A "total attitude change" is needed to ensure the nation's countryside, coastal areas and mountains are accessible to the entire population without pushback from landowners and farmers, the Keep Ireland Open (KIO) group has said.
Legislation is urgently needed to “copper-fasten the common law right of ordinary citizens to walk around their countryside”, said Michael Murphy, secretary of the western branch of KIO, who spoke via Zoom to attendees at the group’s annual general meeting in Dublin on Saturday.
"We're in dire need of legislation that parallels the law that has done so much to benefit in England, Wales and Scotland, " Mr Murphy later told the Irish Times by phone. "The model is already there for us, we just have to look at the Countryside & Rights of Way Act (2003). They have a lovely network of old pathways all over Britain that go back in some cases to the Middle Ages. It's done wonders for their local economy and there's no reason why we can't run that model here.
"The attitude about land access is totally different in Britain where it's non-confrontational, unlike here where landowners defend everything and have an attitude of conceding nothing. We need to stop thinking of farmers and landowners as the elite; there's other people who live in this country and should be able to enjoy their countryside. We're stuck in these attitudes that are rooted in the old days of the land war and land ownership while the rest of Europe has moved on."
Mr Murphy noted that individuals and small community groups are “worn out” battling landowners who close off beauty spots and pathways to the general public. However, he underlined that the proposed legislation would pose “no threat” to people’s ownership of land.
“Nobody wants to take anybody’s land away, this access will just enhance the economic wellbeing of the regions. There’s gain in this for everybody. We’re just looking for co-operation and to move forward together.”
Matthew Hooper, also a member of KIO, has spent the past 14 years objecting fencing that was erected on Fenit Island in Co Kerry in the early 2000s which prevented members of the public from accessing the island's coastal pathway. In January 2022, after years of campaigning and legal proceedings, a circuit court judge in Tralee ordered that the "unauthorised fencing" be entirely removed within nine months and also ordered the defendants to pay a substantial proportion of Kerry County Council's legal costs.
Mr Hooper said the Fenit community members who had spent years campaigning for this fencing to be removed from the island in Tralee Bay felt “completely vindicated” by the court’s decision.
“The public had enjoyed access to the island for generations and the erection of unauthorised industrial scale fencing to prevent that access was just wrong and had to be challenged.”
He noted that a 14-year campaign to remove fencing was “not sustainable” and warned that while the Fenit Island coastal pathway “remains defined as a pathway which has had habitual public use, it is still not a public right of way”. Ireland is in “urgent need of change” around access pathways and it cannot be left to individuals and small community groups to take on landowners and planners, said Mr Hopper.
“England and Wales have 140,000 miles of public right of way and the economic and health benefits of encouraging the public to walk is now fully accepted by politicians,” he said. He added that research carried out by the University of Exeter had found the health and wellbeing benefits of walking along England’s south west coastal pathways could be valued at more than £75 million (€88 million) per year in savings to the health service.