Prohibition on Turf Cutting: Discussion.

The main item of today's business is the prohibition on turf cutting. Members will recall discussing the impact of prohibition on turf cutting in certain areas around the country and our discussion with officials of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on 21 July 2009. To follow up on that, I welcome the delegates present to discuss this matter in further detail with us. We are joined today by Mr. Joe Devery, chairman, and Councillor Frankie Keena, a committee member of the Creggan/Crosswood Turbary Group; and Ms Síle O'Connor and Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice, chairman, of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. I am pleased we are also joined by Mr. Padraig Walshe, president of the Irish Farmers' Association together with Mr. Gerry Gunning, executive secretary, IFA rural development committee and Mr. Michael Silke, Connaught vice-president.

The format of today's meeting will involve a brief presentation from the delegates followed by a question and answer session. Before the delegates begin their presentations, I draw their attention to the fact that members of this committee have absolute privilege but the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise, or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. We will begin with Councillor Kenna and I invite him to make his presentation.

Councillor Frankie Keena

Chairman and members of the committee, Councillor Paschal Fitzmaurice, Roscommon County Council, Councillor Michael Connelly, Galway County Council and fellow turf cutters, I thank the committee for allowing us this opportunity to address it on behalf of the domestic turfcutters of Creggan, Crosswood, Carn Park, Annaghorta and Moydrum bogs and the wider south Westmeath areas. On a national domestic turfcutting platform, we are delighted to be supported and represented by the IFA.

In terms of location, Crosswood bog is situated approximately 5 km east of Athlone, County Westmeath, mainly in the townlands of Crosswood, Glenaghanoveen and Creggan Lower. The site comprises a raised bog that includes both areas of high bog and cutover bog. The northern margin of the bog lies along the southern side of the Dublin-Galway railway line. Adjoining this bog are the Moydrum, Annaghorta and Carn Park bogs.

I will give a brief background in this respect. In 2006 Coillte blocked the drains on its land, which neighbours our bog in Creggan/Crosswood. This caused floods on our bog and Coillte told us it was instructed to do so by officials of the national parks and wildlife service. We then organised our group and subsequently contacted the national parks and wildlife service and were told that our bog was a special area of conversation, SAC, and we would have to stop turf cutting in 2008, even though Coillte had used bullyboy tactics in 2006 by arranging to have the drains blocked way in advance. After identifying the error of its actions the national parks and wildlife service instructed Coillte to re-open the drains.

Following further investigation we found that a notice appeared in theWestmeath Examiner between 21 and 28 of December 2002 stating that our bog was now a designated SAC. Members should note that this was Christmas week. As this newspaper circulates predominantly in the Mullingar area, which is 30 miles from where the bog is situated, we question the transparency in informing the public of such matters. No consultation notices were placed on our bog prior to 2002 and since then none of us was informed of the bog being an SAC. Now we are sure that in the eyes of Dúchas, the heritage service, appropriate notification was put in place concerning the process of designating this bog as an SAC. However, it is important that adequate, proper and prompt information is disseminated to the affected persons in advance of decision dates.

The bottom line is that the Department is trying to force us to comply with a designation that we were never informed of and to tie us into the terms of an agreement that we were not invited to partake in and which affects our property and rights. This agreement states:

1. Full regard to the need for consultation with the landowners. [We were never consulted on this]

2. The individual farmer/landowner must be notified in writing by the Department. [We never received any letters]

3. Designated areas can only be conserved with the active involvement of their owners. [We were never involved]

4. Landowners may appeal designation. [How could we do so when we did not know we were being designated?]

The national parks and wildlife service was to show draft conservation plans to landowners through liaison with committees, clinic style meetings and one-to-one meetings, but this never happened.

When we contacted the IFA's representatives they told us that they negotiated a deal with the then Government in 1999 on the implementation of the habitats regulation 1997 and re-negotiated it in 2004. Since we were designated in 2002, we were included in the 2004 agreement and therefore can cut turf up to and including 2014. It was also agreed that after the ten-year derogation period the Department would review whether domestic turf cutting for those who wanted to continue to cut turf could continue on raised bogs without damaging the bogs. While this process is under way, it is important to examine all avenues to identify where our bogs are being damaged and not just focus on domestic turf cutters.

Another interesting point was clarified through a question raised in 2007 with the European Commission. Even though the directive is in place, it is a matter for the Irish authorities to make decisions in accordance with the directive on particular peat extraction proposals and activities. The Commission admitted that large-scale commercial peat extraction, together with associated drainage works, could cause serious disruption to the hydrological and ecological function of bogs. There was no mention of domestic turf cutting causing harm. Therefore, the Department has room to manoeuvre in implementing this directive.

The people have rights on these lands that date back to the Land Acts of the 1870s. Our Irish culture and traditions are constantly under attack and are being eroded in today's world. Traditional hay making, cow milking by hand, threshing and the old way of harvesting potatoes have all disappeared. While the method of taking turf, not peat, from the bog has changed and is more environmentally friendly, turning, footing, drying and transporting have remained the same.

How can people be compensated for the loss of these traditions? The answer is that they cannot be and do not want to be. Instead they want to preserve their traditions and carry on harvesting turf in the traditional way, as is their right of turbary. Turf cutting is part of our heritage and culture. Therefore, when people say we have to protect our heritage, this is one area where we should put words into action. This practice has been going on for centuries in every small town, village and rural area in Ireland.

We are sure that if every Oireachtas Member went back far enough within their family tree, they would find that turf cutting was a way of life and survival for their predecessors. This is a sensitive and emotive issue for the small number of people who want to protect their turbary rights for domestic use only. While our country is coming under pressure from the EU habitats directive on the protection of species, flora and fauna, we feel there is scope for a sensible and balanced approach to this matter without implementing a total ban on turf cutting in SAC areas.

As for damage to bogs, we all agree it is important to protect our environment and to preserve, within reason, areas under threat of erosion. However, conservationists and scientists must not point the finger of blame for the loss of raised and blanket bogs at the door of domestic turf cutters. If their figures were correct, all domestic turf cutters' bogs would have been cut away years ago. The figure of 2% to 4% cutaway yearly is grossly inaccurate.

In the case of domestic turf cutting the damage done to our bogs is minimal. According to the Fernandez report, it was 1% over the past ten years. The cutaway-cutover bogs that are left after domestic harvesting are full of habitats, as shown later on in this report. The former Minister, Síle de Valera, admitted that damage from domestic turf cutting was very small.

It has been identified that most damage to SACs is caused by industrial and commercial operations where the peat is extracted from the high bank and all that is left is a barren landscape of turf mole. For instance, in our locality, private commercial operators have completely destroyed bogs that were full of biodiversity, including flora and fauna. The irony is that million of tonnes of this peat is exported to other EU countries. Some 80% to 90% of peat and turf has been extracted by a State agency, Bord na Móna, over 60 years of operations. It has been the main agent for extracting peat from Irish bogs and has been responsible for altering at least 80% of bogs.

For those unfamiliar with bogs, it should be explained that there is a clear difference between peat extraction and turf cutting. To harvest peat, the top of the bog must be milled and this immediately destroys all the fauna, growth and feeding grounds for wildlife. Nothing survives on a peat harvesting bog. Turf cutting, on the other hand, is different. Turf is taken by digger from the bottom of the bog. This environmental approach is undeniably the reason we have the only bogs that are suitable for saving.

In our area, those who cut turf for their own use take great care of their bogs by keeping roads in good order. They also tackle the ongoing problem of illegal dumping of rubbish by carrying out regular clean-ups in conjunction with Westmeath County Council. The local community has put in large amounts of voluntary work to keep the area to an environmentally clean standard. Washing machines, fridges, irons and domestic waste are regularly taken out of drains, thereby preventing pollution of main watercourses. This is about local people looking after and taking pride in their local bogs.

We try to encourage the public who do not cut turf to visit the bogs for recreation and tranquility. We are anxious to create an attractive, clean, pleasant environment where the public can come for walks and witness the art of turf harvesting. At the same time, they can enjoy the diverse habitats to be found on the bogs. We are currently working on a project to enhance the bog for such an amenity.

The present compensation offer is derisory for those who want to sell and is an insult to people who cut turf. The Irish Peat Conservation Council sent a submission to the interdepartmental working group which stated that the EU was generous in the past when the national parks and wildlife service was purchasing intact raised bogs from Bord na Móna. As the title of our bogs was transferred to Bord na Móna in 1980 and thereafter to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in 2002, we would like to know how much Bord na Móna received and whether the EU paid the costs.

There is an urgent need, especially now in the current economic climate, to be more lenient with domestic turf cutters because the price of oil is rapidly increasing and continued alternative fuel sources are required. The day may yet come when the Government will request people to turn to the bogs for fuel, as happened during the Second World War.

We urge members of the joint committee, as our representatives, to work with us in identifying a solution to this difficult problem facing rural Ireland. It is wrong to force people off SAC bogs if they do not want to leave them. I thank members of the joint committee for their kind attention. I also thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak on this emotive issue.

The written presentation includes a list of samples of habitats plus species that are available on cutaway-cutover bogs. Members of the committee can consult that list in their own time, as I will not deal with it now.

I thank Councillor Keena for his presentation. I now call on Mr. Pádraig Walshe, president of the Irish Farmers Association.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

I thank the Chairman and other members of the joint committee, as well as the councillors and IFA members present. This is an important and emotive issue. For quite some time we have had a problem with the designation process and, in particular, the lack of notification by the NPWS and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to people whose lands are being designated. The turf-cutting ban is a follow-on from that. I am joined by Mr. Michael Silke, who is the IFA Connacht vice-president and also chairman of the IFA's SAC committee. Mr. Silke will make a presentation on turf cutting.

Mr. Michael Silke

I am the IFA Connacht vice-president and leader of IFA's SAC project team. This project team deals with all aspects of environmental designations, including SACs, NHAs and SPAs. The project team is made up of farmers and landowners from designated areas who are extremely concerned about the imposition of restrictions on their way of life.

Our work over recent years has been dealing with the restrictions imposed by the EU habitats directive, the birds directive and the Wildlife Amendment Act. Farmers have been severely affected by designations imposed through harsh environmental restrictions on their farming activities, planning applications for buildings and restrictions on development of their lands.

The specific issue I will deal with today concerns proposals by the national parks and wildlife service to force farmers and other bog owners to cease turf cutting on 32 raised bogs in 2010 and to increase this number to 139 bogs over the next few years. The bogs under restriction affect up to 6,000 bog owners and are located in up to 16 counties. Most of the designations are in the midlands and the east Connacht area. In addition, farmers with blanket bog in mountain areas are fearful that turf cutting restrictions will be extended to their areas over time.

