A wind turbine on a cutaway Bord na Mona bog (Image, Bord na Mona)
AMID allegations of sell-outs, underhanded activity, exaggeration and emotional rhetoric, Offaly councillors voted by the narrowest of margins against a proposal to exclude Lemanaghan Bog entirely from an area in the county where wind farms may be permitted.
Instead of adopting a motion from Cllr Ken Smollen for Lemanaghan's outright exclusion, the council opted by nine votes to eight to pass an amendment tabled by Cllr Frank Moran which seeks to create a turbine-free zone at least 700m wide around the monastic site founded by St Manchan.
Indications that a bitter split was looming on the issue came as early as Monday morning when Cllr Sean O'Brien accused Cllr Moran of “jumping ship already” when it was revealed that along with Cllr Declan Harvey, he would not be supporting Cllr Smollen's motion.
Cllr Moran, Fianna Fail, responded angrily to what he called Cllr O'Brien's “snide remark”, indicating his belief that the two Independent members, Cllrs Smollen and O'Brien, had gone ahead with their proposal without him.
“I'm most certainly not jumping ship, this ship sailed without its original signatories from Tullamore so how dare you turn around and say to me I'm jumping ship. I'm not jumping any ship,” said Cllr Moran.
Instead, Cllr Moran tabled his own counter proposal, seconded by his party colleague, Cllr Harvey, calling for a 2km buffer around the Lemanaghan monastic site and a ban on “large scale industrial development” within 20m of the bog itself to preserve any national monuments there.
The heated exchanges between the councillors occurred during a debate on the draft county development plan which will govern development in Offaly between 2021 and 2027.
The draft was previously published for public consultation and on Monday councillors were considering a report from council chief executive Anna Marie Delaney on the public reaction to it.
Part of west Offaly, known as Area 5 in the county wind energy strategy, has been designated as suitable for turbines since 2009 and Lemanaghan Bog lies within it.
However, no turbines have been erected in west Offaly anywhere north of Lough Boora but crucially, Bord na Mona now have a proposal to build a wind farm at Lemanaghan Bog between Ballycumber and Ferbane.
The Bord na Mona bog is located very close to the early Christian site of St Manchan which is at the junction of the Ballycumber-Ferbane-Pullough roads and is one of the county's best known heritage assets.
The draft development plan once again includes Area 5 as an area “open for consideration” for wind energy.
The motion from Cllrs Smollen and O'Brien aimed to exclude Lemanaghan Bog from Area 5 in an effort to protect the monastic site, plus associated medieval sites such as St Mella's Cell, a network of trackways and the Pilgrim's Path (Sli Mor).
Proposing his motion, Cllr Smollen said Lemanaghan Bog had not been mentioned specifically in any of the development plans and because it was not specifically mentioned in the text of the new draft “local residents were denied the opportunity to make submissions to Offaly County Council.”
James Condron, planning official with the council, had earlier confirmed that there were no submissions from the public but the issue was opened up for discussion once the motion was tabled.
“Lemanaghan is a place of natural beauty and is extremely rich in heritage for over 1,400 years. It is a sacred place of great antiquity and it has a long tradition of devotional practice,” said Cllr Smollen.
He said it was listed as a special area of conservation and would have to be “protected from destruction”.
The councillor said he visited the Lemanaghan the previous day. “I find it particularly concerning that Offaly County Council are unaware of its historical importance and would even consider large scale developments such as wind farms in Lemanaghan.”
He described it as Offaly's “present day version of Dublin's Wood Quay, much of which was destroyed for ever in the late 1970s in the name of corporate progress with the construction of ugly mass concrete buildings beside the river Liffey”.
“We must now allow the same destruction to happen on our own doorstep in an area that's possibly of equal historical importance as that of Clonmacnoise.”
He warned of the consequences for tourism and said: “Future generations will never forgive us if we allow this area of great archaeological and historical importance to be disturbed in any way and once the damage is done it can never, ever be undone.”
Seconding the motion, Cllr O'Brien echoed many of those points but also referred to the existence of a house at Derravane in the area, a residence of the O'Connors dating from the mid-19th century which was used as a field hospital for IRA active service units during the War of Independence.
“In the decade of centenaries I think it would be a shame to say we'd demolish this house and slap a wind turbine on it,” said Cllr O'Brien.
Offaly should be protecting its heritage and exploiting the tourist potential of an area which was also rich in biodiversity.
“The hand of history lands on our shoulders here today,” said the Tullamore councillor.
After denying the “jumping ship” remark, Cllr Moran set out the context for his counter proposal.
“We would caution against exaggerated claims about the implications of wind farms when we discuss possible locations,” he said.
“Our debates on policy must be informed and be rooted in facts rather than emotional rhetoric.”
He also cautioned against the unintended consequences of “tying our hands”.
He said it was council policy to protect and manage monastic sites and while a site might be within an area deemed suitable for turbines, that does not mean automatic approval.
“Each proposal for development will be considered on its individual merits.”
Cllr Moran also indicated that national policy might have a role to play if Offaly County Council took certain decisions on planning: “It would be disingenuous to suggest to the people of Offaly that we as elected members have the full and final say in what is being proposed here today.”
He said a buffer zone where no turbines would be permitted within 2km of the monastic site would “address the vast majority of concerns raised by residents”.
He also pointed out that An Bord Pleanala had refused a planning application for a two-storey family dwelling in 2018 because it would have a negative visual impact on the amenities of the area.
