Quirke Report provides basis for solution to turf issue –Naughten

In News by Denis Naughten

Denis Naughten TD has welcomed the report published by Mr. Justice Quirke into the turf cutting issue, stating that the Report provides the basis for a final resolution to the issue of turf cutting on designated bogs throughout the country.

Deputy Naughten was responding after raising the issue on the floor of the Dáil yesterday (Tuesday), where he highlighted the fact that this report – for the first time – recognises the fact that turf cutters have not been treated in a fair or responsible manner by those involved in implementing the EU habitats directive.

“While the Quirke Report is a positive step forward, it is a real pity that those of us who had sought a solution to this problem over the last 15 years were not listened to earlier, as I have no doubt that if the work done in the last 12 months by all sides had been facilitated 10 years ago this issue would have been resolved,” stated Denis Naughten.

“The big problem now is time, time for the EU Commission to consider Mr. Justice Quirke’s report and the comprehensive report completed by the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association and time to address contentious issues on the bogs themselves.

“In order to progress this issue we now need immediate movement from both the Government and the EU Commission and I hope that this will be forthcoming,” concluded Denis Naughten.




^^ Turbary Rights ^^

63. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the average amount of compensation paid to each turf cutter who has applied to the compensation scheme; the uptake of the scheme as a percentage of the total qualified to partake in it; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12529/12]


64. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht when he expects the review of bogs in national heritage areas, NHAs, to be complete; if he will work to ensure turf cutters in these areas will not face a ban on cutting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12541/12]


68. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if he has considered an extension to the compensation scheme for turf cutters; the percentage uptake of the scheme following the recent closing date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12532/12]



80. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht his plans to address the ongoing issues in the implementation of the ban on turf cutting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12193/12]


83. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the extent to which he has resolved issues relating to turf cutting restrictions arising form special areas of conservation, SAC, and-or other conservation orders; the number of cases outstanding; the issues still to be addressed; the locations so affected; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12477/12]


86. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the extent to which he has had dialogue with the interested parties affected by the ban on turf cutting arising from special area of conservation measures or other conservation measures; the degree to which agreement has been reached with a view to achieving an amicable and satisfactory conclusion on this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12504/12]



307. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the total number of displaced turf cutters arising from conservation measures with whom his Department has made contact in the context of resolution of outstanding issues; the number of cases satisfactorily resolved to date; the number outstanding; the nature of the issues still to be resolved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12816/12]


Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I propose to take Questions Nos. 63, 64, 68, 80, 83, 86 and 307 together.

In 2011 the Government announced a compensation scheme for those affected by the cessation of turf cutting on raised bog special areas of conservation, SACs.  The cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme comprises a payment of €1,000 per year, index linked, for 15 years or, where feasible, relocation of turf cutters to non-designated bogs where they can continue to cut turf.  Those wishing to relocate can avail of the financial payment or the delivery of cut turf while relocation sites are identified and prepared.  The cost of acquiring and preparing relocation sites will be met by the State.  The Government has recently considered whether the financial package announced in 2011 should be enhanced.  I will make an announcement to the House in this regard during Private Members’ business later today.

In April 2011 my Department wrote to known owners of land and rights in the SACs nominated for designation between 1997 and 1999 to inform them of the cessation of turf cutting on these sites and to invite applications for compensation.  Advertisements were also placed in local and national newspapers.  It is estimated that 750 individual turf plots are active on these SACs.  To date, almost 650 applications for compensation or relocation have been received relating to these sites.

Assessment and verification of applications is a complex process, particularly in respect of proof of ownership.  My officials have been working closely with turf cutters, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as successor of the Land Commission, Bord na Móna and the Property Registration Authority to assist people to provide the necessary proof of legal interest with their applications.  While a number of payments have been made under the scheme, the complexity of ensuring adherence to the qualification criteria has caused delays in making payments.  However, my Department has recently put in place arrangements to speed up and simplify the checking process and expects to make by the end of this month a significant number of initial payments to additional applicants for sites nominated for designation between 1997 and 1999.

In December my Department wrote to known owners of land and rights in the SACs nominated for designation in 2002.  Advertisements were also placed in local and national newspapers.  It is estimated that there are approximately 790 actively cut plots on these sites.  The deadline for the receipt of applications relating to these sites was the end of February 2012.  Owing to the high number of applications received in recent days, the details of the numbers received are not readily available.  To allow potential applicants time to gather the necessary legal documents, I have decided to extend the deadline for the receipt of applications for sites nominated for designation in 2002 until 30 April 2012.