Turf cutting is of significant importance to the rural way of life and it is estimated that the value of turf is worth up to €36 million annually. Restricting turf cutting will add significant costs to the average farm family household as they will, in most cases, have no other alternative energy source available to them on their lands.

In September, the IFA made a submission to the interdepartmental committee on the cessation of turf cutting. In our submission, we reiterated the point that turf cutting for domestic purposes on raised bogs does not cause damage. There is little or no scientific evidence to back up the national parks and wildlife service stance that turf cutting for domestic purposes damages the bogs.

The IFA contends that turf cutting on designated raised bogs should be allowed to continue and adequate compensation must be available to commercial turf cutters who are forced out of business by the strict implementation of the EU directive. In the past, the notification process by the national parks and wildlife service regarding designations has not worked effectively. It is now vital that the national parks and wildlife service contacts each bog owner with its plans for designation. This would allow the national parks and wildlife service to ascertain the number of active and inactive turf cutters. Once such a process has taken place, then the national parks and wildlife service would be in a position to determine the number of turf cutters affected and the monetary loss involved.

When designations were first introduced in 1997 relocation to non-designated bogs was an option. The IFA proposes that this should again be looked at. Where relocation is possible, the bog owner should be offered a similar quality bog to that which he or she is being forced off. In the event of the relocated bogs being greater than 1 km away from the designated bog, further compensation should be offered. If the bog is of inferior quality, a calculation of loss of turf cutting should be determined.

One would think that in this day and age, turf cutting would be allowed on designated bog as this is a natural and traditional means of providing fuel to rural households. The IFA believes that using scientific methods, such as membrane technology which was effective in other European countries such as Holland in preserving bogs must be used. The IFA is concerned that the national parks and wildlife service proposals to block drains will seriously affect bog owners and landowners adjoining the bogs. In the event of neighbouring land being flooded, compensation must be offered to those landowners. Where turf cutting is allowed on designated bog, the bog owners should be encouraged to participate in an environmental management strategy to preserve the bog.

Over the years Coillte has planted some raised bogs. Some of these forests are now ready for clearfell or could be deforested with the raised bogs being environmentally developed. The national parks and wildlife service should purchase from Coillte this land and use it as alternative sites rather than force bog owners off their bogs.

There is scope within the existing designated bogs for redrawing the boundaries. For example, where part of the bog has been cut away, the SAC area should only include the land where turbary is present. In 1997 and again in 2004, the IFA negotiated a compensation package for those farmers who wish to sell their bogs to the national parks and wildlife service. While this scheme had some success, nevertheless at this stage it needs to be extended and improved to encourage more landowners to participate.

In a situation where a farmer is forced off a bog, a payment of €1,000 per year should be paid to cover the cost of securing alternative fuel. Also, grant aid for the installation of alternative energy sources should be made available. The IFA has already expressed concern to the national parks and wildlife arm of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that its focus of compensation under the current arrangement centres only on the owners of the 32 bogs which they plan to close down next year. Farmers in other designated bogs are being put on the long finger and told that their buy-out compensation will not be paid until 2012 or 2013. This is unacceptable as one of the key elements in the compensation package was the incentive to farmers to settle their compensation early.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should come forward with a resolution that will protect bog owners on these designated bogs. To force people off bogs, which have been used by their families for generations, is neither fair nor reasonable. The IFA is quite unhappy and we are very worried that the interdepartmental group set up to consider this issue is a group of civil servants who have no contact with rural Ireland and who are far removed from the real issues. This issue should be dealt with by an Oireachtas committee such as this one. I have outlined to the committee what the IFA has put on the table and I call on it for its support for our proposals.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

Coming from the midlands, the Chairman will be well aware of the situation. The State cannot remove property rights from people without proper compensation. The designation issue has been a problem since it started. There is no way land can continue to be designated without proper notification to the people concerned who must be given the right to appeal.

As Mr. Silke said, very often these designations are made by people looking at maps and making decisions without any regard for the implication of those decisions on the individuals who have been living and working in those areas all their lives — whose families have been there, perhaps for generations. The State must be more considerate of the rights of people in this position. We will answer any questions the committee members may have.

Ms Síle O’Connor

Gabhaimid buíochas don choiste as an chuireadh inniu. Do na Teachtaí agus Seanadóirí ó m'áit dhúchais fein, gabhaim buíochas fosta. Níl againn ach deich nóiméad chun fadhb mhór a chur os bhur gcomhair inniu ach déanfaimid iarracht. Implementation of the EU nature legislation is essentially the responsibility of the member state. In Ireland, that responsibility was left to Dúchas, now the national parks and wildlife service. There appears to have been no oversight of the activities of that body.

The Habitats Directive was adopted unanimously by the European Council of Ministers, including by the Irish Minister, and was approved the EU Parliament, as was the Birds Directive. It was negotiated over a period of six years — 1986-1992. Supposedly during that time, groups had the opportunity to comment and make submissions to protect their interests. However, the process of ratification was deeply flawed in that the people directly affected knew nothing of the debates taking place elsewhere. Both Ireland and the EU must bear responsibility for that. The national parks and wildlife service must provide answers and must be able to justify, in plain English or Irish, the decisions and the science it uses to designate sites. It must, but never has, worked closely with domestic turf-cutting communities in order to learn and to establish confidence and trust.

In February 1997, SI 94 came into law in Ireland by ministerial order not, as required, by an Act of the Oireachtas. It is our opinion that as a result the designations can never be binding. Constitutional rights to property in Ireland can only be overruled by an Act of the Oireachtas. The EU cannot legally bind something that is unconstitutional. Therefore, we contend that a ban on domestic turf cutting cannot be implemented and there is flexibility in solving this unnecessary problem.

I refer to the joint committee's meeting of 21 July this year which was addressed by representatives of national parks and wildlife service. We found some of the statements made at that committee incredible. Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice will deal with this in more detail, but note that the area and range of raised bog, as presented, is at total variance with what we on the ground know to be the true range and area. Without a copy of the 1997 baseline maps used for the habitats directive and the 2007 survey, however, we cannot compare accurately the areas mentioned. It would seem to us that historical maps from the last century were used for calculating area versus range. We urgently need copies of those baseline maps to know what we are talking about, and so that the committee will know what we are talking about. To clarify range versus area, the range of a habitat is the range of that habitat in the whole country and the area is the actual area of that habitat designated.

It seems to us that nobody in the national parks and wildlife service checked its submissions on area and range before it sent them to Europe, wherein it miscalculated the range and the area. It classified hectares as square kilometres and interchanged both areas. However, nobody noted that there are 100 hectares in one square kilometre. This means that we, apparently, only designated a very small area in the submissions that were sent to Europe. For example, if one puts down an area of 7,500 hectares of a habitat where the range was 35,000 hectares but uses square kilometres instead, and if you multiply the 35,000 square kilometres by 100 you get 3.5 million hectares, 7,500 out of 3.5 million seems infinitesimally small.

This is why Europe is prosecuting us. It is because of incompetent map reading and map use, and no proper oversight, no proper science and no proper checking by anybody. The national parks and wildlife service has engaged in precipitous actions that can only leave the State open to massive fines from Europe.

If a problem can be solved by money then wisdom would suggest that it was not a problem in the first place. We have in many ways priced an acre of raised bogs of six metres depth at €285,000. No one has yet disputed those figures, and yet we were offered a derisory €3,000 per acre to go away and keep quiet. In short, we were made the sacrificial lambs in the designation process.

Compensation is not, and never has been, our aim or desire. We are not asking the Exchequer for anything. We have a secure energy supply in our own backyards. Bear in mind that the State, between the national parks and wildlife service, Bord na Móna and Coillte, owns 90% of the bogs in Ireland and domestic turf cutters own a mere 10%. Our only request is that we be allowed cut our turf on our own 10%. My colleague will deal with this in more detail and show that what we are doing is not environmentally damaging.

The national parks and wildlife service came in here and told the committee that it had a budget last year of €6.4 million to purchase bog habitat. This year, it has a budget of €4.6 million. That, effectively, would buy 16 acres of bog from us if we wished to sell. Are they living in the real world or is anybody checking anything?

Traditional landscapes and their accompanying flora and fauna are no longer an automatic by-product of current farming practices and policies. This, in fact, was led by EU-inspired agendas of intensification. These policies have caused the disruption of unity between agriculture and environmental output, and in an apparently paradoxical situation, the increasing amenity and environment value that is given to rural landscapes comes at a time when their environmental riches are under greatest threat. We are amazed that the agenda of the environmental lobby, instead of encouraging a partnership approach, is almost entirely aesthetic and if by chance it makes remarks in support of traditional farming practices and the value of handed-down land management and experience, it is largely because the view from the road or the picture window of a holiday home depends on that view staying at a favourable conservation status.

The greatest threat to habitats in rural areas is in the population migration to towns and cities. Without traditional land management, habitats will become wilderness areas. One need only look or drive to the Burren to see what that has caused and how that habitat has declined. Without people being able to make a living from the habitat there can be no land management.

Dr. Michael O'Brien of DG XI stated on 20 October 2009, following a considerable number of e-mails from us, that there are clear provisions in the habitats directive to deal with activities that affect NATURA 2000 sites and these accept that damaging developments can proceed in the absence of alternative solutions if they are of overriding interest and where damage can be off-set by compensatory measures. We contend that turf cutting for domestic use is not in any way damaging to the habitat. Mr. Fitzmaurice will deal with this in more detail, but let us say there is no environmental, legal, historical or practical reason a ban on domestic turf cutting should be implemented.

Consultation was, and still is, non-existent. Notification was, and still is, scatter-gun and utterly deficient. Constitutional rights to private property are being ignored. No management plans have been published even though money was drawn down from LIFE funding for this purpose.

If Mr. James O'Connell of the national parks and wildlife service is to be believed, €500 million came from Europe to implement the habitats directive. To date, despite annoying questions from us and several Deputies, no trace of this money has been accounted for or found. We are not asking the State for anything other than to let common sense prevail. There is a way forward only if all the management plans are published, comprehensive landowner notification is provided, all the science relating to our property is provided in local libraries or post offices in straightforward English and Irish that anybody can read, geographic homogeneity is introduced, as required by the directive, and all reasonable bog owner losses-expenses are paid by the State where the person has to move to another bog or suffer some other disturbance.

Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin. Tá súil againn go mbeidh siad ar lasadh i teaghlaigh ne hÉireann go deo na ndeor.

Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice

Our organisation is fully in favour of conservation. In our submission to the interdepartmental committee, we proved that with a proper management plan, turf cutting and conservation can go hand in hand favourably. I refer to Ms O'Connor's comment about people being ill-informed. The stakeholders or bog owners were not contacted in 92% of cases. Taking into account the status, education and profile of these people countrywide, putting an advertisement in a newspaper about a directive with no reference to stopping turf cutting would not alarm a bog owner and he or she would not understand the consequences. Everyone needs to understand that every one of these areas is called a complex but six to seven townlands may be in this area. I am simplifying this. We are sitting in Kildare Street putting it on paper that an EU directive refers to an area. Would people in Sutton, Ballymun, Mulhuddart, Lucan, Tallaght or Blackrock be bothered if they saw this area designated under directive? This was misleading and somewhat devious.

The committee held a meeting in July with the NPWS during which its officials admitted the guidelines were deplorable with regard to public relations but they said they improved as the year progressed. Alas, to my dismay, I received an e-mail regarding the same problem of not telling people. I received a letter two days ago from the Kilronan Mountain turf cutters committee in County Leitrim which states:

It is brought to our attention by the TCCA that our mountain has been put into NHA since July 2005. As there is a lot of people cutting there, no land-holder has been informed through letter or otherwise. We have contacted the NPWS office in Cavan within the last ten days, whom we are led to believe is in control of our area. We asked for the local rangers phone number to find what was going on in our area. To our amazement, the girl was not allowed to give out this number. She said she would get the gentleman to contact me and took my telephone number. Sadly, to this day we have never been contacted and we are left in the dark as of these designations. Is this the manner in which these people carry out their business and the way they conduct themselves? In our view, it is appalling. We must get clarification as to why our mountain was put into NHA without one landowner being informed.

Because of that, now a legal burden has been placed on these people's property. Time has gone by. They will not be entitled to an appeals procedure and no protocol has been followed. The TCCA believes the scientific evidence is flawed and I refer again to the committee's meeting with the NPWS in July. At this meeting, it was stated: "For turf to be cut, one needed to dry out a bog to cut turf". This could not be further from the truth. If a raised bog was dry, one would not be able to consolidate the sod of turf.

On the same day reference was made to Lisnageeragh bog in County Galway, on which the NPWS said it carried out major works in 1999-2000. There is a road up the middle of the bog and the drains in the NPWS section of the bog were blocked at that time. A small forestry plantation was cut in 2007 but the main work carried out on the bog was at the most westerly end where there was some cutaway bog and forestry beside a turlough approximately 1 km from where turf is harvested. How could the officials tell the committee the work they carried out has saved the bog? This bog has experienced a 33% increase in active raised bog habitat and turf is cut every year. However, the NPWS had to throw a dig into the committee and frighten all the members by stating in future turf cutting would be a problem, even though the ordinary people only own between 7% and 8% of the bog in question. Today there are 700 acres of raised bog in that complex. People need and only own 20 acres. This would provide fuel for their houses for 200 years but the NPWS does not agree with them. I agree with its officials who say the top of the raised bogs needs to have the drains blocked and closed. This would not be a problem for turf cutters.

I would like to debunk the myth and misinformation about so-called disappearing bogs. We carried out a study on 75% of the 32 SAC bogs. If the owners of raised bogs cut every sod they owned, between 90% and 95% of the bogs would be there until kingdom come. The regeneration of the cutaway bog would be a bonus on top of that. We conducted an in-depth study and over a ten-year period 0.5% of bog has been cut by domestic turf cutters.

I refer to the ASI report on Kilsallagh bog carried out in 1994 by two scientists. I will highlight these examples because I do not have sufficient time to go through all 32 complexes. This ASI report recommended the inclusion of the bog in an NHA but without anybody knowing, it was elevated to SAC status. The report stated 32 hectares of a plantation was damaging the bog, 20 hectares of drains set 10 metres apart were a big problem long-term and turf cutting may be a problem down the road. However, it has taken 14 years to sort out the plantation and the drainage is still not sorted on the 20 hectares of ex-Bord na Móna land. Approximately 30 years ago Bord na Móna planned to commercialise small bogs in the west. Contractors were hired and they cut drains through the bog every 10 metres. People had no problem with it but as conservation measures were introduced, Bord na Móna gave some of the bogs to the NPWS.

These drains are sucking the water out of the bog all the time so the habitat cannot grow. However, it is the poor old turf cutter who is blamed, even though he is about fourth down the ladder of blame. I will speak plainly and I use the palm of my hand to describe this point at meetings. For example, if one has a thorn in the middle of the palm of one's hand, then the turf cutter is the top of one's finger and one sticks the needle into the top of the finger to try and take the thorn out of the palm of the hand. This is how I explain the situation to people.

This bog has an unfavourable active raised bog habitat and I lay the blame solely at the door of the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, because this bog is the only area with such a major drainage problem. At the same meeting in July I note that rivers and roads were chosen as boundaries so people would know where they were rather than making a choice based on scientific evidence. This could have been done in lockspits — some members may not know what this is. Years ago when bogs were being divided out a lockspit was dug with a spade. I ask the committee to remember that 90% of these bogs are not owned by the people. They were divided with a spade which dug the line between private ownership and public ownership and this was called a lockspit.

Our politicians have encouraged scientists and so-called experts to lead the charge and ride roughshod over people. They are academics with no experience of practical land management. They have proven by their own admission that they have overseen disasters, namely the Burren and the natterjack toad in Kerry. At the interdepartmental committee the NPWS agreed that in flooding the bog, liquidity will occur at the base and whether in one day, one month or 20 years' time, bog slippages will occur, thus putting people's lives at risk. This is a phenomenal admission and is a health and safety issue for houses, farms and rivers. The NPWS should be required to fence off pools on their land for the safety of children.

The problem with this directive is the way in which it is being implemented. Our organisation consists of ordinary people in rural Ireland and it could save 25% of these 32 bogs with a few months of remedial work and solve the remaining problems at a later date. We have watched these people doing nothing about how the active raised bog habitat is growing. An impact statement cannot be carried out on habitat where little or no work has been carried out on the ground owned by the NPWS. Sadly, the national parks and wildlife service seems to think it is not answerable to anyone. It seems the tail is wagging the dog. Most TDs will say it is time for us all to wake up and highlight the wrongdoing.

I refer to a statement made at the committee meeting last July and the use of the phrase, "science gone mad". In a small bog in Castlerea called Clonshanville, where one man cuts a few hoppers a year, where one acre of turf would last this man 300 years, the NPWS estimates this man is a threat even though they are surrounded by 500 acres of bog. The bog closure must be off the agenda. This problem can be solved very easily but a common-sense approach is missing.

A time bomb is waiting in the countryside and is ready to explode. Ordinary people will say, "Surely they have more cop-on than trying to stop us cutting our turf." I hope the committee will right the wrong that is being done. Working together we can solve this problem. We can have domestic turf cutting and conservation working hand in hand in designated bogs.

Mr. Luke Flanagan

I thank the committee for the invitation to appear today. I will outline the social and economic impact of this proposed prohibition on turf cutting in the 32 designated bog complexes.

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, has offered what he calls a "generous compensation scheme" to those affected by restrictions. The compensation is €3,000 per acre. Generous is not a word that the TCCA, Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, would use and I will explain why.

First it is necessary to compare the prices for heating a home with the alternatives available. At today's prices, not including the upcoming carbon tax or further price hikes in the future, to heat a house by oil will cost €2,500 a year and we are told oil is running out. It will cost €2,750 a year to heat a house with timber. Using briquettes it will cost €2,600 a year and it will be a miserable fire. Coal will cost €2,250 a year and this will certainly destroy the environment. A person owning a turf bank will spend between €400 and €450 to heat his or her house. These are only the day-to-day running costs. Capital costs are also involved with regard to replacing an old system with a new system. A new oil system and depending on the number of radiators will cost between €10,000 to €20,000. Most of the people in question own old houses which would have to be retrofitted to avail of alternative energy systems. The cost of retrofitting a house for a geothermal system would involve ripping up all the floors, the garden and a substantial area around the house and this could cost from €30,000 to €40,000.

Turf is also used for drying clothes and for cooking. There will be more costs involved in purchasing a cooker which could amount to a minimum of €1,000 to include installation. There will be loss of jobs, taking into account small and medium enterprises and companies such as Waterford Stanley who are dependent on people burning solid fuel. If we stop burning turf, such companies will sell much less equipment with consequent job losses. Summer work on the bogs will be lost for those students who help to save the turf and for contractors.

I refer to socio-economic profiling carried out by Galway County Council, Roscommon County Council and the Western Development Commission. It can clearly be seen that in the majority of areas where it is proposed to cease turf cutting from 1 January 2010, the people in these areas suffer from the worst deprivation of any people in the State. They have the highest levels of unemployment due to the complete dependence on the building boom that has now gone. The area contains the highest proportion of people over the age of 65, the highest proportion of people living alone, the lowest level of educational attainment, the highest proportion of people living without central heating and the lowest levels of Internet access. I have called to many houses in my area. I am saddened to say this but I would describe some of the living conditions as being like Calcutta. All they have is their turf and that is all they have ever had all their lives. While they might not have much, at least they are warm. There is a saying that if one is warm, one is half-way fed and half-way there and the rest can be coped with.

The Government is proposing to deny these people a cheap source of fuel. The State continues to export more than 20,000 tonnes of peat every year to Germany and the Netherlands for percolation systems. This is not including the export of moss peat products. At a very conservative estimate, this is three times more than the domestic turf cutter uses in a year on all the proposed 32 designated bog complexes — not bogs, but bog complexes. Which is more important to the Government, the right to have a fire in one's grate next winter or the right of the people of Germany and the Netherlands to flush their toilets? I think the answer to that one should be fairly clear. We have more of a right and we want to continue cutting turf.

I thank Mr Flanagan. As ten or 12 members have indicated, I propose to take comments, observations and questions from a number of people. I will not go forward and back all day because we would never get anywhere that way. I will call members in the following order: Senator Glynn, Deputy Bannon and Deputy McCormack. I ask each of our visitors to take a note of any questions directed specifically at him or her. When I call on our visitors again they might be able to respond at that stage.

