Sitting both sides of the fence


Last Friday two Co Clare farmers were threatened with prison. Chris Carroll and Simon O'Donnell were taken to the High Court by Doonbeg Golf Club for allegedly breaching a previous court undertaking not to use an old right of way across the golf course and down to the beach to collect seaweed, writes Fintan O'Toole.

The club tried to put up gates to stop the farmers crossing the land. The gates were removed. The club has been given permission to seek the committal to prison of both men.

This is, in one way, a small local dispute. But it involves a much bigger question: whether rights to private property are absolute. It also puts a rather ironic twist on an old and very much unresolved argument. Increasingly in recent years, some farmers have been blocking access for walkers to traditional rights of way, with especially damaging effects on a tourist industry that is already in trouble.

Whether as a source of local bitterness or of national problems, the whole issue of property rights - where they begin and where they end - is infinitely productive of bother.

It affects housing policy, infrastructural development, tourism and agriculture, a pretty impressive sweep of subjects that ought to be of major concern to the State. Many people in many categories are looking for a bit of clarity from the Government, which is the only body that can really get to grips with what has become a dreadful and costly mess.

So it was that when the Minister of State, Tom Parlon, opened the Parnell Summer School last week it seemed pretty reasonable to expect a keynote address of some substance.

Tom Parlon is in a particularly interesting position. He was a fine leader of the Irish Farmers' Association. And he is now on the other side of the fence, since he has responsibility for the Office of Public Works which looks after most of the State's property. If anyone should be able to see the issue from both sides and to show some much-needed leadership, it ought to be Tom Parlon.

A school honouring Charles Stewart Parnell is surely the right place to remember that the Irish State and indeed modern Ireland itself are founded on the most sustained and successful assault on absolute notions of private property in 19th-century Europe.

The Irish family farmers whom Tom Parlon represented so ably until recently came into existence because of a war - sometimes peaceful, sometimes not - against the rights of land-owners. Over a period of 30 years the Irish National Land League and the United Irish League campaigned successfully for a massive and compulsory transfer of Irish property from its lawful owners to its tenants.

Tom Parlon, who has a portrait of Parnell in his office and reckons that his own surname is a version of the Chief's, knows, of course, that Parnell was president of the Land League when it had two basic objectives. In the short term it planned to force land-owners to keep rents at a level that was affordable to the tenantry and to prevent, by force if necessary, unjustified evictions.

In the longer term it demanded the wholesale transfer of the land from the landlords to the tenants.

The Land League questioned the whole notion that the land belonged in any simple sense to those who had occupied it. Its moving spirit, Michael Davitt, expressed the view that there was no individual ownership of land in Ireland before the English arrived and that "the feudal idea, which views all rights as emanating from a head landlord, came in with the conquest and has never to this day been recognised by the moral sentiments of the Irish people."

You might imagine then that, when Tom Parlon used his address to condemn some current ideas as slurs on the memory of Parnell, he was talking about the crude landlordism that cuts off rights of way or rejects moves to control the cost of building land.

Laughably, however, he was telling us that what would make poor Parnell weep would be any attack on the rights of private property: "It took centuries for Irish politicians to establish property rights and any move to change that would be a slight on the memory of people like Charles Stewart Parnell".

The whole notion of "limiting the private property rights of Irish citizens in an effort to put more development land on the market" is "an approach . . . gift-wrapped in an ideology somewhere left of Stalin" . He rejected, and clearly wants us to believe that Parnell was whispering the words in his ear as he spoke, "any measure giving the State the power to control the value of private assets".

This latter phrase is especially funny, for, of course, the final solution to the land question, the Land Act of 1903, was one in which the State was involved not merely in setting the prices for which estates would be sold to the tenants but in advancing the money.

Leaving aside the breathtaking distortion of history, Tom Parlon's speech does have the virtue of spelling out a clear position: the rights of private property may not be limited by the State. I presume he will now put this philosophy into practice by transferring his own farm back to whatever Ascendancy magnate owned it in the 19th century and urge his former members in the IFA to follow suit.