The European Commission is expected to decide this month whether to take legal action against the Government over plans to build a motorway near Tara.
A senior commission official told the European Parliament's petitions committee yesterday the commission was analysing the Government's response to its concerns about the construction of the M3. He said the commission had expressed concern for some time to the Government that the National Monuments Act did not adequately protect sites of archaeological significance in the Republic.
The commission wants the Government to amend the Act and undertake a second environmental impact assessment at an archaeological site at Lismullin, close to Tara. But the Government insists that under Irish legislation it only has to undertake one assessment.
"The commission should be able to make a decision on legal action later this month," Liam Cashman, an official with the EU's environment directorate, told MEPs in Brussels, who were discussing a report on their fact-finding mission to Ireland.
This report called for a substantial review of the environmental impact of the M3 on the Hill of Tara and for less intrusive alternative routes to be designated.
"The delegation is, however, perplexed by the choice of the route and by the damage done to the integrity of the many sites in the Tara area and the Gabhra Valley which have been vividly drawn to our attention by our petitioners," says the 20-page report, which will be sent to the commission and the Government. Mr Cashman said he considered the report to be "very valuable" and "balanced".
If the commission started legal action, the Government would be forced to defend its position at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg. If it lost the case and refused to amend national law to conform with EU laws, it could face heavy fines
Labour MEP Proinsias de Rossa said he had been informed by the commission that the National Monuments Act was in breach of EU law. He said it was under this Act that the Department of the Environment had sanctioned the demolition of an archaeological site at Lismullin.
Independent MEP Kathy Sinnott also criticised the Government for "ploughing ahead" with the M3 motorway despite the concerns of petitioners. But she welcomed the role that the petitions committee had played in bringing attention to the important issue of Tara.
The committee has no formal power to force governments to take action but focuses attention on issues affecting individual citizens. It can also ask the commission to investigate matters, a process that can lead to formal cases being brought to the ECJ.
Yesterday the committee closed one Irish petition related to eligibility to a state aid scheme granting educational assistance to farmers from disadvantaged areas.
John O'Malley had challenged a condition of the scheme, that farmers must live within 70km of an educational establishment. Following the petitions committee inquiry, the Government changed the criteria.
© 2007 The Irish Times