Turf cutters invoke Easter Rising in row over peat bogs
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Saturday 07 April 2012
In events that might inspire an Irish dramatist, an unholy turf war has broken out across the country's bogs, pitting the government, the European Commission and the green lobby against rural-dwellers fighting for the right to heat their homes.
The escalating dispute centres on the turf which has for centuries been carved out of the countryside for use as fuel. The Irish government has issued formal warnings that this weekend could see prosecutions if turf cutters target protected bogs.
But a cutters' organisation, using unusually militant rhetoric, has issued a defiant clarion call evoking the Easter Rising, the insurrection which nearly a century ago culminated in the British withdrawal from southern Ireland.
In a ringing declaration, the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association told its members and supporters: "In the spirit of Irish freedom and independence, Easter week would be the ideal week to strike for freedom and exercise your rights in the time-honoured tradition." The government is taking the issue extremely seriously, warning that wildlife rangers and others will be out on duty this weekend, and that those found taking turf from 53 protected raised bogs will face prosecution.
At the heart of the issue is a conflict between the ancient and the modern: the long-standing right to use turf as fuel versus modern concerns about the conservation of bogland and protection of the species which inhabit it.
The government has asked people to refrain from cutting while it seeks to negotiate with Europe about areas designated as legally protected.
The authorities have offered compensation, plus turf from alternative sources, but this has not satisfied the cutters. Minister Jimmy Deenihan has warned of consequences if cutting is not halted. He said: "People will be brought to court. We will have to apply the law, otherwise Europe will impose major fines on Ireland – €25,000 a day."
The green lobby in Ireland argues that the bogs contain a unique ecosystem which, once lost, could never be recovered.
One green advocate said: "These are the equivalent of our rain forests. The science explicitly states that these special areas will not withstand the level of extraction that is happening today."
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