Heritage heroes: it’s time for us to take a stand for our land

EU directives bring us conservation benefits, but we must take responsibility ourselves

As Irish as a bodhrán: a raised bog. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

As Irish as a bodhrán: a raised bog. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


More than 500,000 EU citizens, of whom 7,694 are Irish, signed up last month to an online campaign supporting the EU directives on birds and habitats, which form the basis of a lot of Irish environmental regulation.

The campaign, spearheaded here by BirdWatch Ireland and An Taisce, was triggered by a decision by the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to initiate a “fitness check” on the European Union’s conservation laws.

But why such a big fuss? Reviews like this are a standard and, one would imagine, a healthy practice, measuring how well EU laws are performing.

Yet An Taisce describes the review as “the most serious threat to Irish nature conservation in a generation”. BirdWatch Ireland says it is a threat “to destroy legal protection for Ireland’s and Europe’s fauna and flora”.

Isn’t all this alarming language over the top? After all, the online campaign was based on a questionnaire put out by the commission itself. For once Brussels cannot be accused of not consulting us citizens.

But Juncker not only asked his environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, to carry out an “in-depth evaluation” of the directives but also instructed him “to assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation”.

No one had ever made a coherent case that the directives were in any way antiquated, although they could certainly be improved.

There is a lot of evidence that Juncker’s puzzling words are really code for “please rid me of these troublesome nature regulations”.

Let’s be clear: these two directives are, as Michael Viney pointed out in a recent column, based on a lot of sound environmental science. They have contributed enormously to creating a framework for conserving species and habitats across the EU. So the campaign to defend them seems justified. BirdWatch Ireland says the sign-up is the biggest ever response to an EU consultation, and it is hoped the commission hears this message.

Conservation awareness

Nevertheless, something in the language that An Taisce and BirdWatch Ireland use in the campaign still troubles me.

“If we didn’t have these EU directives, we believe that nature in Ireland would be in a bad state,” BirdWatch Ireland said.

There is an underlying assumption here, perhaps inadvertent, that we Irish are somehow incapable of cherishing and protecting our natural heritage without the support of a big stick from Brussels.

It’s true, sadly, that conservation awareness was pretty low in Ireland before we joined the EU (then the EEC). Without the directives we might indeed have lost more valuable habitats and more species over the past 35 years.

But there are complex reasons for this, and they need to be addressed here at home if we are ever to get our conservation debates on a proper footing.

The negative aspect of the EU environment directives is that they have created a widespread perception that our conservation laws are a “foreign imposition”, especially in those communities most affected by them. This has enabled populist politicians to portray conservation as a movement out to destroy traditional rural cultures and freedoms.

They have been very successful in wielding this weapon, doing enormous environmental damage, to the bogs for example, flouting the directives in the name of patriotism and people power, with very little challenge from the Government or Garda.

It’s also true that the overstretched agencies charged with implementing these laws have sometimes used them as blunt instruments to create swathes of nominally “protected” land rather than attempting to engage local people in a real dialogue that might produce a workable conservation consensus.

Perhaps some conservationists, long isolated and powerless themselves, have become comfortable under this European umbrella. You don’t really have to make the case, person to person and townland to townland, if the wise folk in Brussels have already spoken for you.

The directives have also given politicians generally, including ministers supposedly responsible for the environment, an excuse to shrug off conservation as an unfortunate obligation incurred by our EU membership, an unpleasant price we must pay for the benefits of being members.

Historical memory

Among other factors, a deep historical memory may be at play here: most of our first naturalists came from “Anglo-Irish” backgrounds. Independent Ireland perhaps suspected that conservation was somehow alien to the new nation.

But a raised bog is as Irish as a bodhrán. We don’t need Brussels to tell us to care about traditional music or even about Georgian houses. So isn’t it time we grew up and owned conservation issues – and all the painful debates that go with them – as part of what we are? Shouldn’t we apply the EU principle of subsidiarity here: don’t do anything from Brussels, or even Dublin, that can be done more effectively locally?

For a long time many people thought Ireland could liberalise its laws on sexual relations only through European courts. The marriage-equality referendum recently gave the lie to that demeaning perception.

In broadly environmental terms we have already been in the European forefront on issues such as smoking and plastic bags. The home-grown Burren Farming for Conservation project is a model for the world.

Ireland had the sixth most signatories in support of the directives last month, ahead of most EU countries, including Britain. So this might be a good moment to take full responsibility for our environmental agenda, to protect the natural heritage that most of us, in one way or another, cherish.

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