While the 2km buffer was based on a similar zone put in place for towns and villages, the proposal to ban development within 20m of the bog was based on another planning decision involving the discovery of a national monument when permission was being sought to build a bungalow near a small hill.
Cllr Mark Hackett, Green Party, backed the original motion, summing up his approach to the area as “leave it alone”.
“This is a very important area for environmental interests. It supports a large number of species, habitats and biodiversity and it needs to be protected,” said Cllr Hackett.
After another Fianna Fail member, Cllr Peter Ormond, suggested an adjournment for 15 minutes so his group could discuss the matter again, Cllr Smollen re-entered the discussion.
He said there had been “very underhanded efforts” and “pressure” had been put on “to scare local residents” into accepting proposal from Cllr Moran.
He said residents had been visited “one day before this was going to be discussed, as in yesterday” to tell them “about this 2km radius from the monastic site”.
“I think it's very unfair,” said Cllr Smollen.
When Cllr Harvey put it to him that he had also visited the area himself the previous day, Cllr Smollen said he had not spoken to anyone.
“I simply visited to see for myself what we are protecting and what we should protect,” he said.
“I met a good few people but I did not speak to them about the submission or about today. This is the usual sell-out by Fianna Fail.”
He said to put turbines even within five miles of the site would be “unthinkable” and asked how the vast amounts of concrete and the turbines would be put there.
“They might, by helicopter. They are going to destroy huge areas around here.”
Further discussion of the matter was adjourned until Monday afternoon and while Cllr O'Brien consented to the break, he claimed Cllr Moran's proposal had been “foisted” on the meeting only that morning.
The councillors then moved on to consider another controversial topic, the buffer zone preventing the construction of wind farms within 2km of towns and villages, and after a vote they opted to remove the buffer as they had been “required” to do by the Office of the Planning Regulator.
When they returned to consideration of Lemanaghan Bog, Cllr Moran said he had to amend his own proposal because of the earlier 2km buffer decision.
The Clara man's final proposal, which was again seconded by Cllr Harvey, was for a “protection zone”, 500m north of the disused railway line, known locally as the Banagher line, and 700m in each direction from the Lemanaghan/Pullough junction, east towards Ballycumber and west towards Ferbane.
“We think this is a fair balance,” said Cllr Moran.
Cllrs O'Brien and Smollen voiced their opposition to the new amendment. Cllr O'Brien again referred to the importance of heritage and said that the council's own heritage officer, Amanda Pedlow, had been on the steering group which published the conservation policy for Lemanaghan and Tom Shanahan, a council director of service, had been acknowledged for the role he played in the publication.
He also claimed that turbines up to 220m high could be located in Lemanaghan, saying they would be higher than Bellair Hill, 111m, the Dublin Spire, 121m and the Statue of Liberty, 93m.
He said Offaly would have to set its own policy and drew on Irish history and referred to the poetry of Yeats.
Offaly was a planted county, he said and: “For once we stop tipping our cap to the landlord.”
He remembered the poet referring to those “fumbling in the greasy till” and concluded: “'Old Ireland is dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave'. Are we going to bury Lemanaghan and leave it there for ever?”
Cllr Smollen said it was not just Offaly that had to be saved, but Ireland, and he found the comments of those proposing the other motion “insulting” and “condescending”.
“Not only towards me and those who support my motion but to the people of the area and the people of Offaly and the decent people of Ireland.”
He said the democratic process is “majorly flawed” if the Office of the Planning Regulator could overturn a decision made in Offaly and he accused “certain councillors” of a “total cop-out” and a “360-degree about turn on what they said before”.
“They admitted how important Lemanaghan is,” said Cllr Smollen.
His motion was supported by Cllr Clare Claffey, Social Democrats, who said that though she backed an expansion of wind energy, it would have to be done in partnership with communities.
Cllr John Clendennen, Fine Gael, indicated he would back the removal of Lemanaghan Bog from the wind strategy area too, saying that a masterplan for tourism should be developed for the whole area from Lough Boora across to Clonmacnoise.
He also echoed a point made by Cllr Moran earlier which was critical of how Bord na Mona had handled their introduction of their wind farm proposal, saying it was “very disappointing” and more clarity could have avoided the entire dispute over Lemanaghan.
The Cathaoirleach, Cllr John Carroll, who reminded members that whatever decision they took, the public would be having their say on it again, then put the matter to a vote and Cllr Moran's amendment was carried by nine votes to eight.
Those who voted for Cllr Moran's amendment were the other Fianna Fail members, Cllr Eamon Dooley, Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick, Cllr Declan Harvey, Cllr Tony McCormack, Cllr Robert McDermott, Cllr Peter Ormond, Cllr Danny Owens, plus Cllr John Carroll (Independent).
Cllr Smollen was supported by two other Independent members, Cllr O'Brien and Cllr John Foley, the Fine Gael members Cllr John Clendennen, Cllr Noel Cribbin and Cllr Liam Quinn, plus Cllr Clare Claffey, Social Democrats and Cllr Mark Hackett, Green Party.
Cllr John Leahy, Independent, and Cllr Neil Feighery, Fine Gael, absented themselves from the debate because of conflicts of interest with wind energy and Bord na Mona.
The amendment to the draft development plan will go out to the public for consultation again from June 11 to July 16.
The chief executive will deliver her report on the consultation on August 11 and after that the councillors will discuss it again, before the full plan's final adoption on September 20.
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