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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Agriculture Schemes

The final Topical Issue matter is to discuss the compensation package for farmers in relation to the Shass Mountain landslide. I hope my pronunciation is correct.

It is correct. Which Minister is taking this matter? We addressed it to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I have huge respect for the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, and his portfolio, but I had hoped we would have a Minister or Minister of State from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. However, like Deputy Michael McNamara, I will keep my powder dry because maybe we will get good news, which is what we are here for.

To provide some context for the Minister of State, a landslide occurred at Shass Mountain in Drumkeeran in June 2020, which is well over 20 months ago. More than 20 farmers and eight foresters were adversely affected by the damage from the landslide. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, set up an inter-agency group that did really good work. All of that is in hand. However, the farmers in the area have seen no progress on agricultural issues. Force majeure has been used for two years to enable those farmers to access their payments. The Minister of State and I both know that force majeure can no longer apply after two years. The affected farmers need certainty about their payments.

Last November, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, came to Drumkeeran where he met the farmers and stakeholders and engaged with all of us. He promised he would seek funding from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to put a compensation package in place. Despite a great deal of correspondence, all I got in response to a parliamentary question was a holding answer indicating that nothing definite was happening.

The farmers have been patient, as have public representatives. When similar incidents occurred in other parts of the country, they were done and dusted and compensation packages were put in place within 12 months.

We have waited more than 20 months now. Perhaps we have been too patient. I am hoping for good news, however. I am hoping to hear a definite date, at the very least, by which the Minister will deliver on the compensation package he promised he would negotiate when he was in Drumkeeran last November,

First, to give the Minister of State a bit of background, this is an area of what one would call marginal land. Obviously, if there is a slide from bog, as the Minister of State knows because I know where he comes from and met him up in his own country, where there is bog, the land around it is marginal. These people are rearing families on small portions of land and in my opinion, they matter. In fairness, the Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, set up an interagency group at the time. Many of the different State bodies were involved. Even the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was involved. The problem as we move on, however, as Deputy Harkin outlined, is that force majeure only lasts so long.

A commitment was given that a compensation package would be put in place to try to resolve this. I am talking about where the slide went down and destroyed areas. Rivers and different parts were involved. It is not in my area but I went down to see the devastation it caused to small farms and small bits of land. Where it is situated at the bottom of the mountain would always be the place someone might bring the ewes down for lambing, or it would only be the bit of middling ground a person has. Rather than putting animals up the mountain, a person would bring them down in wintertime or springtime for lambing or it might be the place someone would have a few cattle in those small farms. That is why this is important. A decision needs to be given and made. We cannot keep going on in limbo. Farmers need clarity, especially as they are living in uncertain times at the moment. As the man says, I am enthralled to hear the reply that is coming. I hope what is coming is positive.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, asked me to respond to this Topical Issue matter on his behalf. As Deputies will know, he was not available in the Chamber a short while ago for the votes either. I thank Deputies Harkin and Fitzmaurice for raising this issue, which is very difficult for the people involved.

The landslide occurred on Shass Mountain, close to the village of Drumkeeran in County Leitrim, on 28 June 2020 following heavy rain on that day and in the preceding days. An area of upland blanket bog, including an area of adjacent forestry plantation, moved downhill as a result of the liquefied peat, vegetation and trees continuing from its source to follow the course of a tributary of the Diffagher River downhill to Lough Allen. Some of the landslide material was held up at an area known as Dawn of Hope Bridge close to the origin of the landslide. A quantity of material overflowed the bridge, however, and made its way approximately 7 km downstream to eventually spread out and settle on areas of farm and forestry land in a number of townlands. Sporadic deposits of peat and other debris subsequently occurred, with the heaviest deposits occurring in three townland areas, namely, Corcormick, Derrindangan and Corchuill Lower.

Following the landslide, officials from the Department mapped the areas affected by the deposit of peat and debris from the landslide using a combination of satellite imagery for the period in question and detailed GPS data collected from surveys conducted on the ground in July and August 2020. The total land area of agricultural land affected by the overspill has been calculated at 24.09 ha. This land was declared by 18 basic payment scheme, BPS, applicants in 2020. The total area of forestry within the damaged area is approximately 12 ha. This comprises land held in seven privately owned forestry contracts.

In the aftermath of the landslide in 2020, the Minister moved to ensure that force majeure would apply to ensure that all farm scheme payments were not impacted by this event. Officials from the

Department contacted each of the applicants affected by the landslide to assure them that payments would not be impacted. Force majeure was applied again in 2021. The Minister will ensure it will apply again in 2022 in respect of farm payments.

