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Sweet – perhaps, but vicious

INTERVIEW WITH PETER SWEETMAN: The cost of litigation, Judge Michael Peart suggested at a recent conference, is “a deterrent to any but the rich, the courageous and the foolhardy”. Ireland’s most famous serial environmental litigant is Peter Sweetman, a long-haired, septuagenarian photographer, wood-sculptor and former jockey operating with or through various groups, companies, and as a ‘man of straw’

Tony Lowes


Peter Sweetman can be difficult. Even offensive. That’s what makes him effective. He was once barred from the headquarters of  environmental charity An Taisce after he maintained unsubstantiable allegations about staff. He has twice resigned from Friends of the Irish Environment, which he helped establish in 1997. He’s the sort of man who nearly got beaten up by a mild-mannered relation of John Gormley after he’d insulted the former Green Minister (at a party for Village Magazine). He was once summonsed for littering after discarding a cigarette butt outside council offices during a cigarette break from his vociferous complaining. He leaves a trail of politically-driven social devastation in his wake yet he often appears in the social company of pro-development lawyers or personnel from his sworn enemies, Shell. Sweetman is exceptionally reluctant to accept he is wrong but does listen to others and is typically generous and encouraging to community groups. The only people who can control him are strong-minded women, and he has found considerable autonomy with his partner Monica Muller. His convoluted, though occasionally penetrating, brilliance has wreaked havoc amongst developers and polluters for the last twenty years.

Sweetman went to Glenstal Abbey school, but left it without having learnt to read properly, perhaps due to dyslexia.  Computers and spell check had a huge impact on his efficacy, empowering him to write submissions and legal arguments. Sweetman requires little sleep and takes it at strange hours. Something of a snob, he is obsessive about his unusual but distinguished family, especially his father, former Fine Gael Minister for Finance, Gerard, from whom he could not ostensibly be more different.

He worked as a jockey and photographer for years but now earns a difficult living as an environmental litigant and ‘lawyer’ living, unsurprisingly, near the Shell refinery in Rossport. Sweetman loves to gossip.

He is anarchic and hilarious but he is also heroic. Characteristically he throws lots of mud, but he has achieved more for environmental law than anyone else in the country.

Peter Sweetman, former jockey, is off:

“I came from a political dynasty. There was a famous by-election in Wexford where Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin all turned up to address the crowd after the same mass – and they were all Sweetman first cousins.

My father was Fine Gael. Mother was non-political. Father would have been considered of the West British and my mother was definitely West British. Both of them went to school in England entirely. My father then went to Trinity. Neither of them spoke a word of Irish.

My mother never went to the same school for two terms. She went to various schools – I think almost every Catholic boarding school in England had a session with my mother. She was ‘difficult’. That’s where I got a lot of me from.

There was a famous incident in the ‘30s at a Hunt Ball in Naas where she was dared to do something particular, right, for which the reward was a car. Which she collected. Leave it at that.

My father, Gerard, went into law and stood in politics first in 1932. He was elected to the Senate in 42 and became Minister for Finance in the 1954-57 Governments. He appointed [TK] Whitaker – that was called a ‘decision so stupid it should never be allowed to happen’. Whitaker was 36 and there had never been a Secretary General under 60. He was a Principal Officer at the time – he wasn’t even an under secretary.  My old man was nearly sacked over it”.

When I volunteer the conventional view that credits Whitaker with being one of the architects of modern Ireland, Sweetman is something between defensive and offensive: “my old man was the architect – he produced him out of the pack”.

“My old man used to refer to himself as the Minister for Poverty because you couldn’t be Minister for Finance when there was no money and we were absolutely broke at the time – the greatest challenge was to move into the 20th century away from insular De Valera who was still dancing at the crossroads.

Then my father was killed in a car crash – I was 28. Fine Gael more or less presumed that I was going to stand in the by-election and I refused.  It was the best decision I ever made because I’d be an alcoholic probably now. I wasn’t the sort of person who sat in the back row and shut up. It was not my nature.

I was never really a Fine Gaeler – I was labelled it. In a way the politician I was closest to [I’m agog] is now the President of Ireland, Michael D. Michael D was a green socialist and I think I was probably a green socialist.

The thing that really got me going was a pig unit in 1984 – a 10,000-sow unit as part of Pascal Phelan’s integrated sausage factory. I’m a NIMBY – it was on the banks of the Liffey on land that had belonged to my grandfather. It never got off the ground.

The first thing I did beyond pigs was the Kill dump, in 1992. A very important thing happened at the Kill dump hearing. Barrister James Macken was appearing for the local residents and I met his devil [apprentice] – that was the most important thing – Michael O’Donnell. We’re 19 years in touch now. (Here Sweetman goes on a bit about ‘nuttiness’.) [ed’s note: only one of the two is ‘nutty’ and it is not eminent barrister, O’Donnell] and O’Donnell thought outside the box. Everyone else said that’s the way it is and Michael said there were other ways.

