By sylviahammond, 24 June, 2011

Sometimes as South Africans, we think that our problems are unique.  I received this article about Ireland and the European Union by email and thought that it would make interesting Friday reading.  

Down in the bog, amid a field of black strips of turf stacked like Jenga sticks, Michael Fitzmaurice looks up defiantly at the plane snooping on his industry.  The aircraft is on the lookout for anyone still cutting, piling or collecting turf – an endeavour that the EU deems illegal. "It's some craic that we have a country in recession and virtually bankrupt but the authorities can afford to put a plane in the sky to spy on turf cutters," he says breaking apart a piece of the black, natural fuel in his hands.

"During the cutting season we have had helicopters as well as planes, and we have had officials in vans scouting across the boglands to stop us doing what our ancestors did for centuries.  "And it's all because they are afraid that the EU will fine Ireland if turf cutting continues."  The EU has designated this springy, soggy piece of Irish earth a Special Area of Conservation and has ruled that no more turf cutting can take place there in order to preserve the bogs.

The Irish government is concerned that the EU will levy heavy fines on the republic for flouting environmental directives laid down 14 years ago.  But Fitzmaurice, 43, who started turf cutting with his father when he was four, rejects the notion that his government has to adhere to Brussel's environmental edict because Ireland owes so much to the EU.  "It wasn't turf cutters and their families who bankrupted this country. It was the banks and the builders and their politician friends who got Ireland into such a mess.  "We are not responsible for that so why should we pay such a massive price just to do what Europe says."

Ireland's version of the National Trust, An Taisce, insists however that the Fine Gael-Labour government must now enforce the ban.  Irish environmentalists point out that the bogs are unique, and one of the most fragile and overworked natural habitats in the world.  "Bogs have a wider value to society if intact than the limited short-term economic gains of the minority vested interest of peat extractors," says an An Taisce spokesman.

The environmental group insists that the need to stop turf cutting is "10 years overdue".  But the men and women who cut on the bogs of Ireland have a champion in Dublin, the TD for Roscommon South Leitrim, Luke "Ming" Flanagan.  With his goatee beard and long hair he bears some resemblance to the villain in the Buck Rogers sci-fi movies. But Flanagan, a radical independent Dáil deputy, is deadly serious about defending the right to cut turf.

"The authorities are threatening these people with criminal and financial sanctions.  "I have heard instances of turf cutters who also work on the land being told they will have their single farm payment from the EU stopped if they don't stop cutting the bog.  "At present there is a standoff, a bog ceasefire if you like. But we are now into a critical period and I would hope there could be a compromise, that a small percentage of the bogs could continue to be cut. 


"We are talking about the livelihood of about 18,000 people who either work cutting the bogs for turf or rely on it for fuel.  What's the alternative for them – bringing in more coal from Poland or oil from the Middle East?"  On the bog near to where Fitzmaurice works, Tom Gibney has erected an Irish tricolour overlooking his own turf bank.  "I have the deeds to this bog going back to British rule in 1896 framed in glass on my wall at home.  "It still has the UK crown on the top of the document and now that we are supposedly an independent country I am not giving it up and the right to cut a small piece of it for turf."

Not far away in a dank little cottage 87-year-old Ella McKeague is warming herself at the fire, the pungent smell of turf smoke filing up her room.  Adjacent to her home is a small bog she owns which neighbours recently extracted enough turf from to keep the frail pensioner warm for the rest of the year.  "I can't afford oil. We all rely on our turf to get us through the year.  "Tell them to let us keep cutting the turf like I used to do for 60 years, " she says gripping her walking frame and leaning forward to place another few strips of the black and brown natural fuel on to her fire.

Source: The Guardian Weekly



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