When this slot became available I asked the Chairman to invite the representatives who are here today and he agreed, for which I thank him. Having heard them speak I am very pleased he did. Very few questions remain to be answered because the IFA, Creggan/Crosswood Bog Group, and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association really have given all the answers. To say I am unhappy would put it mildly. From what Councillor Frankie Keena, Mr. Pádraig Walshe, Mr. Michael Silke, Ms Sile O'Connor and others have said it is very clear that the lines of communications that were indulged in by the national parks and wildlife service certainly did not come up to the standards we would like. A phrase used was "common sense", which, of course, is not a very common phenomenon at all. I propose that representatives of the national parks and wildlife service be invited in again as I believe they have questions to answer.

As someone born and reared in the country and now living in a town, I spent many a hard day on the bog and I am very proud of it. There is a very serious issue here. I am sure those people have not been treated right at all. One very important statistic was quoted by Ms Sile O'Connor, Councillor Frankie Keena and Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice. Less than 10% is owned by the ordinary Seán and Mary citizen and 90% is owned by the national parks and wildlife service. While I know we are part of Europe and we are all conservationists in our own way, this situation is grossly unsatisfactory. I formally put the proposal that the national parks and wildlife service be invited back in to answer some of the questions that have been raised by the delegation.

I welcome the various groups from the midlands and the west and also my friends from the IFA. This is a very sensitive issue across the country. I have attended meetings on this topic not alone in the midlands but also in the western region. I must declare my interest as a bog owner in County Longford. Turf cutting has been part of Irish culture and family life for generations. I still cut turf for my own use in my own bog. We are all aware of the many spring trips we made to bogs over the years. Probably the happiest days we ever spent were in the bogs, cutting and saving the turf. People have a right to cut and save turf on local bogs for their own personal use. It is not domestic or small commercial turf cutters who are doing the damage. Today's first presentation stated that 80% to 90% of peat turf has been extracted by the State agency, Bord na Móna. This has been very welcome because it gave very worthwhile employment in my county and also in Laois and Offaly over many years.

And Roscommon.

A Member

And Galway.

Were it not for this type of development many more people would have had to emigrate. While Senator Glynn has invited in the director of national parks and wildlife service and the specialist in wetland and raised bogs in particular, there is a duty on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to appear before the committee. After all, he will be signing the directive on 31 December if we do not prevent him from doing so. It is a balancing act between environmental prudence and the concerns of the traditions we have known for centuries. This must drive our debate and the Minister must concede some small window of opportunity to enable the preservation of the rural way of life, namely the cutting of turf etc. As I said it is a centuries old tradition to cut turf for domestic use etc. The cost of diesel is very prohibitive for many families and it is very important for us to look after the rural way of life. It is easy for the Minister to forget the heritage part of his portfolio, and pick up his pen and sign the death warrant for another unique craft. Turf cutting is a craft and is part of our heritage. As a person who knows and has worked all my life in the midlands, I know that turf cutting is part of the rural heritage. It was there long before me and will be there long after me. We want to maintain that.

Families should be allowed to use their bogs. It would be a huge blow for the small commercial and indeed domestic turf cutters if they are prevented from doing what we have been doing for generations. After all it is only a directive from Brussels. We are gone mad in this country on regulation as I have said time and time again. It is time for us to call a halt, stand up and be proud of our Irishness and our traditions. I am very supportive of the people who have spoken here today and their friends in the Gallery. As a rural Deputy, I will do what I can to preserve the rural way of life.

Mr. Michael Silke spoke about coming forward with resolutions to protect the owners of these designated bogs. We are all at one on this issue today. I would like to hear someone stand up and be a dissenting voice today because I do not believe there are too many of them.

They might end up in a bog hole.

If Senator Leyden attended a public meeting in Roscommon or Longford he would realise it is no laughing matter.

The Deputy should not make it a laughing matter either.

The Senator is a Member of the Government coalition that has a Minister who will push the pen and prevent people from cutting their turf in rural areas. It is time for the Senator to wake up and put pressure on the people with whom he is in Government to prevent this from happening. I am not afraid to say that to him.

I thank the delegation for their presentation. Councillor Keena said if we went far enough back in our family trees we would find turf cutting. I do not think it would be necessary to go back far because I believe everybody at the meeting has experienced it at first hand, including myself. He indicated that the Department has room to manoeuvre in implementing this directive. If we were to wait for the Department to be given room to manoeuvre in implementing the directive, we would not get anywhere. The national parks and wildlife service, its rangers and everyone else involved will bend over backwards to ensure any directive is implemented far beyond the letter of the law. We find already that where planning applications involve sites near special areas of conservation or natural heritage areas, council planners will seek an environmental impact statement, assessments and so on for which the applicant will be required to pay €5,000 or €6,000. It is pointless to appeal for fairness because one will be put down on every occasion. That is the attitude of the national parks and wildlife service. I have had dealings with the service for a long time on bogs, drainage schemes and other matters and it will put down local people at every opportunity. One should not depend on it to take a softly-softly approach to implementing the directive.

Mr. Silke argued that the joint committee should produce a solution to protect the rights of turf cutters. It is not within the gift of the joint committee to do so, although we can make recommendations to the Minister as he has not yet signed off on the directive. I concur with Deputy Bannon that we should invite the Minister to appear before the committee. That is the key to solving the problem because if turbary rights are signed away, they will be extinguished permanently.

As someone who hails originally from the midlands, I know one cannot compare domestic turf cutting with Bord na Móna milled peat production. Questions were asked about costs, the transfer of title to Bord na Móna and how much the company received. In the 1950s, my father sold 200 acres of bog to Bord na Móna for £1 per acre. The company decimated fauna on the bog and turned it into milled peat. While this created employment, one cannot compare the damage done by these practices and the perceived or other damage caused by domestic turf cutting.

The Minister must come before the joint committee. It is a pity he was not present for the presentations because those directly involved are much more passionate than members could ever be. We will ensure the Minister receives a copy of the transcript of the meeting because a number of important statements were made today. We will do everything in our power to assist the delegation. I do not have any confidence that the wildlife section or officers of the national parks and wildlife service will show leniency in implementing the directive. If it is signed, the service will put people to the pin of their collars and put them off their bogs. It will not show sympathy. Ms O'Connor pleaded for common sense to prevail. There is no possibility of common sense prevailing in this matter. Turf cutting will be finished if we do not get this proposal stopped at ministerial level.

I thank the Chairman for convening this unique meeting. The presentations were comprehensive, sensitive and vivid. It was most interesting to listen to each of the speakers, starting with Councillor Frankie Keena from Athlone.

Senator Glynn stated that we should invite representatives of the national parks and wildlife service to a meeting of the joint committee. Representatives of the turf cutters must also attend any such meeting, as it would be pointless to have a game of verbal ping-pong, as it were, with delegations coming before us to respond to presentations made at meetings held months beforehand. Such an approach would not get us anywhere. We need a meeting attended by all parties at which the matter will be thrashed out on the floor. While it could become wild or raucous, such an encounter would be worthwhile.

We have a good Chairman.

That is the only way to come to grips with the issue. Several of our guests stated that turf cutting for domestic purposes does not cause damage. In light of this stated fact, what is the purpose of the directive? The directive was introduced at a time when Europe was flush. It is no longer necessary or worthwhile because it impinges on a basic legal right enjoyed by people since the Land Act of 1870. In its attempts to kill home rule with kindness, the British Government gave turbary rights to those living on the land. Irrespective of who is appointed to senior positions in Brussels in the days ahead, no one in the European Union institutions, whether one of the high level appointments or the lowliest clerk in the Parliament, is entitled to extinguish these rights.

We are fighting the case on behalf of turf cutters in Ireland. In the past two or three years, 200 to 300 people have attended a number of meetings organised by the Creggan/Crosswood Turbary Group. Mr. Silke from the Irish Farmers Association and elected representatives also attended. The group has shown extraordinary patience. It should not agree to go down this or that bit of road with Johnny McRory's dog or anyone else's dog. Following this meeting, we must insist that turbary rights are upheld and people are allowed to cut turf on their own bogs, whether raised or sunken. They must retain their turbary rights. Apart from the jousting match with the national parks and wildlife service which I hope the Chairman will arrange, people should not go down any part of any road. They should seek only to retain the right to cut turf on their own bogs.

At a meeting in Curry, County Sligo at which many people spoke about the problem of turf cutting, I gave a commitment to request a meeting of the joint committee on the issue. I thank the Chairman for acceding to my request and our guests for their presentations. This is the first time I have heard some of our guests speak on the issue. I support the proposal to invite representatives of the national parks and wildlife service to attend a meeting of the joint committee.

Any such meeting should be attended by representatives of the turf cutters.

It is axiomatic that representatives of the turf cutters should be present.

There is no point in meeting representatives of the National Parks and Wildlife Service before management plans are published detailing precisely what the position in every county affected by the directive will be. As a public representative, I want to know exact details. I received letters concerning certain bogs in counties Sligo and Leitrim and I am informed of plans to have certain other bogs covered by the directive. I want precise information.

In fairness to our guests and the hundreds of people they represent who depend on turf for their livelihood and employment, the management plans must be on the table to ensure everyone knows the exact position, what is being done and what is proposed. We must also have maps. We should not have a meeting until such time as clarity has been provided, at which point we will, I hope, be able to move forward. At least then everyone would know exactly where they are and I hope we could move forward from there.

Seeing as everyone is putting his or her turf cutting credentials on the record, I footed plenty of turf. I was born in the middle of a bog and I am proud of that fact. Deputy Mary O'Rourke knows its location.

I wish to pick up on a number of the points that have been raised. The one point that was consistent across the three groups was the lack of consultation that took place with the landowners and the lack of notification. Perhaps the IFA delegation can elaborate on that issue, as it has significant experience of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, of land for motorways across the country. How is it that the National Roads Authority, NRA, and local authorities can identify landowners, even if they own a perch of ground for the compulsory purchase of land for a motorway, yet as Mr. Frankie Keena said, the notification went into theWestmeath Examiner regarding a bog in south Westmeath? How can there be such a variation between agents of the State on this issue?

I found the contribution of Ms Sile O'Connor interesting. Based on the rough figures she gave and taking the 32 bogs into consideration, we are talking about the State having to pay €5.3 billion to buy out the turf cutting rights. That is one and a half times the amount of money we have to get in the budget on 9 December. I do not think that money is currently available. Surely we should be looking at a practical mechanism to deal with that rather than talking about numbers with lots of zeros at the end.

