the Dáil and after we all accepted it. It then withdrew from it. What was the reason for the motion at that time?

The Minister is making things worse.

Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan does not want any settlement of this issue. He has made no effort to arrive at a settlement and it is in his interest to create mayhem in rural Ireland. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has been totally disruptive and does not want to recognise European law or Irish law.

It is against the law.

The Deputy was in Europe and it was clearly stated to him that these bogs must be closed. He does not want to accept it.

I will be cutting next year and the Minister can arrest me if he wants.

As regards any contravention of the law, it was obvious that this is breaking the law and people must be brought to justice the same as anyone else breaking any law.

They could be imprisoned.

There were other issues raised by Deputy Denis Naughten and Deputy Bernard Durkan, including an issue of Northern Ireland.

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has not been called to speak. The Minister has been asked to speak.

Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan is not interested in listening.

The Minister is only interested in throwing back comments.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.