Europe

Irish turf battle over European law

Field of turf
Image caption Domestic turf cutters say they are more conscious of their environment (Pic by Keith Donnelly)

The Irish government is fighting a battle with some of the country's domestic turf cutters. It's all about a European law that aims to protect 53 of the country's raised bogs. BBC NI's Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison reports.

It's a bright day and the sun shines on the green marsh top with lots of wild flowers and the occasional frog.

The marsh in County Kildare lies on top of a dark peat that has been dug into.

The turf cutters, who have gathered, have been told they are breaking the law by stacking turf on a raised bog. They own the turf and it is burned later in their own homes.

Feelings are running high. There are signs nearby warning the Irish environmental authorities to stay away.

Turf cutting is, according to their spokesman John Dore, a tradition that goes back generations, to the days when the British, and one particular hate-figure, ruled.

"We're now gone from being a colony of Britain to a colony of Europe," he said.

"And we don't actually know where we are.

"As one man in Roscommon said to me Cromwell was a lot better than this crowd.

"I asked how he made that out and he said 'At least you knew where you stood with Cromwell'."

Nearly an hour's drive away is the Edenderry peat power plant in County Offaly and close to it are hollowed out fields left looking like scorched earth - the result of mechanised turf cutting.

Domestic turf cutters say they are much more conscious of their environment.

Ten years ago the Irish government got permission from the EU to delay - until recently - an end to domestic turf cutting on 53 raised bogs.

The government offered those affected 23,000 euros in compensation and access to other turf.

The former Kerry GAA footballer, Jimmy Deenihan, the minister responsible, believes the government has been very understanding.

Tradition

He said: "We think we're being very reasonable here because of the fact that we have to make sure the law is implemented and complied with.

"But on the other hand we've been very generous with compensation and accommodation of those people who are affected."

However, domestic turf cutters like Fiona Conlan say what is on offer is not enough to end a rural tradition that goes back generations.

"It sounds like a lot of money to people who don't have 23,000 euros right now," she said.

"But if you break that money down, it works out as €4.15 a day which they are giving us for turning over our turf banks to the government."

Sitting beside her turf fire in her farmhouse Margaret Burke tells me tradition is something to be cherished.

She said: "The warmth of the fire, the smell of the turf evokes memories that we'll cherish.

"But it's also a living heritage.

"And it would be sad if it was just a heritage and not living, if we don't have this living memory and tradition continued into the next generation."

The Irish government says it faces the prospect of nine million euros in annual fines unless the turf cutting stops.

The turf cutters reply: What price tradition? And say they are prepared to compromise.

Without a resolution, though, it remains a burning issue in parts of rural Ireland.

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