Battle for rare Irish beauty: Leonard Doyle reports from the Burren, where the EC is accused of 'trying to put a moustache on the Mona Lisa'

THE European Commission, to its intense embarrassment, is facing legal action over its funding of tourist development in the heart of the Burren, Eire, one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in Western Europe.

The Burren, in County Clare, is a sanctuary for rare butterflies and the combination of the Gulf stream and a limestone terrain enables Arctic and Mediterranean plants to grow side by side. Every spring the area is ablaze with such flowers as the spring gentian, the mountain avens and the bloody craneshill.

The Commission, which was persuaded by Ray MacSharry, Ireland's former EC commissioner, to release funds for tourist development, is being challenged in the European Court by environmental groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

The dispute - over a plan for a Ir pounds 3.75m visitors' centre at Mullaghmore Mountain in the heart of the Burren - has also caused acrimony in the hills of North Clare and threatens the future of Ireland's first partnership government between Fianna Fail and Labour.

Environmentalists fear that Ireland, which is due Ir pounds 8bn of EC funds to develop mass tourism and improve the road networks, will eventually be ruined by motorways and theme parks.

But Fianna Fail has umbilical links to the construction industry and, locally, there is powerful support for a project that will create jobs.

The Labour party is caught in the middle, vigorously opposing the scheme but fearful of seeming to put the environment before jobs. Dr Moosajee Bhamjee, the newly-elected Labour representative for Clare, and Ireland's first Indian-born politician, dared not attend a public meeting last week.

Environmentalists say that coachloads of tourists will climb Mount Mullaghmore, trampling on orchids that take decades to become established. They will also scatter aluminium cans on the rocks and drop plastic crisp bags and sweet wrappers in an environment which has been pristine and quiet for millennia.

They are particularly worried about the sensitive ecosystem of the turlough (disappearing lake) at the foot of the mountain. The lake, which fills and empties through a series of rushing underground rivers, is the most important example of its kind in Europe.

'Putting a visitors' centre here is like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa,' a local campaigner said.

What especially angers the protesters is that Fianna Fail ensured that contracts - awarded to major contributors to party funds - were signed to start development on the very day that a High Court hearing began in Dublin. The Office of Public Works has quietly purchased 2,000 acres of land in recent years and has refused to consider moving the centre or combining it with the restored 16th century abbey at nearby Leameneh.

'We operate on the basis of nods and winks,' says Jim Kemmy, chairman of the Labour party, commenting on the way public money is spent in Ireland.

But the Burren is as famous for emigration to America as for its mystical beauty. In this traditionally hungry area, people are glad of jobs. Chris Flynn, spokesman for the Office of Public Works, compares the protesters to William Wordsworth who, in the 19th century, feared that a railway near his Lake District retreat would bring an invasion of 'unwashed masses'.

'The Burren is made of limestone,' he said. 'You'll break your ankle on it before you'll affect the actual limestone.' If damage was being done to the area, it was by what he described as 'postgraduate bloody students, some of whom are from that side of the pond (Britain) who think they've a God-given right to take samples home with them'.

Last week, Dublin's High Court ordered the suspension of work on this and several other EC-funded projects. However, work has been proceeding at breakneck speed. Ten-foot high walls have been built and car parks laid out over rare geological formations of limestone paving.

(Photograph omitted)

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