I wish to pick up on the point that the science is flawed in regard to this matter. I raised that specific issue with the Minister and asked him about the impact of climate change on the bogs. He said no evaluation had been carried out on that. All the blame is being put on turf cutters. Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice made the point that what has been cut away is 0.5% of the 32 designated bogs. How can the Minister say to us that there is scientific evidence to show that between 2% and 4% of those bogs have disappeared in the past ten years if the turf cutters only own less than 5% of the bogs in the first place? The mathematics do not seem to add up in that regard.

I wish to make a couple of suggestions. The first is that the committee would seek a copy of the baseline maps from the Department and the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, and that they would be circulated to committee members. I would also like a copy of the study carried out on the bogs to examine the issues that were raised by Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice. We could ask the NPWS to give us a written response to each of those issues before the next committee meeting.

The terms of reference of the interdepartmental group need to be amended to consider the scientific evidence and information that has been provided by the three groups present. Currently, my understanding is that the interdepartmental group is only considering how to implement a cessation of turf cutting and is not taking into account the issues raised about continuing turf cutting in a sustainable manner.

By way of clarification the remit of the working group is to consider the financial, legal, administrative and other arrangements necessary to give effect to the ending of turf cutting on a small number of designated bogs.

The committee should recommend that those terms of reference be amended.

I am at the heart of the debate as well. I am impressed with what I heard today. That is not to say that I have not heard it many times before from the various groups, other than Councillor Keena's group. He put on an excellent show as well.

I will not go over the points made by my colleagues. In more than 30 years of my career as a Deputy I have never seen such huge numbers of people who come to meetings all over the place. They cannot all be wrong. Whatever the outcome of the issue, which I sincerely hope will be positive, I cannot see people walking away from their bogs next summer. I simply cannot see that happening.

There is an element of hypocrisy from the point of view of the national parks and wildlife service. It has given the impression that there is compensation. I tabled a parliamentary question two weeks ago on behalf of an owner of one of the 32 raised bogs. For a variety of reasons the person in question wanted to dispose of his bog. The reply was that the Department was purchasing bogs except that due to the low priority of the issue it could take a number of years before it would be processed for payment. I put on record that there are several people for whom I have made representation about bogs that are not included on the list of 32 bogs but they are still classified bogs. They are waiting for up to five years to be paid but they have not received a cent.

It is difficult to imagine that during the worst economic climate we have seen since the Emergency, with the economy on its knees, that all one can expect for 6,000 bog cutters all over this country, especially in the west, is that they would be rushed off the bogs for no other reason than that they were using their own turf as a substitute for expensive oil imports. It is the daftest idea I have heard in my lifetime. Even people in rural areas who do not have bogs will follow the band on this issue. They will not allow it to happen.

I could say much more. I compliment the groups on their professional presentations. The Chairman is to be congratulated on facilitating the meeting. Everyone concerned, including the Minister, should be brought back before the committee. There is no point in asking the Minister to come before the committee next February if he has already made the decision before December. He should understand that what is happening is like a forest fire across the country. People will not accept it. The sooner the Minister and his officials understand that, the better. In that way we will get the right answer and provide for conservation.

I thank the Chairman and welcome everyone. I have heard some of the points made previously because we had some big meetings in Galway with the turf cutters and contractors. It is clear that people will not walk away from turf cutting. I did not walk away from my bog in a very difficult year for turf cutting. It is not one of the 32 designated areas.

The point was made by the IFA about the designation of bogs. We can blame Europe for many things and we heard all about that in the two referenda on the Lisbon treaty. The treaty had nothing to do with this issue. The national parks and wildlife service is responsible for the decision. I would like to know how the decision was made. I suggest the NPWS and the Minister should be invited back before the committee. I wish to put a few points to him. I discussed the issue with him and in fairness to him, he is sympathetic.

We should discuss the sum of €500 million and where it went in terms of using that money to implement directives. I hope we get a chance to do that. We should also discuss the issue of people who want to sell bog but they cannot do it even though they are told at the same time that they cannot cut turf, for example, if they are in a natural heritage area, NHA, where they might be paid in 2014 or beyond. That seems to be a crazy situation.

Less than 10% of bogs are owned by domestic turf cutters. The figure is less than 5% in Galway. How can one tell a person who has started cutting a turf bank that he or she cannot cut any more? We should state very clearly to the Minister and the National Parks and Wildlife Service that once one starts to cut a bank of turf, one has to finish doing so. There is turf, including virgin bog, to which we do not have access because of the need to comply with EU directives but to say to people they should stop cutting, even where they have only cut a small part of a bog, is very wrong. We should all agree on this when we meet the Minister and the representatives of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

There is great interest in this matter, on which I attended some very large meetings. I wish the delegation well. The IFA and the Irish Turf Cutters and Contractors Association made their case very well today. I hope they succeed in achieving their objective.

I thank Senator Coffey who allowed me to substitute for him at this meeting. I also thank the Chairman for his indulgence. I welcome my colleague, Councillor Keena, with whom I sat on the council for many years.

I applaud the Crosswood Bog team for its tenacity and sticking with the issue. I am 100% behind it and believe it is fantastic. It has used fantastic initiatives such as the St. Patrick's Day Parade and other innovative methods to highlight its case. There is a lot of toing and froing and, as Deputy O'Rourke stated, tennis ball playing. That is a very good way of putting it. Where are the Minister, the Green Party and the officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service who answer to the Minister? It is the Minister who will sign off on the order. The Green Party can have its parliamentary party meeting and make its case because we are all in agreement. One would think we were all singing from the same hymn sheet. The Minister should be asked not to sign the directive; that is the bottom line.

I am sick, sore and tired of people hiding behind the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Minister and the directive. Let us take responsibility and be accountable to the honest to goodness ordinary person who needs the fuel to heat his or her home. Mr. Flanagan has made the point that there are people suffering from fuel poverty who will have to make a decision this winter whether to eat or stay warm. It is a no-brainer. I do not want to be political but contend someone should put his or her head above the parapet and make a decision. The Minister must be told this is a very significant issue, not an urban issue. He comes from an urban area and must accept that it is a question of the 10% of bog owners who do not damage our environment. In fact, farmers are protecting it.

I do not want to be repetitious. As a politician, I attended numerous public meetings and it is absolutely clear that this is a daft idea. There are officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who are out of control and not answerable to anybody. We are elected by the people and it is our job to right the wrong done. This problem has featured for the past five or six years. The interdepartmental group has not consulted members of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association around the country. If there is to be partnership with a view to protecting the environment, the views of the association should be taken on board.

It is obvious that the documents show a way out of this problem. There are only 15 days left for signing off. On 1 January those who cut turf will be committing an offence. We should not have to stand back. Once again, Senator McFadden is correct. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has listened to nobody, nor has his Department. There is a cabal in it that is out of control. The only person who can address this issue is the Taoiseach by talking to Fianna Fáil's partner in government, the Green Party. Let us be honest about this.

I have a proposal that would win cross-party support and get us out of this situation. We could recommend that the Minister not sign off but I do not believe he will listen to us. Instead, I propose that the committee recommend a derogation for another two years until all the facts are put on the table by all the various interest groups. We all want to protect the environment and save fuel. When we obtain the facts, we will be able to stand back. Unfortunately, there are only 15 days left in the Dáil before we can address this issue. I am sick and tired of the nonsense and going to public meetings to say circumstances are awful. What is proposed must not happen on 1 January. I, therefore, seek cross-party support for my proposal.

I thank the joint committee for holding this very worthwhile meeting which has afforded an opportunity to all the delegates to make submissions. I recognise the fact that Councillor Mike Connolly was very involved with this issue, as was Mr. Paschal Fitzmaurice who came along to offer support. In this regard, I acknowledge all those who have attended today at their own expense, particularly those from County Westmeath, to support the submissions being made.

I read in detail the submission made by the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. It is an excellent document and should be submitted to the Minister and his Department through the Chairman. A tremendous amount of work went into it. The same goes for the submissions made by the Creggan and Crosswood turbary group and Mr. Michael Silke. These documents should be considered and responded to.

I recognise that Mr. Paddy Concannon, a former colleague of mine on Roscommon County Council who is over 90 years of age, has done trojan work in this regard. His contribution and fight on this issue are a credit to him. If he must, he will take the ultimate step and continue to cut turf for as long as he can.

I am a turf cutter, although I did not spend much time on the bog this year. I brought home turf when I was being reared. My father told me one time that, for a man who was fond of the fire, I was not that mad about the bog. Whether I like it, I am now back on it. With the economic downturn, nothing is more valuable than turf. The number of cutters is not as great as it was in my youth but it is growing. Nobody is being forced to cut turf but where people have access to a bog and want to cut turf for domestic use, should not be prevented from doing so. That is the fundamental issue. There is an enormous amount of turf available.

There is complacency among those bog owners who are not on the list. They are under the impression that they will not be touched but it has been highlighted today that the measure will be extended to all bogs in the country if the order is signed.

Ms Síle O'Connor made a submission to the interdepartmental committee which is supposed to report shortly, by the end of this month or in early December. I do not know what correspondence the Chairman has had with the group. The Minister can hardly sign the order before the interdepartmental committee makes its recommendations. His doing so would be illogical. Ms O'Connor's group has attended meetings with the interdepartmental committee.

I support the proposal made by members, that is, that there be dialogue among the various interest groups involved. The IFA has a very important role to play and has a representative in Brussels to engage in lobbying. Very important statements were made today that must be dealt with. To what do the records pertain? Is it the 1830s survey of Ireland or more recent surveys? By using Google and other facilities, it can now be proved how much bog is available. I am delighted the delegation has attended the meeting. It can raise the matter further through the Joint Committees on European Affairs and European Scrutiny. The Minister should also be brought before the committee to discuss the issue with the various parties concerned.

I cannot say my happiest days were spent on the bog because I always gave out when my father brought me there. However, the delegation has made its case very well. I agree with Deputy Feighan and Senator McFadden that the turf cutters are close to being walked on. It takes 15 Dáil days before a Minister makes a decision. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has said to me in the past, "Fidelma, tell me what happens in rural Ireland." The man truly has no knowledge of what happens on the ground.

Ms O'Connor has made a valid case that the directive has been imposed on turf cutters without hard scientific evidence, consultation or proper oversight. It is an absolute scandal. Together, we must see to it that this is stopped.

Ireland has just ratified the Lisbon treaty which includes the principle of subsidiarity, whereby decisions are made closer to the people. I encourage the Chairman to have the Minister and the National Parks and Wildlife Service attend the committee in order that the principle can be applied in this case. If it is, Ms O'Connor's concerns will be taken on board.