The Government has been conscious of the need to build a shared understanding of the requirements of the habitats directive regarding the protection of raised bog SACs.  To this end, it established the peatlands council under an independent chairman, Mr. Conor Skehan, to bring all parties together.  Last week, on his initiative, a peatlands forum was convened in Athlone under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice John Quirke.  It provided an opportunity for all parties to identify and discuss what was needed to resolve issues arising from Ireland’s requirements to implement the habitats directive on 53 raised bog special areas of conservation.  The forum considered proposals in regard to relocation and other solutions to address the requirements of the directive.  Its report, prepared by Mr. Justice Quirke, was presented to me and considered by the Government this morning.  My Department will publish the report on its website this afternoon and, once people have had an opportunity to consider it, I propose to respond more fully to it during Private Members’ business.

My Department has been in discussion regarding relocation with several groups of turf cutters from different bogs with a view to reaching satisfactory resolutions at local level.  Agreement has been concluded with groups from Clara bog in County Offaly and Mountbellew in County Galway.  These solutions involve turf cutters moving to nearby Bord na Móna bogs where they will be able to continue turf cutting.

The position on continued cutting on natural heritage areas, NHAs, will be reviewed in accordance with the programme for Government.  This will be done in the context of drawing up a national peatlands strategy which is being undertaken by my Department in conjunction with the peatlands council.  I have undertaken that such a review will be completed in advance of the 2014 cutting season.  The review will provide clarity on the future of turf cutting on these sites.  The issues regarding turf cutting on Ireland’s raised bog special areas of conservation will be discussed in greater detail later and tomorrow during Private Members’ business and I look forward to contributing to that debate.


Deputy Robert Troy: Turf cutting is an emotive issue.  It is part of our heritage and culture and the tradition has been passed on through the generations.  The issue is topical because it will be the subject of a Private Members’ motion later and the original deadline for the receipt of applications for compensation passed last week.  However, I welcome the extension of the deadline because many potential applicants did not have time to get the necessary information together.  For example, turf cutters on a bog in County Longford were not aware that the previous deadline had been set for 29 February.

It appears the Government parties have changed their position somewhat on this issue since their time in opposition.  I acknowledge the previous Government introduced SACs and the ten year derogation.  The Minister stated there were 750 active turf plots on the SACs designated between 1997 and 1999 and that 650 applications had been made for compensation.  What percentage of the applicants have been accommodated through relocation to an alternative bog?  What percentage have been adequately compensated?  I understand all those approved for compensation have been not paid.  I am involved in a few cases.  The peatlands forum initiative undertaken last week by the peatlands council was most welcome.  Are the Minister and the Department still liaising with the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association?



Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I acknowledge that the Deputy has always been positive and supportive of what we are all trying to do to resolve this matter, which would be in all our interests, as the last thing we want to do is to pay fines of between €20,000 and €25,000 per day to the European Commission.  I do not have to remind Members that formal notice was sent to the Department in January 2011 followed by a reasoned opinion in June 2011.  Therefore, the Commission is interested in what is happening here.  However, there have been positive developments.  For the first time, the TCCA, the Department and the Commission are working together to try to find a solution.


I would like to acknowledge – I will do this again this evening – the efforts made by so many people to obtain a resolution to this sensitive and difficult subject.  As a rural dweller who lives in the heart of a number of bogs as well as near one of the designated bogs, I am very much aware of how sensitive this issue is and how important it is for so many people to have it resolved in such a way that the environment is protected but people can continue to cut turf legally.  That is important.

I have been trying my best to facilitate payments as much as possible, but we have developed a new system of payment.  To date, just 63 applicants have been paid the amount that applied last year, but 200 people will be paid next week.  I hope payments will go out in the next few weeks.  We had to establish a system of verification to ensure the documentation was proper and so on, but that system is now in place and I hope payments will go out faster.  As the Deputies know, the verification systems that have been established this year will last for the next 15 years.  Once people have their documentation verified, that will be sufficient for the years ahead.


Deputy Denis Naughten: I welcome the Minister’s comments and the motion that has been tabled today.  I have not seen Mr. Justice Quirke’s report, but I acknowledge, and I think the Minister acknowledges, that for the first time ever the Government of the day has publicly admitted that there was a lack of proper consultation, communication and trust between the State and turf cutters throughout the country.  That in itself is a significant step forward.

Will the Minister clarify that we are talking about here is approximately 5% of designated bogs and that for the other 95%, there is absolutely no dispute relating to them?  We are talking about a very small percentage of bogs.

Is the Minister aware that for the majority of turf cutters, this is not an issue of compensation but of a sensible resolution being provided to turf cutters to facilitate them to continue to cut turf on their existing bogs or adjoining non-designated bogs?  In light of that, could the Minister clarify whether the Government is considering allowing the co-existence of domestic turf cutting on designated bogs as a mitigating measure in a limited number of cases?  Has the Government considered the issue of compensatory habitat?  At the end of this process, more than 100% of designated bog will be closed off to turf cutting for good.


Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I thank Deputy Naughten for his contribution.  Roscommon is particularly affected by this issue, and I know from my experience of visiting that county that it is a very emotive subject there.  Along with Deputies Naughten and Flanagan and the chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, Mick Fitzmaurice, I travelled over that area in a helicopter last year and was given a bird’s eye view of what was happening on the ground as well as an idea of the extent of raised bogs in Galway and Roscommon.

The de-designation of small areas around the country will be a matter for the Commission.  The Government cannot de-designate.  This is mentioned in Deputy Flanagan’s motion which will be moved this evening, and is also mentioned in the amendment.  I will go into more detail later.  Obviously, we could go back to the Commission with any proposal, but we want to exhaust every other alternative first.

The Deputy mentioned that for the first time ever there has been real engagement.  The Government, and the country, are fortunate that Conor Skehan has taken over as chairman of the Peatlands Council.  I acknowledge here that he has given ten months of his life to this issue, free to the State, which is a considerable contribution.  I hope for his sake that because of these deliberations and the amount of work he has put in, we can obtain a resolution.


Deputy Sandra McLellan: I thank the Minister for his answer.  With regard to the proposals from the TCCA, which include a detailed case-by-case analysis of the possible options, will the Minister commit to providing individual turf cutters with a hearing on this matter?  If so, in what timeframe does he envisage this occurring?  We are all conscious that time is of the essence and other alternatives may suit some people better then relocation or compensation.


Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: As the Deputy knows, an elaborate process was carried out last week in which representatives for each bog put their case to the judge and a technical group tried to obtain a resolution.  I do not think this process has ever been carried out before.  I recognise that people entered this process with total intent to obtain a resolution, and they were very honest, open and frank about the whole thing.  There was a real sense that people engaged because they wanted to achieve a solution.

With regard to individual turf cutters, in the small number of bogs where it may be difficult to resolve this issue, all considerations will have to be taken into account, including those of individuals.  Our policy from the beginning was to listen to everybody and I know that is what Mr. Skehan did.  Officials from my Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service have spent the winter out there speaking and listening to people and trying to obtain solutions.  I hope this effort will now pay off and we will get the desired results, for all our sakes.


Deputy Michael P. Kitt: As has been said, the issue is not about financial compensation but about the right to continue cutting turf.  However, for those who do wish to take compensation, could the Minister confirm there is funding for this purpose?  I agree with him that there have been some resolutions, including in Mountbellew, but I could mention other bogs in Galway – Camderry, Kilkerrin, and Barroughter in south-east Galway – where, according to the people who live there, there is nowhere else to go to cut turf.  That brings us back to the idea of de-designation of bogs.  Is that possible where people want to cut turf but have no alternative?


Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: There is a sizeable sum of money – €5 million – available.  The Government considers it important that we resolve this, and people will have to be compensated.  I have been making this point quite clearly.  That is why I will be announcing an enhanced package this evening.  Expecting people to move from areas in which they have cut for generations to alternative bogs is a lot to ask, and they must be properly compensated.

In the Deputy’s own constituency, because of the leadership of a former Deputy of this House, Paul Connaughton, a positive resolution was obtained, and work has already started, with machinery on the bog and drainage being carried out.  The examples of Clara and Mountbellew show that this can work when people work together.


Deputy Denis Naughten: Can something be done to facilitate people who do not own a bog but have had informal rights to turf-cutting in terms of obtaining access to adjoining bogs?  Second, is it not the case that without Conor Skehan and Mr. Justice Quirke, this issue would not have been resolved to the extent it has, and that if this had been done ten years ago, we would not be in the mess we are in today?

Deputy Robert Troy: Will the Department advertise the extension to the scheme in order that people would be aware of it?  Although it is not all about compensation, for those who wish to be compensated financially as opposed to being relocated, speed is of the essence and more people might have taken it if there had been greater speed.  What progress has been made with the natural heritage areas, NHAs, to ensure they will be exempt in the future because we support the Minister’s endeavours in that regard?


Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: In response to Deputy Naughten, the judge in his conclusion mentioned that ownership of bogs is a complex area so we will take a sympathetic view of those who have established rights in bogs.  Many bogs were never registered and people have been cutting on them for generations and that could be the fault of a solicitor who never bothered to do it.  I agree with the Deputy that if this process had happened ten years ago we would not have incurred the wrath of the Commission and would be in a much better position where we would not be discussing this.  In reply to Deputy Troy, we will publicise the extension.