In response to the event, a multi-agency group was established under the chairmanship of the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Membership of this multi-agency group includes, inter alia, members of Leitrim County Council, local representatives, Oireachtas Members, farm bodies, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department of Transport, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and some universities.

Leitrim County Council engaged specialist consultants from RPS Group to undertake a comprehensive examination of the causes of the landslide and the impact it had on the natural and built environment, ecology, water quality and the farming community. A report that was prepared by RPS Group for the Department of culture estimated that there were total deposits of 160,000 cu. m, which is present at varying depths of up to 2 m in the overspill areas. Accordingly, many of these areas remain untrafficable to both animals and machinery and are both unsuitable and unsafe for agricultural or farming use at present.

The Minister visited the site on 19 November, where he viewed at first hand the damage to farm and forestry. He also met with many of the landowners impacted. With regard to the compensation of landowners, his Department does not have a contingency fund. Any ex gratia payment will have to be sanctioned by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Discussions are still continuing at this point between the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Department will contact the affected landowners as soon as there are any further developments.

I appreciate that the Minister of State came in here and read out what is in front of him. I will not direct my sheer annoyance and anger at him. This is completely unacceptable, however. If we look at what happened when other landslides occurred in the Minister's constituency in Inishowen, we will see that the whole thing was processed and dealt with in just over five months. If we look at what happened at Pollatomish in County Mayo, we will see that it took less than a year for compensation to go to farmers. I am wondering if it is because the farmers in County Leitrim have not marched and blocked roads Is it that they waited, and are still waiting, on the Minister to deliver on his promise? It has been more than 20 months.

Yes, we know that force majeure was applied last year and the year before and people are pleased about that. The Minister of State and I both know, however, that it is highly unlikely that it will happen this year. They have waited too long. I expected that we would get something more tonight than hearing that the engagement is continuing and the Minister's Department will contact them, etc. That is what we have been getting since the Minister visited five months ago. We were listening to that beforehand. It really is not good enough.

The Minister of State talked about 18 basic payment scheme applications. When one divides the number of hectares multiplied by 2.5 into the 18 applications, it shows how small the farms are and one sees how many people were affected by it. These people are trying to eke out a living, rear a family and do what people do in every other part of the country.

I know the Minister is going to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform but as was highlighted earlier, when it was at his back door it was sorted in five months. The difference in this case is that it happened in County Leitrim. In my opinion, people in Leitrim or any other county matter as much as anybody else. If it took five months to resolve it in County Donegal or six months to resolve it in Pollatomish, it should be in between the two in this case. It could even take seven months. This has been going on for a long time, however. It is dragging on.

In fairness, I see that something like 160,000 tonnes of peat needs to be moved. These people need clarity. They need to know where they are going.

I noted that at the end of his contribution, the Minister of State mentioned that BPS and areas of natural constraint, ANC, applications are separate from the compensation claim. Is the Minister of State saying that if people go in for the BPS and ANC schemes, they will be cleared for this year when the compensation claim comes? What is happening? I am trying to clarify what the Minister of State said in his last statement.

The point I was making was that any ex gratia payment will require the sanction of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Accordingly, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has examined the options with regard to compensation and engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding the required sanction for compensation. The proposed compensation package will target those landowners - both farmers and people with forestry contracts - affected by the landslide.

It is the intention to avoid any overlap between the application processes for the compensation scheme and for the basic payment scheme, BPS, the ANC and other Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, schemes. They will have to be separated out in order that there will be no overlap between the schemes.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether farmers should apply now for the ANC or BPS schemes?

The schemes are being dealt with separately in order that there will be no confusion on the part of applicants.

The Minister, having visited the area, is fully aware of the stress this is causing. I appreciate it has taken some time, but the RPS Group report we mentioned, which was very comprehensive at more than 60 pages, was completed just over 12 months ago and published in February of last year. I accept that the discussions in the meantime have been extensive. I do not think the Department has an exact date at this point for when the engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will conclude.

There is an issue both with compensation and with payments under the existing scheme. Both issues will have to be addressed separately in order that there will be no confusion or overlap. Tomorrow morning, I will personally ask officials in the Department to contact both Deputies on the points they raised to clarify the statement.

I thank the Minister of State. For clarity, it would be good to know because applications will have to have been received by 16 May.

I will do that.

That concludes the Topical Issue debate. For the second time, I am adjourning the Dáil.

On a point of order, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle suspended it on the previous occasion.

No, I suspended it, then adjourned it and forgot about the Topical Issue debate.

Go raibh maith agat.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 11.11 p.m. go dtí 9 a.m., Déardaoin, an 7 Aibreán 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.11 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Thursday, 7 April 2022.