The directive from the European Union is being implemented without any knowledge of what happens on the ground or common sense. People who cut turf are, on the whole, fairly poor and a diminishing group. With the rise in fuel poverty, we need to protect them. As Deputy O'Rourke said, they have turbary rights and the right to property is the second highest in the land. We should not let it go easily.

Will committee members on the Government side inform the Minister how important this issue has become? There is no point in playing politics with it. I look forward to the Chairman securing the Minister's and the National Parks and Wildlife Service's attendance to discuss the matter. Will he also ask the Minister to instruct the National Parks and Wildlife Service to take into account the concerns of local people on all matters? It is riding roughshod over them and I have heard much about the matter in County Galway, particularly Connemara. People will only take so much; enough is enough. I say, "Well done" to the delegation. It has done itself and the country a great service.

I thank the delegation for its presentation. I am not a member of the joint committee and thank the Chairman for taking all of our representations on board and facilitating this meeting.

The word "emotive" has been used to describe various meetings on this matter. What I detected at them was despair and discontent about decision-makers. I cannot understand why this meeting was not held much sooner. I understand there are many deputations which want to attend committee meetings at this time of the year. Most of them, particularly with the budget coming up, are looking for funding. This delegation is, however, looking for its rights. That message must go out from the meeting. It is time there was a connection between those in power and others such as those involved in the delegation. I can assure any Deputy on any side of the House who is not involved or does not know of the matter that it is a real issue in rural areas and needs to be sorted out quickly.

While I grew up and live in Lucan, people should not presume that if one is a Dub, one does not have any connection with the countryside. My parents were from County Mayo and I spent my summer holidays in counties Mayo and Sligo and sometimes even helped relatives to cut turf.

This matter has just not got to do with the European Union. I noted from one of the presentations that the group had raised the matter with the European Commission but was informed it was a matter for the Irish authorities to make decisions in accordance with the directive on particular peat extraction proposals and activities. The Commission does not want environmental directives implemented in such a way that they might be damaging to the environment. When directives are implemented, it wants local knowledge applied with public consultation. The submissions state there was no proper consultation and that the National Parks and Wildlife Service did not meet landowners, etc.

The European Commission has a directive on public participation. A central part of EU environmental law is the right of the public to receive information and participate in processes about environmental matters. If the members of the groups believe their voices have not been heard, they can make a complaint to the Commission directly with a petition, not through a MEP. They should also make this point to the Minister. It is their right as European citizens to be consulted on the matter. The Minister and the National Parks and Wildlife Service must have regard to the people who will be affected when applying directives.

I apologise for not being present at the meeting earlier as I was in the Chamber for Question Time. However, I did attend a public meeting in Claremorris on the matter. It was the first time that I saw people responding to regulation. In this country we cannot fish, farm or cut turf because of regulations. Ministers went to the European Union to negotiate this directive and approved it. I am sick and tired of listening to them and taking no responsibility afterwards. Enough is enough.

The IFA has been stating this for many years but no one listened. Farmers are sick and tired of regulation. Where was the National Parks and Wildlife Service for the past ten years when the country was destroyed by development? It is a little like the issue of law and order. There is only law for the poor and the weak. The National Parks and Wildlife Service can use its authority, bring the Garda out and attack people individually, one by one. The people of the west have had enough and are going to fight back. I do not care who is in government. We are sick and tired of daft and stupid regulations. Our officials in Europe cost us a fortune and are twiddling their thumbs every day thinking up new ways to make it awkward for people in rural Ireland. They are getting paid a lot of money to do this, which is even worse. What happens here? The Minister signs off on it and officials in every Department must go ten steps further than what has been required by Europe.

I want to say something to the Minister. Actually, you are the Chairman, but you will be a Minister.


We can discuss this matter all we like today, but I hope that the Chairman and committee will invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, and the officials we sent to Brussels to negotiate for us. They are eating too many dinners in Brussels. That is what is wrong with them. They are having too much of that Brussels wine and are losing sight of what is occurring in Ireland. This situation must change because our guests, others and I have had enough. We want to stop the over-regulation of Ireland.

I was not born on a farm or with a silver spoon in my mouth. I came from a big family in the middle of a housing estate. We lived beside a wood and had turbary rights, although we did not own the wood. Ever evening, my job was to cut the timber. We were effectively cutting coal. There are a couple of hundred houses in that wood now. They will finish up in NAMA.

Deputy Treacy is next and Deputy Fitzpatrick will conclude.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating my attendance at this meeting. I warmly welcome everyone who has attended. Bogs are a complex ecosystem and this is a complex issue. There is considerable enthusiasm to resolve it, but it is important that we put the facts on the table. There is no point in misleading anyone.

I live in remote rural Ireland and understand the bogs as well as anyone. For many years, Bord na Móna employed 500 people half a mile from my door, but that bog has been cut out. I believe in tradition, a value system and rights. We cannot remove the people's constitutional rights. People who follow a tradition in doing something, no matter what it may be, have the right to continue doing so. This has been my consistent position for 27 and a half years in public life and ten elections. However, there is no point in leading people astray into believing that we have an instantaneous solution within our compass.

In October 1996, agreement was reached between the IFA's national officers and the then Minister for heritage and culture that Ireland would do a particular thing in a particular way to fulfil the EU's habitats directive. A statutory instrument was signed in February 1997 and lodged as a binding instrument on behalf of Ireland with the European Commission as our contribution to the directive. Regrettably, the bogs discussed today and others were included in the instrument. If we are to make any change in that law, we must vary the instrument. As this is the legal position, there is no point in anyone saying that people can be thrown to the wolves and others can be told to continue on. The situation is one of a dual legal position.

Subsequently, agreement was reached with a number of farmers in a particular bog that would be the template for resolving the compensation issue in this situation. However, third party manipulation meant that the compensation process was never concluded contractually. A vacuum was created and a parallel system was not set up to facilitate those who wanted to dispose of their bogs as well as those who wanted to utilise them. These are the complexities and legal positions within which we, as legislators and the people's representatives, must operate. It is important for those who made a sincere, decent and open case at this meeting to know the facts and have this information available to them.

Deputy Feighan used the word "honest", with which I agree. We should have a derogation for a further two years to give negotiations between the people to my right, the NPWS, the Commission and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government an opportunity.

I am a conservationist and my rules on it are simple. I am also an environmentalist, but I am a practical person. Where a bog has been cut or broached, it is different from the bog that was never touched. I have stated this consistently and made decisions in this respect. Where a bog is cut or broached, it should continue to be cut.

Deputy Treacy has summed up the thoughts of many of those present. I would like to second Senator Glynn's proposal. I wish to refer to a difference, however. We have discussed turbary rights today, but bog owners also have rights. When the Minister replied to Deputy Feighan some weeks ago, I understood the reply to be positive. He stated that the measures would include full consideration of the impact of any cessation on those families and individuals who have relied on turf-cutting in these bogs for their fuel supplies. From reading his statements and given our discussions with him previously, he is not closed to suggestions and the proposal on a two-year derogation will be received favourably.

In my little constituency of Kildare North, we do not have many special areas of conservation. There may only be one. However, the matter in question is a major problem in the midlands and the west. I hope that it is brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

May I ask some questions?

I have proposed a derogation of two years. Would this be acceptable?

I will ask the delegation to respond. What I am proposing——

May I clarify my proposal? Deputies Treacy and Fitzpatrick and others have clearly spelled out the situation. Whether we like it or not and irrespective of who is in government, the NPWS is an agent of the State and is deemed to comprise experts. For this reason, I proposed that it appear before the committee. Of course today's groups would be included. Otherwise, what would be the point in bringing the NPWS back? I am surprised that this was even questioned. As I have already said, it would be axiomatic. If the NPWS is going to make a report, let us shape it. There is no point in reacting to it. Let us be proactive.

I will ask people to make observations that are not too long. We have been here for a couple of hours and people understand the issues. We will start with Mr. Walshe and move along.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

I must start by making a correction, as Deputy Treacy tried to insinuate that the IFA agreed to this provision with a Minister in 1996. It is important that everyone understand the situation. When the Minister came to implement the directive having agreed it in Brussels, there was no agreement with the IFA. I defy the Deputy to find such an agreement anywhere.

I will respond.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

We fought to get the derogation that has been in place in recent years. I am present today because of the importance I attach to this issue and the number of people who have approached me about it. These types of proposal come from people who are pushing an agenda. Senator Healy Eames said this came from people who do not understand the rural way of life and what happens in rural areas and from people who may have read a report stating that turf cutting was bad. Unfortunately, most of us in rural Ireland do not spend our time writing reports. We are getting on with our business and doing what we need to do. People in rural Ireland have been cutting turf for centuries, not just years or generations. These do-gooders need to realise that farmers and rural dwellers have created and maintained our environment through the centuries. We are dependent on the environment and are the last people who will damage it but we must be allowed to continue. Turf cutting is part of that. A small percentage of these bogs are in private ownership. The Department and the Minister can designate some of the Bord na Móna bogs or the publicly owned bogs and meet the requirements of the directive through this. However, it is mostly privately owned bogs they decided to designate.

Senator Glynn referred to communication not being up to the standard we would all like. There has been no communication.

It is worse than I thought it was.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

I do not know how any members can allow the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, the representatives of the Government dealing with people on the ground who are dependent on this, to dictate to people as if they were nobodies with no rights. They are doing it on behalf of the elected public representatives and it is not good enough. Members should not be sitting there, allowing it to happen.

That is why I asked Mr. Walshe to come back in.

I want the delegates to be able to respond.

Mr. Pádraig Walshe

All members of this committee are Members of the Oireachtas and it is being done on their behalf. It is not good enough.

Deputy Naughten referred to the National Roads Authority. We deal with the NRA, ESB and Bord Gáis. They are regularly crossing people's land to build roads, supply gas or install power lines. They approach the IFA and the landowners, have their homework done and know exactly who is affected. We can convene a meeting of those affected and negotiate compensation. That is how the world works. Most people are quite happy with this because they appreciate that public works must be done, roads must be built and power lines must be supplied. People are amenable to that but they have rights and if those rights are to be taken away, people must be compensated.

