Mediation to resolve turf cutting issues

MINISTER for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Phil Hogan has given the Government’s commitment to develop a strategic approach to how peatlands in Ireland are managed.

MINISTER for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Phil Hogan has given the Government’s commitment to develop a strategic approach to how peatlands in Ireland are managed.

Speaking in the Dail last week Minister Hogan said the Programme for Government is committed to three particular actions in relation to peat conservation issues, an exemption for domestic turf cutting on 75 NHA raised bogs subject to an agreed national code of environmental practices, an independent mediation mechanism to facilitate resolution on the 55 SAC raised bogs, and an independent mediation mechanism to resolve issues on blanket bogs.

Minister Hogan was responding to a question of Laois Offaly Deputy Brian Stanley who called on the Government to clarify its position on turf cutting.

The Sinn Féin spokesperson on the Environment, questioned the Minister in the Dail last week on his plans to allow an exemption for domestic turf cutting on 75 national area sites and called on him to introduce the promised agreed code of environmental practices to provide clarity for people who are depending on cutting their own turf for fuel.

“In May 2010 the previous government confirmed the end of the derogation for domestic turf cutting on 130 raised bog sites from that year. Laois Offaly has 15 bogs in the area that are directly affected by the ending of this derogation. Many people are dependent on these bogs for their fuel supply. They don’t have access to piped gas, and the price of oil is increasing rapidly as the time goes on. It is imperative that the Minister ensure that these people are not left without fuel or put at risk of fuel poverty,” said Deputy Stanley.

He said the agreed Programme for Government states that the continuation of cutting turf in these areas will be allowed subject to the introduction of environmental guidelines. “This needs clarity. It is unfortunate that the Minister when responding to my question did not say when these guidelines would be introduced. While people are being told unofficially to keep cutting turf, there has been no meaningful response by the Government.”

He said this cannot be put on the long finger. “We need clarity with regard the extension of the derogation, the proposed mediation scheme, and any proposed compensation scheme where people are forced to stop cutting turf,” he said.

Minister Hogan said the European Commission has been critical of Ireland’s approach to the protection of peatland habitat and initiated infringement proceedings against Ireland in January this year. “I have already met twice with EU Environment Commissioner Potocnik to discuss the matter since taking office. The Government intends to act in accordance with the commitments in the Programme for Government so as to address the European Commission infringement proceedings, and respond to the need to give full effect to the decision of May 2010. I will be announcing details of the Government’s intentions on these matters in the coming days, and these announcements will also address the position in respect of NHAs,” said Minister Hogan.

He said it was the Government’s intention to resolve the longstanding issues regarding peat extraction on protected sites by working with turf-cutters and local communities to address legitimate concerns while ensuring that Ireland is in compliance with EU environmental legislation. “We are putting in place a range of measures which will be designed to meet these twin aims,” concluded Minister Hogan.

Irish Rural Link has welcomed the Government announcement that it is establishing an independent non-statutory Peatlands Council to engage in dialogue with parties affected by the EU Habitats directive which requires Ireland to protect and conserve peatland habitats

According to Seamus Boland, CEO of Irish Rural Link, whilst we must comply with the directive, the main task of the council is to make sure that the most vulnerable people are protected in the process. Mr Boland said that as a member of the council, he will emphasise that turf cutting has for generations has formed an essential source of fuel and income, and continues to do so in many households in rural communities at present.

Helen Dunne, Policy and Communications Officer with Irish Rural Link stated that the approach to managing the changes was refreshing. She stated that the banning of turf cutting without engaging those most affected would not help to achieve a fair outcome, and that the importance of involving turf cutters and land owners would allow their genuine concerns to be heard at decision making level.

She continued, “changes in management of our peatlands affect ordinary people, and their interests are equally as valid as any environmental concerns.”