POWERS TO enforce EU environmental directives signed by Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan this week allow search warrants to be issued by District Courts for lands or premises where breaches are suspected.
The powers, which Mr Deenihan claims will close loopholes in legislation, permit confiscation of machinery, and give the Minister power to identify “activities requiring consent” on protected habitats.
Areas outside special areas of conservation (SACs) or special protection areas will also be covered, such as upstream activities which might cause pollution or siltation in a protected site.
The statutory instrument signed by Mr Deenihan last Tuesday caused uproar at a Galway County Council meeting yesterday, where turfcutters and small farmers accused the Minister of “duplicity”.
Independent Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Luke “Ming” Flanagan said the Turfcutters and Contractors’ Association had proposed a compromise where up to 80 per cent of 53 bogs on special areas of conservation would not be cut.
However, the association was withdrawing from the negotiations through the Peatlands Council, which was established in April 2011 at a mediation mechanism, he said.
“This new legislation is akin to dealing with drug peddlers, and big companies like ESB, Coillte, Bord na Móna and Shell will be facilitated on SACs, whereas small farmers will not,” Mr Flanagan said last night.
Turfcutters would have to seek a meeting with EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik, Mr Flanagan said.
About 100 small farmers and members of the association staged the demonstration outside Galway County Council, where Mr Deenihan arrived to explain new provisions. Several Fine Gael councillors criticised the Minister during a heated debate, when representatives from west Galway described themselves as the “Palestinians of Connemara”.
“We do feel like the Palestinians, because even as we thought negotiations over this issue were taking place, we find that a deal has already been done,” Mr Flanagan said.
The European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 address rulings by the European Court of Justice against Ireland which found “significant fault” with Ireland’s previous transposition regulations, Mr Deenihan has said, stressing there will be “no U-turn”.
Local authorities and An Bord Pleanála will now have legal responsibilities and powers under the Planning and Development Acts to ensure that the requirements of the two directives are adhered to in adopting development plans and the granting of development consents, Mr Deenihan said.
The Minister will also be empowered to regulate activities by “third parties” where they could damage breeding birds, fauna and flora or habitats in contravention of the birds or habitats directives.
The Government has come under renewed pressure from the European Commission to take action on protecting raised bog peatland, or face fines of up to €20,000 a day.
The Government banned turfcutting on 32 active raised bogs last year, and promised a ban on a further 24 bogs by the end of this year. A further 75 bogs in national heritage areas will be restricted by 2014.