Roger Garland [the first Irish Green Party TD (1989 – 1992)] and I believed – and we were proved right – that green politics are the politics of protest.  You keep moving the goalposts.  As you get more support you move the goalposts – you don’t use it for power.

And then Friends [Friends of the Irish Environment] came along in 1997 and Sara Dillon [Visiting lecturer in Environmental Law at UCD, now lecturing in International Trade law in the US] advised us about the Doonbeg golf course in County Clare. We settled the litigation we started and it was one of the  best things we did: for the sake of the snails who have now multiplied massively [Dillon hated the settlement,  believing it had been to stop the holiday homes and golf course, not about the snail – and believing the settlement was wrong in principle].

The day I met [Environmental Solicitor] Greg Casey was probably the most important day of my environmental career because he was doing what I was trying to do and at least there was someone I could talk the same language to. We clicked from day one. There was much we had to talk about. There isn’t a day goes by when we don’t talk to each other.

Myself and Bland [Peter Bland, Junior Counsel] and Greg would rehearse for cases. One of us would be the judge, one of us was prosecuting [sic] and the other was the defence counsel – and we had to try and win.  So all the mistakes got done during dinner. Sometimes there would be fun: I remember a case about a stud in Kilcoole where I was cross-examining a vet about the bloodstock industry and the significance of winning the Gold Cup. James Connolly S.C. intervened to ask me what qualifications I could possibly have to talk about the Gold Cup.  I replied that my first encounter with the Cheltenham Gold Cup was in 1951 – when we, i.e. my grandfather bred the winner!  That shut him up.

I suppose about 2001 we decided we were going to set the State up and make the Habitats Directive work. And we decided then that the case to make it work was the Galway bypass.

The case went a long way to establishing what was the integrity of a designated site: the issue was whether removing 1.7 hectares of a karst limestone pavement of many hectares damaged the ‘integrity’ of the site and was prohibited under the Directive. It’s a question that’s still being asked. Neither any local authority nor An Bord Pleanála in Ireland has ever agreed anything at all will affect the integrity of a designated site.

My argument is once you take away one square inch the integrity of the site is no longer whole.

In the Shell situation if you are going to dig up the SAC you can’t say it won’t affect the integrity of the site because you are digging it up. You can’t come to the conclusion restoration allows you to say there has been no adverse impact. If it’s a priority habitat digging it up is a ‘no no’!

The fundamentals of the civil service are what’s wrong in Ireland. The Minister is supposed to take the advice of the senior civil servants who act only on the interactions of the Minister so neither of them is ever guilty of anything.

When I went down the first time to Shell I went to the meeting in the Hall in Carrightioge; they wanted someone to do the legalities. I said to them straight up I will not be able to stop this development but we will be able to delay it somewhat.  I was thinking perhaps a couple of years – I wasn’t thinking 10! What I wanted was that the thing would be built properly and that it should be sited in the right place for it. But all that any of us could do was to improve it to the extent that at least it would be as safe as humanly possible –what they had proposed originally was so slap dash…

[Marine Minister] Frank Fahey’s famous site was entirely the wrong place because we are in the middle of the Glanamoy bog complex – possibly the largest sub-arctic wilderness in Europe – a  mountain wilderness within 200 feet of sea level: the amount of German camper vans coming to look at this was huge but they’re not coming anymore. They won’t come near us – they’re frightened.

The Irish have a phobia against planning – not just the Planning and Development Act: we don’t plan anything.  We have muddied along with water, we’ve muddied along with sewage, we’ve muddied along relevant to roads, we built some roads that were necessary and some that were totally unnecessary.

The most crazy of the whole lot was the proposed bypass of the Wexford bypass, because the existing Wexford bypass hadn’t even reached half capacity. It was a dual carriageway with roundabout which can safely take about 9,000 cars daily and though in fact there were less than 4,000 they wanted to build a motorway. We had crazy schemes like the Shannon tunnel which is costing us a fortune. The Public-Private Partnerships are an accounting fiddle – they mean the next generation pays for it”.

I intervene to ask if there has been any improvement in Irish planning.

“It’s a fundamental point of Irish projects they they tell us what they are going to do rather than ask you – despite the EU-imposed need for Environmental Impact Assessments. So we still don’t know where we are – look at the history of the National Children’s Hospital. The whole aquaculture system is off the wall – bananas. Then we have raw sewage discharging into places like Newport.

The German lesson is you don’t spend money on infrastructure during the boom – you use it to cushion the bust. We spent it all”.


Tony Lowes is a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment and former activist with An Taisce. Some additional material by Michael Smith