Choice has to be made between road safety and freshwater mussel – Ó Cuív
Former government minister slams EU Habitats Directive as ‘impossible test’
Éamon Ó Cuív said a choice will have to be made between the ‘insignificant risk’ to local freshwater pearl mussel balanced with the possibility that somebody will die if the road is not upgraded. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland will have to make hard decisions in relation to infrastructure projects and “take our chances with Europe”, former government minister Éamon Ó Cuív has suggested.
Mr Ó Cuív described aspects of the EU’s Habitat’s Directive as an “impossible test” and if applied to humans would mean nobody would get out of bed in the morning.
He said a choice will have to be made between the “insignificant risk” to local freshwater pearl mussel by a road building programme in Connemara balanced with the possibility that somebody will die if the road is not upgraded.
An upgrade to the N59 between Oughterard and Maam Cross was approved by An Bord Pleanála in December 2013, but has not gone ahead because of further planning issues including the fate of freshwater pearl mussel in the area.
The Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs heard that the EU Habitat’s Directive was incorporated into Irish law in 1997.
John Fitzgerald of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said Ireland has never been fined under the terms of the directive.
Mr Ó Cuív responded by suggesting that, in certain disputes, Ireland should simply build infrastructure, defend its decision in Europe and any fines would be “miniscule” in the context of the Government’s €58 billion budget.
An Bord Pleanála stipulated that the road building could only go ahead if “method statements” - how the contractor intends to build the road - were approved by Galway County Council and in turn by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs through the NPWS.
At the committee, the NPWS revealed that eight method statements have been submitted by the council, but only two have been approved to date by the department.
‘Extremely sensitive species’
One of the main issues holding up the road building programme is the fate of the freshwater pearl mussel in the Owenriff River. The European Commission raised concerns about the impact that the road scheme would have on it. Themussel was described by the NPWS at the committee as an “extremely sensitive species which is dying out in many places”.
He told the committee that the people of Oughterard had been deprived of a pedestrian bridge because the NPWS had objected on the basis that the shadow of the bridge might interfere with the freshwater pearl mussel underneath.
“The money had to be sent back and we (public representatives) had to stand up in front of a public meeting and explain to people who are trying to get their children to school safely that the freshwater pearl is more important. What is so important about the pearl mussel?” he said.
Mr Fitzgerald said he understood the level of frustration among locals at the delay in the road building programme, but pointed out that the NPWS only has an advisory role.
He suggested Ireland could find itself “in the dock” with the European Commission if the N59 is built without the necessary approvals. “There are people who have a particular interest in various ecological issues and could, at any time, raise a challenge by seeking a court injunction,” he said.
“What would be important for us is that we are proceeding down the right route so that when we do get going, we are not stopped.”