IT was a case of standing room only at the Bridge House Hotel last week for the latest Stand Together meeting.
Those supporting the rights of turf cutters travelled from as far afield as Kerry and Mayo to show their support.
The keynote speaker on the evening was Michael Fitzmaurice, a lifelong advocate of turf cutters rights.
He informed the audience of hundreds that the amount of bog taken over in Galway is the size of County Offaly.
Chairman of the Turf Cutters Association and Birr man Paddy Keating said people could not believe what they were hearing.
“People were shocked with the state of the situation in relation to cutting turf in boglands and woodlands. People are not able to cut turf and woodland on their own ground,” he said.
Mr Keating said rural Ireland has been taken away. “We are a voice for rural Ireland. Firestations, schools, co-op’s, post offices have all been taken away. People haven’t even got neighbours any more,” he said.
He said people are behind on their mortgages and yet ‘31 are running away after selling out the country’.
He described Ireland as ‘an open air concentration camp’ and said it was ‘worse than when Cromwell was here’.
“At least we had two choices then. We have no choice now”
He described turf cutters as being ‘prisoners on their own land’.
Ahead of the meeting, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Eamon Ó Cuiv, announced that following discussions on the policy issue of SAC Bogs, a new council will be established to negotiate a suitable resolution to the existing problems being experienced by certain land owners.
“How do we know it’s true? Will it really happen? Politicians will promise to get you a bridge built even if your dont have a river,” he said.
Mr Keating said each meeting of Stand Together is getting bigger. He said the group will soon have 20,000 supporters, “enough to elect three politicians!”
He said they hope to set up groups all over the country to ensure their rights.
Fianna Fail General Election Candidate Barry Cowen said, “While we all recognise that there are obligations under EU Law in relation to the protection of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), equally I have always argued that there is an onus on the EU Commission to fully recognise and accept the importance of turf cutting in Ireland and the fact that these regulations need to be implemented in a sensitive way.
“The Minister has now firmly stated, and I fully agree with him, that all turf cutters on designated SAC bogs who have to cease cutting on these bogs should only be asked to do so where there is compensation involved, either financial compensation or relocation to other suitable bogs within their locality,” he said.
Meanwhile Fine Gael General Election Candidate Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, said Fine Gael in Government will allow a roll over exemption for domestic turf cutting on the 75 National Heritage Area sites, which are designated under Irish law.
“This exemption would be subject to the introduction of an agreed environmentally rational code of practice, believing that it is premature to forbid the cutting of turf for domestic purposes in 2011 pending the establishment of the management structures and the appointment of an independent Chairperson.
“We are obliged to implement the Habitats Directive and involves the identification and designation of areas that contain a representative selection of the rare and sensitive habitats within their terrority. However, a very conservative and restrictive interpretion of this directive is now in force in Ireland.”
Finally Laois Offaly Deputy Charlie Flanagan said that a more flexible approach is needed to resolve the difficulties that have arisen in respect of the closure of a large number of raised bogs by the Fianna Fáil-Green government.
“The closure of a number of bogs in County Offaly has upset a lot of people who depend on the bog for fuel. The closure has come at a particularly difficult time when there is less money than ever in people’s pockets to buy fuel,” he said.
Deputy Flanagan said the party would establish independent mediation between all relevant stakeholders with the specific objective of facilitating a resolution to the 55 bogs that have been designated as special areas of conservation.
“Furthermore, the independent mediation will be made available to resolve the outstanding issues associated with turf cutting on blanket bogs,” he said.