Friday, July 12, 2013

Turf War

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

Patrick Kavanagh, one of our greatest poets, has a very visceral description of a rural dispute in his marvellous poem, Epic. He talks of a dispute over “half a rood of rock,” remembers hearing the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul,” and seeing old McCabe defiantly stepping out the march of the land in front of a line of men armed with pitchforks.

That fight over poor land in 1938 comes to mind as the strange dispute over the right to cut turf on four per cent of Irish bog continues to drag on.

Turf. Bog. Peat. Heather. These are such Irish words, so evocative of a way of life. Huge fireplaces in the old houses, big enough for a child to walk into and look around in when the fire wasn’t lit and there were no great pots or kettles hanging from the crooks overhead.

The beautiful hand-made wooden creels on the mighty donkeys of Ireland, making their stoic way back and forth the country roads in summer. The old iron tongs that needed the two hands of a child to open and close that were handled by the old people as easily as Joe Cooney handled his camán in Croke Park. The mushrooms toasting on the open fire in summertime, and the wonderful, rich smell of the turf smoke itself when you came in from colder days in autumn and winter and knew you were dry, and safe, and home.

It all seems so very far from EU directives, turbary rights, derogations and standoffs by the side of the road between guards who probably really don’t want to be there, and country people who feel they must take a stand before their whole way of life is lost, slice by slice, bit by bit.

How it came to this isn’t easy to understand, although the worrying disconnect between what we talk about in politics and how politics affects our daily lives is a contributory factor. Decisions made in Brussels are important.

How the EU works is important. But nobody here wants to know unless the cheques stop coming or a Brussels starts telling the Irish what they’ll do. Then there’s trouble.

The EU was founded, in part, to heal divisions after World War II. There was massive industrialisation in France and in Germany as they rebuilt their countries, and industrialisation does not come without a high price on the environment. So once that process of industrialisation was complete and the economies of France and Germany were back functioning, it was then time to do no more damage to the environment. This is at the root of EU environmental policy – to protect what’s there, as once it’s destroyed it’s never coming back.

Ireland signed up to the EU Habitats Directive of 1999 fourteen years ago and this is where the trouble began. Under that directive, 130 sites were named Special Areas of Conservation or Natural Heritage Areas. The National Parks and Wildlife Services then started buying these sites up – with substantial fiscal assistance from the EU, it should be noted.

The problem is that buying land is not the same as buying the rights to cut turf on that land – the turbary rights to the land, the right to cut turf, exist separately to the ownership of the land. The other problem is that the 1999 Government did what Irish Governments do and long-fingered the whole thing, hoping it’d be someone else’s problem in the future.

The Government introduced a Derogation on the Cessation of Turf Cutting, which meant that the implementation of the Habitats Directive would be delayed by ten years. This created two realities – the reality of the bureaucrats in Brussels wondering when the Irish were going to get with the program, and the reality of the turf cutters, who didn’t know that the clock was ticking and cut merrily away, just like always.

Those two realities have finally crashed, and that’s where we are now. Successive governments have buried their heads in the sand when being pro-active was clearly the better policy.

The turf-cutting dispute is the Nice and Lisbon Treaty Debates in microcosm. The EU is the best friend Ireland’s got, but it’s viewed like milk of magnesia by the body politic. We’ve heard it’s good for us but we’re far from convinced and we hate the sight of the blue bottle any time it comes down off the shelf.

What was the point of the Derogation? What did it achieve? Instead of flushing all that money down the drain, would it have killed anybody to derogate for five years instead of ten, and in year four, leaflet the households concerned and say “great news! The EU is stumping for a new heating system for your house! No more days in the bog drinking cold tea and getting an ache your back. Now, you’ll be able to go there at your leisure, showing you kids the beauty and wonder of nature and the Irish countryside!”

Because turf-cutting can’t continue, you know. The day of the donkey and creel and hand-cut turf is gone. The Herbst Difco Turbo Peat Cutter attaches to the back of a tractor and can cut between five and ten tonnes of turf per hour. That means that thing is producing over eighty kilos, thirteen stone, of turf a minute, at the very least. Neddy the donkey might be able to bring all that home, but it’ll take him a long, long time.

The bogs can’t last. It’s all right to say that people have always cut turf, but they’ve never been able to cut it so quickly or on such a scale. That’s the difference. A little bit of planning, a hint of foresight, a tiny bit of forward thinking, and all this could have been dealt with years ago. Instead, it’s just more and more heartache. One thing, unlike turf, of which this country seldom seems in short supply.

FOCAL SCOIR: The picture is one of John Hinde's famous postcards from the 'fifties and 'sixties, some of the most gorgeous depictions of the country ever recorded. Super-real colours, of course, but no worse for all that. Beautiful things.