Thursday, 3 June 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
8. Mr. D. Carey asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands the position in regard to Ireland's compliance with the EU habitats directive; the progress, if any, made in this regard; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14696/99]
Miss de Valera: The habitats directive requires member states to propose relevant natural areas for designation as special areas of conservation and to protect their favourable conservation status. It also requires member states to transmit a list of the proposed areas together with full information on each site to the EU Commission within three years of the date of the notification of the directive, that is, by June 1995. The directive specifies scientific criteria for the selection of these areas which will form a network of sites known as Natura 2000.
The directive was transposed into Irish law by means of the European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations, 1997 (S.I. No. 94/97). The main part of Ireland's SAC network has, since March 1997, been publicly advertised for designation and receives legal protection in Ireland from that date.
The EU Commission recognises that the viability of the Natura 2000 network of sites is dependent on the co-operation of the landowners and land users whose lands are included in the sites. I believe that all those whose lands have been proposed for SAC designation must be given an opportunity to object to the proposals, on scientific grounds, before I formally transmit the list to the Commission. To this end I have provided an opportunity to landowners and to land users to have their appeals examined informally by Dúchas, the heritage service of my Department. I have also established a board, chaired by Mr. Michael Mills, the former Ombudsman, and comprising of representation from the landowners and the conservation organisations to independently assess appeals and to advise me on these matters.
The EU Commission has been notified of our proposals in relation to SACs and the reasons for the failure to meet the deadline for transmission of the list of sites to the Commission. The Commission is also aware that, while Ireland is not in compliance with the directive, the advertised sites receive full protection under our national legislation.
The current position is that 114 of the 207 publicised sites, covering more than 184,000 hectares, have now been transmitted to the EU Commission. I anticipate that the bulk of the remainder will be formally transmitted by the end of July this year. I also propose to publish proposed non-priority habitat type SACs by the end of July and for proposed marine sites to be published by the end of the year.
Mr. D. Carey: The purpose of the directive is to benefit landowners and the general public. How  many departmental staff are employed on this? Has the number been increased to cope with the appeals system introduced by the Minister? Will the Minister outline the responsibilities of each of these staff members?
Miss de Valera: The details in my initial reply show that quite a large area will be referred to as SACs under the terms of the proposed directive. The Commission is aware that Ireland is adopting a special approach to this matter. We wish to comply with the directive while recognising the rights of landowners and land users, particularly with regard to appeals on scientific grounds.
With regard to extra staff, I am sure the Deputy will agree that there is a greater need for rangers to monitor this work. The Minister of State and I endeavoured to have more rangers appointed and this has been done.
Mr. D. Carey: The Minister did not answer the question. If she does not have the information on the number of staff involved in the designation of special areas of conservation, I would appreciate if she would send it to me. The Minister's predecessor expressed reservations about objections on scientific grounds. How many additional staff have been appointed following the expansion of the appeals system? Why is it that only 50 per cent of lands proposed for designation have been designated?
Miss de Valera: SACs have legal protection. The reason for the delay is that we wanted to put a proper and fair procedure in place. The former Ombudsman, Mr. Michael Mills, has been appointed to chair the appeals committee. Forty one liaison committees have been established to date. Thirty seven meetings have been held at which committees have been formed. A further 19 meetings will be held shortly. Much work is being done by my officials, the Minister of State and me on this issue. There will be no difficulty in supplying the information sought by the Deputy.
Mr. Deasy: Despite what the Minister said, it is obvious that we are seriously in breach of the EU habitats directive. The Sunday Tribune, which for some reason is on the inside track, has indicated that we are seriously in breach of a number of directives. What does the Minister intend to do about this and the shortage of staff in her Department? How many new wildlife rangers will be employed? Has there been liaison with the Minister for Finance to secure the necessary funds to employ outdoor staff? There is only one wildlife ranger in my home county which has two mountain ranges.
Miss de Valera: The Minister of State and I have been given sanction by the Minister for Finance to recruit extra rangers. The European Commission has instituted legal proceedings against Ireland for non-compliance with the  directive. I am confident, however, that the programme I have proposed to the European Commission will be completed before the case is heard by the courts.
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