Hogan blows it in Brussels

Our new Minister for the Environment claims to one and all that he wants the environmental cases against Ireland cleaned up so that there is no embarrassment during Ireland’s January 2013 EU Presidency.

All the more ironic that in his first 100 days he has managed to blow his credibility in Brussels through his handling of the turf cutters dispute.

Hogan formally handed over the National Parks and Wildlife Service (which administers nature protection) to Jimmy Dennihan, Minister for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Yet he took it upon himself to deal with the warning Letter of Formal Notice that came from the Commission in January about turf cutters on the areas protected under EU designations – known in Ireland as Special Areas of Conservation [SACs] and in Europe as Natura 2000 sites.

Ireland’s response to that Letter and Hogan’s own two direct conversations with Environmental Commissioner Potocnik over the issue gave the fullest assurances that turf cutting had ceased on the 31 bogs which were closed by Cabinet decision in 2010 and would end this year on the remaining 24.

In March, Friends of the Irish Environment had formally sought Interim Measures from the Commission to stop the unassessed extraction of turf from raised bogs in general.

Interim Measures are an emergency application to the EU Court of Justice similar to Injunctions in our national Court. 12 years after an EU Court judgment, virtually no Environmental Impact Assessments have been done of even wide-spread industrial and commercial private extraction.

In one breathtaking contempt of Court, a bog specifically cited in the 1999 EU Judgment for unassessed extraction has works continuing to this day without any assessment having been undertaken.

While the Court has no power to compel national authorities to comply, there has never been a case where such a Measure was denied by a Member State. Nor has there even been a case over a habitat. The Commission was reluctant to proceed with a case without precedent unless they had compelling contemporary evidence of damage – beyond what the Irish Times had shown in an April 2011 article.

Thus Friends of the Irish Environment’s agm was held on Lough Ree in mid-May and incorporated 31 random site visits to these protected bogs over 5 days. The results and the 700 photographs posted to the internet with GPS locations were truly shocking to the civil servants in Brussels, who had only just been heartily assured by the jovial Minister of Ireland’s compliance.

The Report is covered in the current issue of The Village magazine.

The results were shocking even to those in FIE who undertook the survey. No one had any idea of the scale of the savage destruction, so complete had been the public image of hand cutters and folksy traditions.

The Commission officials were so shocked that initial blame was cast on FIE for not reporting this level of destruction before.

For the first time an MEP intervened to support what would be a very unpopular move by the Commission – the first Interim Measures against Ireland.

Nessa Childers wrote to Environmental Commissioner Potocnik, who has said he will make enforcement the highest priority of his term of office. She called the raised bogs of Ireland ‘epitomic’ of Irish landscape and rural culture, urging that ‘there is no time to wait for the normal processes of enforcement, which hitherto, have failed. A four year delay could well mean that the remaining original raised bogs will be completely lost or damaged beyond recovery.’

Conor Skeehan, Hogan’s climate sceptic side-kick and Chair of the Peatlands Council, called an emergency meeting of the newly established Peatlands Council, intent on getting a written agreed commitment to end the cutting to send to the Commission at any cost.

The cutters signed, but only because the Peatlands Council gave the cutters false hopes. They let them think that they can put liners in to allow them to continue cutting when hydrological isolation is not scientifically possible. They let them plan de-designation of sections of some of the bogs and changes in the boundaries on social and economic grounds when under EU case law this is not permitted. They even agreed to consider co-location to bogs which were protected in 2005 in answer to the 1999 legal judgment against Ireland.

Hogan and Skeehan are playing a childish and dangerous game, and like kids, think they are being clever.

First they set up the EU as the bogey man. Daily fines are threatened. Phone calls from an ‘angry’ Brussels. They claim that we must end the turf cutting to avoid massive imminent fines – ‘a bill running to tens of millions of euro, plus daily fines of more than €26,000 plus interest.’

This is dishonest. This case against Ireland was only begun this January with a Letter of Formal Notice. The Commissioner will consider the next step at the last meeting before the summer break next week.

But even if they proceed with the next legal step – a Reasoned Opinion – Ireland will have the opportunity to respond (and delay) – and only then will a decision to proceed to Court be taken. Then there would have to be an adverse judgment in that case. This would then be followed by a two year wait for compliance, and then – and only then – a possible return to Court seeking daily fines. Hardly the stuff of urgent phone calls.

Hogan and Skeehan were happy to let the turf cutters live on in a fool’s paradise as long as they got the cutters’ signature. Now they plan to wait for the EU to slap the turf cutters’ proposals down, setting up Brussels as the enemy of the Irish people and its culture.

Like children, they think they won’t get caught out. And turf cutting is not the only issue where they are playing this game.

The judgment against Ireland for its failure to monitor and regulate septic tanks to protect human health and environment came in October, 2009. It was May 2011 – after the Commission announced that in this case they had indeed returned to the Court for daily fines for failure to comply – before Hogan told the Dail that the Government had ‘recently’ instructed that the necessary legislation be drafted.

And how will Hogan spin that to the public when 450,000 householders find that they will have to pay €300 – €500 for septic tank inspections when they have just been hit with a property tax (for rural dwellings that lack civic amenities) and a water charge (even for rural group schemes with sub-standard water)?

And when at least a third of them – 150,000 homes to judge by statistics in county Cavan will face bills in the thousands for new systems?

As with naughty children, Hogan and his gang will claim everyone else is to blame. It will be the Commission’s fault, not Ireland’s fault.

Forgotten will be the inadequate planning and building regulations, a dysfunctional EPA, local authorities (and a planning appeals board) that regularly and openly approved sites that failed even the inadequate percolation tests – including the one for the President’s holiday home.

By not accepting the blame for allowing the destruction of 99% of our raised bogs and for the pollution of the countryside by unsustainable one-off houses in the countryside, Hogan is setting us up for a fall.

Gulling the turf cutters with false promises is sending the fool further. It ensures that when the final day in Court comes – however far away that is – the people will righteously rise against the concept of a European Union.

Is that what is really behind the Government’s strategy?