Deputy Feighan suggested a further derogation of two years. The arguments we put forward for a derogation ten years ago are the same as the arguments being made today. I was not president of the association at the time but Mr. Gerry Gunning was on board. Predecessors of Mr. Michael Silke and I made the same arguments to the Department with responsibility for the environment and were granted the ten-year derogation. I do not see that a further two-year derogation would do any good because the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is convinced this must happen. From my experience he is not prepared to negotiate. Officials in his Department are determined that this will happen. They are not prepared to examine the possibility of designating other land. They would not have any trouble communicating with landowners in that case because they would only have to communicate with Bord na Móna. There is only one owner and it would be very simple. It is not good enough that the NPWS thinks it can designate land as an SAC or NHA without notifying the IFA so that we can communicate and appeal the designation. This is a right we have been fighting for and we will continue to fight for it until the NPWS treats people properly in respect of this.

There is a suggestion that we should all come back in here again. I have no problem. If I am available I will be here because the issue is important. However, the window that remains is small. It is decision time and there are serious implications for all involved. Deputy Ring referred to land ending up in NAMA but it will be like the Committee Stage debate of the NAMA legislation. The meeting will have to be held in the Chamber because this room will not hold all the people who will want to attend.

Mr. Michael Silke

The president has covered most of the issues. I was disappointed by Deputy Treacy's attitude. I spent the last eight years in the IFA fighting for farmers whose lands or bogs have been designated. I made a major effort. Why would I do this if the IFA had signed away rights in the 1980s? Let us call a spade a spade. I have spent more time on these issues than anyone in the IFA. I travel to County Mayo, Deputy Ring's constituency, which is depopulated and where people were destocked. It is the same in Connemara.

In my area, we are locked out of our meadows until the middle of September. For the past three years we have not got a bale out of them because the flood has taken it from us. This happens because we are designated. I got no notification of my land being designated. My farm has 100 acres designated as an SAC or SPA, the most serious forms of designation. I was never notified in any way and I must live with the consequences. The position of people in the bogs is similar. There is no procedure. We are being treated as Cromwell treated us years ago. It is ironic that it can happen in a supposed democracy. That is the futile reality of where we are. This is a serious situation that is not being addressed. I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity today but we should have had the opportunity long ago. It is ironic that it is the issue of the bogs that leads to us appearing before the committee.

A number of people, including Senator Leyden and Deputy Ring, referred to travelling to Brussels. I have been to Brussels, I have talked to the committee with responsibility for the environment and the directorate general for the environment and these issues. Every time I go, I am told that the issue is with the State, not Brussels. The directive comes from Europe but it is up to the member states to implement the directive. The mechanism Ireland used to interpret and implement the directive has led to this situation. The IFA has made good proposals to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about the bogs. I have suggested taking bogs back from Coillte that have been forested. These sites could be deforested and used as alternative sites. That would account for 50% of the designated lands to fulfil the requirements. Why not use the system used in the Netherlands? This allows people to use the breakline, allowing people to cut a bog up to a certain point. The State can do whatever the hell it likes with the rest of it. We do not want State bogs. The NPWS is taking the cheapest option available. It can do like Cromwell did and shove us out.

Deputy Eamon Scanlon was at a recent meeting. I have a case in his county concerning a decent farmer, married with five young children, who worked in a builders suppliers. I will not say where he worked because I do not want to give away too much information. He cut turf on a blanket bog, not a raised bog, overlooking a lake in Sligo. The Department told us a number of years ago that it had no interest in blanket bogs. He cut his turf as he always did. The departmental officials told him he could no longer cut and the man complied. However, because he cut turf that year, a 15% penalty has been applied on his single farm, REPS and disadvantaged area aid payment. This man will not be able to put dinner on the table at Christmas.

I visited the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and it showed how inhuman the Department is. I believed I had the issue resolved because I deal with these issues every other day, although not as harsh a case as his. He should have no case to answer in the first instance. He received no notification that he could not cut turf. When he was told he could not do it, he stopped. A penalty has been imposed on him. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government refused to make any effort to enter into negotiations with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which imposes the penalty, to relieve the man of the burden placed upon him. When I spoke to officials at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food they replied that there was nothing they could do, that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government had sent them the information and they must act on it. Regulation and who is doing what must come into the real world. This would be a joke if it was not such a serious matter for the people affected. I appeal to the committee to consider these issues and examine the social and economic effects of what these proposals are doing to people in rural Ireland.

I am disappointed at the line taken by Deputy Treacy. He should come back to the reality of what happened when the habitats directive was implemented. We have suffered too much. Does Deputy Treacy seriously think I would have wasted the past ten years of my life on the committees if we had signed people's rights away? We did not have a right to do it. What we did do was put a voluntary scheme in place for people who wanted to sell their bogs. The Department bought those bogs and they amount to 27% or 28% of what the Department wanted. If the Coilte bogs are added to that 27% or 28% of bog, very little bog is required for the Department to fulfil its requirement under the habitats directive. It is time that reason was introduced to the debate and that ordinary people in rural Ireland were given a life.

Councillor Frankie Keena

I thank the members who spoke and have given us words of support to take back to our areas. The Visitors' Gallery is full of people who gave up their time to travel from Athlone, south Westmeath and other parts of the country to listen to this debate. This in itself should help filter through to Oireachtas Members that people throughout the country are concerned about this issue. I am not sure how often the Visitors' Gallery is filled for committee meetings.

I am a member of the Fianna Fáil party and a councillor in County Westmeath. I am delighted to be here as a representative of the Creggan and Crosswood group on these issues and I thank it for its support. I liaised with Senator Camillus Glynn to put this item on the committee's agenda. It is argued that the Government will have to move on this matter and I agree. I am using what power I have as a councillor on this issue and I am working with Senator Glynn. I call on my fellow party members to get in touch with the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and prevent this from being signed off before the end of the year. This is very important.

With regard to the habitats directive, scientists will argue that we need to protect sphagnum mosses. However, sphagnum mosses can grow in cutover bogs. It has been preached from on high that sphagnum mosses are becoming extinct and we need to protect them. Another point on the habitats directive is that it would be nice if the Irish Parks and Wildlife Service provided maps. I implore all Oireachtas Members present to recommend to the Minister that domestic turf cutting should be allowed on all bogs, including SAC bogs.

Mr. Joe Devery

I thank Deputy Frank Feighan for asking our opinion on something before it has affected the bog; it is the first time this has happened. He asked us our opinion on a derogation. Our opinion is slightly irrelevant because we will not be affected until 2012. Other groups present will be affected almost immediately and we will await their comments. If derogation is granted we do not want to see any wind taken out of the sails. We do not want to take from the time allotted. We have several days and we would like a decision to be made quickly. We have been trying to speak to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, for almost three years but he has not come to the table. Another two years might get him off the hook for those two years and we do not want to see that.

We asked the European Commission for its opinion on our bog and it told us it did not want commercial peat extraction and that it was up to the Government to say whether we could continue. In other words, it put the pen swipe back to the Government. The main problem is that the Minister does not want to meet us. Perhaps his Green Party background is a disadvantage; we do not know. If any of the members sitting around this table were in his position he or she would have spoken to us already. We have not been spoken to.

As Deputy O'Rourke stated, it is important to have another meeting and we would like to see a larger group of people present on such an occasion. Others who are involved are not here today and they should not be bypassed. Deputy Naughten spoke about the lack of consultation. We had no consultation. A notice in the newspaper stated we could fight this on scientific issues. We have been asking for the scientific report since 2007 but we have not received it. I wish the committee good luck in trying to get the maps from the Minister. We have had no success.

We do not know where the €500 million received from the EU went but we expect Bord na Móna was paid for our bog and that it did not give it away for nothing. It never gave anything else away for nothing so why should it have done so in this matter? We would love to know where the money went. We will be available to come before the committee at any time and we are glad to have this opportunity today.

Ms Síle O’Connor

We would not be here today if the directive had been implemented properly. The directive was implemented by ministerial order. It should have been implemented by an Act of the Oireachtas, as was required. There was no way the contents of the directive could have been debated in the Oireachtas because there would have been uproar. Instead, it was signed at 12.40 a.m. in a back room. It was agreed by all the social partners. It was a drastic mistake.

We have come here today to give the Government a way out and a face-saving exercise whereby this can be sorted out. It can be sorted out by the rules of subsidiarity. It would be a good idea to bring people before the committee again but it is not only the National Parks and Wildlife Service that is involved. There are also NGOs, which are funded by the Government. These, while well meaning, own nothing and bear no responsibility for their actions. If we build a ditch badly we will have to fix it. If the NGOs make a suggestion and everybody grasps it because they have the high moral ground and it is wrong, they get funding to fix it. They are the groups that should come before the committee. They have more say about our land than we do because they are notice parties. Before we are ever told about what is designated or not, they are told. They can even make suggestions. There is no reason to have bog rangers going around the countryside in permanent pensionable jobs patrolling what we are doing. They would be much better redeployed someplace else. They are not necessary where we are.

Whether the agreements made were right or wrong does not come into play. The agreements are voidab initio because the directive was wrongly implemented in the first instance. There is a way out under the subsidiarity rule. If people still think we are causing environmental damage of any type to the landscape, I suggest they watch “Cogar” on TG4 next Sunday evening. It will convince them absolutely that we are not doing any environmental damage to the landscape.

Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice

To respond to Deputy Denis Naughten, we have carried out an in-depth survey which shows that in the past ten years less than 0.5% of bog has been used by domestic turf cutters.

These are the facts and they will stand up anywhere. The waffle is being spread day in and day out that 35% of the bog has disappeared. I heard at one stage that 98% had disappeared and I almost drove up to my own bog to see if it was still there. Some of these so-called intelligent people do not know what they are talking about. To put it simply, an active raised bog habitat is like the grass growing in the field. If one does not cut it, it grows and falls. I am simplifying the process because I want people to understand it.

Ireland has introduced a system whereby if we do not have a favourable raised bog habitat to report to Europe, we are in deep trouble. However, we were in deep trouble from the outset for the simple reason that the areas owned by the national parks and wildlife service, NPWS, in the west of Ireland were previously owned by Bord Móna. I am not saying one word against Bord na Móna when I note that the drains were open at the time. When we attended the interdepartmental committee meeting I asked Jim Ryan, who is the so-called expert, about the issue and he made it clear that a habitat cannot grow if it is drained at 10 m intervals. The problem is that the habitat has failed and is no longer favourable. If one did nothing with bogs and then reported them to the boys in Europe as a favourable raised bog habitat, they might smile for once in their lives. That might solve the problem.

