Environment group rejects criticism over stance on Roscommon flooding

Council and OPW trying to circumvent environmental protection, group claims

The claim that the ongoing misery experienced by people battling floods on the edge of Lough Funshinagh in Co Roscommon was foisted on them by Friends of the Irish Environment (FoIE) is “just nonsense”, the organisation has said.

The environmental charity, which took two High Court challenges to efforts by Roscommon County Council to install a drainage pipe at the lake as part of an emergency flood-relief scheme, said the claim was "unfair and unjust".

The council first sought to drain floodwater at the lake last June using emergency provisions in the Local Authorities (Works) Act 1949. This was successfully challenged in the High Court by FoIE citing the European Union habitats directive among other environmental protections afforded to the lake, which is a special area of conservation (SAC) and part of the Natura 2000 network.

The council made a second attempt in August citing emergency provisions in the Planning and Development Act, but this was again successfully challenged by FoIE.

‘Emotionally invested’

Minister for State at the Office of Public Works (OPW) Patrick O’Donovan, who said he was “emotionally” invested on the side of the county council, told The Irish Times he saw the conflict as a struggle between Irish and EU laws.

He said Lough Funshinagh “must be seen as a watershed” and he would “confront” members of the Government in an effort to rework legislation to prevent “Irish communities becoming environmental refugees”. He blamed FoIE for the predicament facing homeowners near the lough.

However, FoIE said the council knew or should have known that Clare County Council had addressed a similar issue of a non-draining turlough at Ballyvelaghan, which had the same environmental designation as Lough Funshinagh, in 2018. The organisation said Clare County Council undertook an environmental-impact assessment and applied to An Bord Pleanála for permission for flood-relief measures, which was the proper procedure.

Eoin Brady, solicitor for FoIE, said the "key question is why the Lough Funshinagh project was not carried out in accordance with proper procedure". He said the council, supported by the OPW and Mr O'Donovan, had essentially set up a challenge to the habitats directive and protection provided by SAC and Natura designations.

Mr Brady said such a template could have been used by local authorities elsewhere to effectively circumvent State and EU environmental protections if it had been allowed to stand. He said it was “important to remember environmental laws do not prohibit actions which damage elements of the environment” – they just require that economic and social benefits be assessed against that damage “and a balancing exercise be undertaken”.

Environmental assessment

But addressing the elected members of Roscommon County Council on March 28th, the local authority's chief executive, Eugene Cummins, said completing a full environmental assessment could take three years and the possibility of An Bord Pleanála approving the scheme would be "slim".

He said “the risk of failure is so great” he did not want “to do that”. The Irish Times asked the council if this position had changed, but a reply has not been received.

In his address to the council members, Mr Cummins said FoIE had "generated huge costs and eliminated every bit of hope" for people who may yet lose their homes because of future flooding. He referred to people in the Ukraine losing their homes as a result of the Russian invasion and said the FoIE "might have a friend in Russia too who doesn't know what conscience means".

FoIE director Tony Lowes expressed disappointment at the references to Ukraine. He said blaming the group for the predicament householders were in was "just nonsense" given the law provided for other solutions.

He said during the court cases members of FoIE had been intimidated by a slew of hatred on social media. One case made national headlines when Mr Lowes reported a call to An Garda Síochána in which he said he had been warned he and the organisation could face recriminations from paramilitaries, particularly the Continuity IRA.

“It is depressing that prominent people in the very State agencies that should be protecting the environment did not call out this intimidation but heaped criticism up on us,” Mr Lowes said