Farmers' revolt at Government bid for Clonmacnoise World Heritage site

"Not on my land" was the defiant message sent back to the Minister for the Environment after last Wednesday's public consultation meeting on the proposed bid to make Clonmacnoise a World Heritage Site. The meeting was brought to a temporary halt last Wednesday night after around 200 people staged a walk-out, leaving shocked officials behind. It did continue after a request from the 30 to 40 people who had non-farming concerns. Several landowners angrily spoke of their mistrust of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and accused the bidding team of trying to "railroad" through the submission. The meeting was called by the Department, their consultants and the OPW, in an attempt to discuss the Draft Management Plan with locals living within the extended buffer zone area that stretches over seven hectares and three counties. However, things didn't get off to a good start as the independent facilitator admitted to the packed conference room in the Athlone Springs Hotel that they'd only expected around 80 to 100 people to show up. Only 40 copies of the Draft Management Plan were available for distribution and many complained that Wednesday's meeting was the first time for them to see the map of the buffer zone. "We need more honesty from the department," said a voice from the crowd. "The whole thing, these answers are not helping people." "You've made a dog's dinner of it, a complete horlicks of it," said one man. "I urge you people to respect our cultural rights and traditions," said another voice. It was suggested that the officials in their Dublin offices were not qualified to understand what life was like for landowners in the affected region. One Department official was even accused of being patronising in his answers. The reasons behind the proposed UNESCO submission and the measures taken to complete the submission were detailed by both Brian Lucas, Principal Heritage Officer with the Department and Martin Crichley of ERA Maptec Consultants. Mr Lucas was at pains to point out that the official submission (final nomination document) has not yet been sent to UNESCO, only a bid to get technical feedback. Clonfad's Tom Turley, a farmer and IFA member, told the table that they had "treated the people with disregard". "I farm in a SPA area and there are stringent restrictions on what I do, will that be the same within the buffer zone?" he asked. "You'll be like the Indians in the reservations," he told the crowd. "Your Minister has done away with the REPs scheme that has allowed our people to keep the land the way it is," he added. "I'd say to the Minister and the Taoiseach to get rid of the Programme for Government and let local people mind the area, not state agencies. Since the state agencies took over the management of the corncrake, the numbers have dropped, the state allowed the Shannon to be filled in with peat and there's still sewage flowing into it. Yet we're then being told we can't build a house 20 metres away from the river with a proper septic tank in place." "Neither the Department or UNESCO want to sterilise the site," replied Mr Lucas. "If the local people don't want this to go ahead, then I can't see how it can go ahead." "Then we should not go through with the motions, thanks for the meeting, I'm going home," said Mr Turley who then led the walk-out to raucous cheering. "We want the bid to stop. We're of the land. Do those in Dublin not want the peasants to ruin their little tea-party?" asked Noel Hynes from the Ballinasloe area before him. "Why didn't someone come to the local people first before the thing was started, instead of barrelling along. Were you afraid of being knocked back at the first hurdle?" He wondered would farmers no longer be able to farm within the buffer zone without first getting a "permission slip from someone in Dublin". "The people in the area have been treated absolutely abisimally," said Michael Silke, Connacht Vice President of the IFA. He said in other deals he knew of where land changed hands, there was always a process of consultation. "You have made no attempt to do that. Calling a public meeting tonight is only window dressing. There's been no consultation with local stakeholders." He said the implications of the buffer zone, which he described as having "savage, savage restrictions" needed to be explained honestly to people. "You did not spell out the consequences. If there's none, then there's no need for the meeting tonight and remove those black lines (the buffer zone markings on the map)." Kieran Coughlan from the Moore Gun Club was concerned that the buffer restrictions would affect the Moore, Clonown and Clonmacnoise gun clubs and private individuals hunting and fishing. He asked that apart from the Corncrake, what other animals/birds were on the endangered list. He said that the national gun club was not consulted. Paddy Place a local farmer, was worried that more areas within the buffer zone would become SPCs or NHAs without the landowners being consulted. "Why has nothing being done since 1992 (when Clonmacnoise was first listed as a potential site by the Government) and then there's a big push in the last 12 months?" he asked. "Why wait until now and railroad it through in 12 months? The complete lack of consultation is the reason for the complete farce of a meeting tonight." The Department pointed out that references in the plan that farmers have to notify the Minister about activities such as changing land from hay/meadow use to grazing/silage use, only related to SPAs and SACs, as is the case now. Cheif Archeologist with the Department Brian Duffy, said the UNESCO bid was part of the current Programme for Government plan, and the new Government decided to submit Clonmacnoise for consideration this time around. "There is no absolute deadline," added Mr Lucas. "If we make the submission deadline of next February 2009, it means a decision in 2012, but we can hold off until 2011, 2012." Wrapping up, Mr Lucas said the Department and consultants had a lot to reflect on. He said he now didn't know what the next step would be after the way the meeting turned out. He urged locals to make submissions to the department until the August 21 deadline. "There will possibly be another public consultation meeting and a new Draft Management Plan. I don't know if we even have a realistic game plan now," he added.