The active bog habitats on certain bogs which have been under the total control of the NPWS for as long as 30 years have actually decreased. That is a damning record for the people who are supposed to be the guardians of our bogs and the experts who will make them grow like never before. Even though no bad people called "turf cutters" were working on these bogs, their active habitats decreased substantially in some cases. The NPWS needs to consult the country people who have minded their bogs for so many years. Every bog is different. The contractor intimately knows the good and bad spots, the type of turf and where the machine can be used. Full involvement is needed if the problem is to be addressed. If the NPWS wants to blame the turf cutters for causing destruction, a liner can be put down. With all the people who are currently unemployed and the experience we have in construction, I would be ashamed to admit to this committee that I let a few liners slip in a bog.

If people work together, a sensible solution can be found. There are very reasonable people in the country. Contractors have an intimate knowledge of their bogs. However, one needs to learn manners and respect for the people who guarded their bogs for so long. We are heading down the road of no return and people are getting frustrated. We hold meetings which are attended by as many as 500 angry people. We are trying to control the situation by working towards a solution but the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will have to listen to rural Ireland some day.

A number of suggestions have been made, including derogation and further consultation with the Minister or the NPWS. I propose that the committee shall meet next week to decide on a course of action. I do not want us to make a final decision now given that we have not asked the Minister about his availability.

The clock is ticking. In light of the new scientific knowledge and the absence of full consultation, this committee should propose a derogation for two years.

Some of today's delegates did not necessarily agree with that proposal.

I am conscious that the president of the IFA has departed. While I respect that he is a busy man, I would prefer that he be here while I speak. The position is simple. A meeting was held in Mellows Campus in Athenry in the autumn of 1996. Agreement was reached on a statutory instrument to be lodged with the European Commission. Reference was made to that agreement in one of today's submissions. The IFA itself admits that it reached agreement on the issue. I am not here to denigrate anybody because I want to achieve common cause on resolving the problems. I have done as much as anybody in this regard. A number of people have claimed credit for the 1999 derogation. I was at the negotiating table when a five year derogation was proposed and I persuaded my Government colleagues at Cabinet to extend it to ten years. These are the facts of the situation and I will only speak in facts.

Mr. Fitzmaurice has summed up the issue very well and I respect everyone's sincerity. We are all in this together and the problems can only be resolved on this island because the European Union will accept what we decide. We are bound by a legal instrument which hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of the people who want to continue cutting turf. We have to get enough space to renegotiate a better instrument on their behalf.

I made the proposal that the NPWS should present maps and management plans for the affected lands.

I propose that the committee does not sign the directive.

That is the bottom line.

The majority of committee members are not in attendance. We will put the proposal to them.

We can bring them back for a vote.

The time is too short.

The Chairman has the right to put Senator McFadden's proposal to a vote.

Even though an EU directive has been put in place, the ultimate decision will be made by the Government. I urge the Chairman to ask his Government colleague to avoid implementing the decision.

I will.

Mr. Michael Silke

I am not happy with what the Deputy is saying. He was a junior Minister, to the best of my knowledge, when this directive was signed in. The IFA does not sign directives into law.

I did not say it had signed it into law.

Mr. Michael Silke

The Deputy implied that the IFA effectively contributed to the situation we are in today. Deputy Treacy, as a junior Minister, was associated with the introduction of the directive. Let us call a spade a spade. I was not involved in it and nor was anyone from the IFA, but we must deal with the consequences of it. We have been trying to deal with it for years.

Is Mr. Silke saying the IFA was not involved in the negotiations?

Mr. Gerry Gunning

It is similar to the nitrates regulations and any other EU regulations that have come in. This committee on the environment had a long discussion of the nitrates directive.

We did.

Mr. Gerry Gunning

The IFA did not sign the nitrates directive but we must live with it, although we do not like it. We do not like the habitats directive either. Many aspects of the directive were fought tooth and nail at the time. Deputy Treacy talks about persuading the Government to extend the five-year derogation to ten years. We were talking to the Government and we said——

The IFA was talking to the officials.

Mr. Gerry Gunning


Yes, but the Government took the decision.

Mr. Gerry Gunning

There was an extension of the derogation. Deputy Treacy has been in Government many times. Why does the derogation need to be an extended one? In other words, it should not exist at all. That would be the best scenario for everybody here.

I did not create it.

Mr. Gerry Gunning

Deputy Treacy is in Government and he can do this. Chairman, we have a responsibility——

I am not in Government.

Mr. Gerry Gunning

I am sorry; can I finish? We have a responsibility to the people we represent. As Mr. Silke has explained, the EU habitats directive has wide application, not just to bogs. Mr. Silke explained about his own area and other areas throughout the country. It is similar to the nitrates directive. We do not like the nitrates directive; Mr. Walshe said that today. We have to live with the inspection process and other aspects. Our job is to get the best deal possible. The problem we have at this point, as we mentioned, is that there are 15 days left in which we must do something. If we do not, the new arrangements will come into place on 1 January 2010. Something must be done about it. That is the point we are making today.

Deputy Feighan has made a proposal and I have seconded it. It is a matter for the Chairman to decide.

I would like the three parties to explain what proposal they want. What do they think is the best thing to do to get things moving? I will accept whatever they say.

Mr. Michael Silke

I will explain the position of the IFA. A derogation for two years is certainly welcome. However, it is not the long-term solution we want. What we want is a solution whereby people will be allowed to cut their turf in the future. It is as simple as that. With all respect to Deputy Feighan's proposal, I have a real worry that if we go the route of derogation we are only putting the issue away for another day, which we have done for too long.

Mr. Joe Devery

Only for the IFA we would not even have been informed about the ten-year derogation. We never would have known about it. We would have been thrown off our bog in 2008. It was kept a big secret from us. We asked everyone the story on this and we were not told about any derogation until we contacted the IFA. That was the first time the derogation came to light. We were glad it was there because we would have been put off our bogs in 2008 without it. It was the first we heard of it.

What I have been hearing from people up and down the country, particularly in the midlands, is that they do not want this directive implemented, and that is it. That is the bottom line. That is the message we must pass on to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and his colleagues: that we do not want it signed into law.

Mr. Michael Fitzmaurice

Our ideal scenario, anybody's aspiration, is that there should be no limitation on domestic turf-cutting in Ireland for the amount of fuel used. It should not be one year or two or five or ten. In any bog to which the directive applies, people should be allowed to cut for domestic use, but the ranger and the contractor must work together to make sure the habitat in the dome of the bog is functioning correctly. In certain bogs, this could take four to five years. This is a scenario in which everyone can live happily together. That is achievable, believe it or not. Nobody should ask whether someone has the right to cut turf for his or her own house. The ten, 12, 14 or 15 hoppers they use represent a minuscule amount. Members should remember what I said earlier on: one acre of bog supplies enough turf for an ordinary home for 300 years. That is nearly four generations of people. Why do we come down to talk about giving people a year or two years? One can never quantify what to give anybody.

We should work on a format. We need to forget about stipulations that people stop cutting. Everything must come off the table. Every person in this scenario must work together. Nobody can take the high moral ground. People meet on a bog. They do not meet in places such as this; they meet on the ground to sort out the problem. We can talk until the cows come home in here, but it is out on the bog that the problem will be sorted. That is the only way forward.

If at all possible we should try to sort it out here and agree on a proposal before we leave. Deputy Treacy said derogation was granted for ten years in 1999. I am now hearing that this was signed over the heads of people who owned a piece of bog without their being informed in writing. That is fundamentally wrong and should not have happened. It is a matter of property rights. On that basis alone it should be renegotiated. I appeal to the Government Deputies, of whom a number are here, to ensure that something is done. This is not yet signed by the Minister. I ask them to act now on the basis that this derogation was signed over the heads of these people. Let us remember that the second highest right in this land, after the right to life, is the right to property. We are sailing very close to the wind here. I put it to Deputy Treacy that he should intervene.

I will be straightforward and tell the committee that I do not intend to take a vote today, for the simple reason that the committee has not yet communicated with the Minister.

Time is running out.

We have a meeting early next week at which we will make a definite decision. I will not ask for a vote today with regard to an action we are requesting the Minister to take without first having spoken to the Minister. The essence of the complaints we have heard from the delegates is that decisions were made over their heads without consultation. It would be illogical to try to force the Minister's hand without even the courtesy of speaking to him. We have not done that.

I am worried about that from a political point of view. We have brought this debate to a fairly high level today——

However, we do not have representatives of the Department here.

I put down——

It will be the first item on the agenda the next day.

I tabled a parliamentary question on this issue and got a written reply from the Minister on Tuesday, 10 November 2009, stating: "The cessation of turf cutting is due to come into effect at the end of this year". The question to which I refer is Question No. 379. I tried to persuade him to rescind his decision several times when we spoke about the issue. It is of the utmost importance that we act. The budget is the week after next and then we are into the Christmas recess period. Time is running out. We want a commitment from the Minister. Earlier I asked the Chairman to speak to the Minister and try to persuade him to postpone the decision.

I will do so within the next 24 hours, either this evening or tomorrow. We have not even spoken to the Minister and heard his views——

When does the Chairman propose to make contact?

Within the next 24 hours. Our next meeting here is next week and everyone is welcome to attend.

Will it be on this issue?

We have other business planned but this issue will be the first item on the public agenda. I will inform people of the time.

Will the Minister be in attendance?

No. It is next Wednesday at 10 a.m. This issue will be the first item on the agenda. There are conflicting opinions on the issue.

I am not a member of this committee and I thank the committee for having us. I wonder if the Chairman could consider what has been said with regard to the proposals to meet the NPWS and the Minister. I ask him to make that request.

We will try to have something in place for next Wednesday.

I ask him to make that request to both the NPWS and the Minister.

We will have an opportunity to do that because we will have time to talk to Minister and the national parks and wildlife section in advance of the meeting next Wednesday morning. It will be the first item on our agenda.

I agree with the Chairman. It cannot be political. It is too important for that.

I will conclude today's business.

I withdraw my proposal.

I thank the Senator for that and thank all the guests for their attendance. Do they have a final comment?

Councillor Frankie Keena

I look merely for clarification concerning proposals mentioned earlier. The Chairman hopes to bring in the national parks and wildlife section and the Minister at the next meeting.

No, not next Wednesday. We will speak to them before then in order to be able to make a specific proposal.

Councillor Frankie Keena

Is it planned to invite——

We will communicate with all the groups represented here today. The clerk of the committee will keep in touch with them concerning any developments or proposals that may be made next week.

Mr. Michael Silke

Is it possible to ask the Minister to defer signing anything until he and his Department have met the groups?

We will make a decision on that next Wednesday. It has been a very helpful and useful discussion and I thank all concerned.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.20 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2009.