Posted by: fermoyweir | July 27, 2009

Positive Developments in Brussels and Dublin

Well, we feel that we might finally be making head-way in our three year long battle with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to ensure the survival of our two-hundred-plus year old weir and our 125 year old club.

The claim coming from the DCENR has always been that, following a complaint to Europe that salmon were unable to traverse Fermoy Weir during the fifty-year drought of Summer 2003, (thousands died in France during that heat-wave,) the EU had decided to impose collossal fines upon Ireland for breaching the Habitats Directive. We were told that if all else failed Article 117 of the 1959 Fisheries Act is an all-powerful act which could be invoked to demolish any redundant (i.e. no longer used for its original purpose) weir.

Our local Labour TD, Sean Sherlock, had suggested on the Dail record that the Irish Government was hiding, not for the first time, behind Europe to push through dodgy plans. He went on to suggest that the real force behind this was the Southern and Regional Fisheries Board who were attempting to justify and preserve their jobs.

Our meetings in November 2006 with Minister John Browne and with his successor, Minister Sean Power in December 2008 both resulted in kicks to touch, and in the second instance the minister instructed the owners of the weir, Fermoy Town Council, to commission an independent report into the options available. Fermoy Town Council, or at least the Executive, then took the shilling by accepting a few grand in partial funding from the Department (seven or eight thousand, if I remember). This gave the Department officials the power of veto over the the preparation of the now only semi-independent report.

The consultants White Young Green attempted to commission the respected Marine Biologist Dr Martin O’Farrell and found his nomination blocked by DCENR officials, presumably on the grounds that Dr O’Farrell has an association with Fermoy Rowing Club and suffers from an unhelpful record of beating the government every time he is drawn into a fight with them.

The resulting WYG report was deeply flawed and did not take into account the unique ecology of the Munster Blackwater.

Frustrated with this, we took out-going Munster MEP Kathy Sinnott up on her suggestion that we should go to Brussels meet with the European Commission Environment DG (Law Enforcement Section). Essentially, this is Europe’s top cop. If the EU has an environmental problem with Ireland then this is the office which would be issuing the parking tickets.

We had a most successful meeting.

In essence, we went out there with a three-pronged strategy.

(i) The Irish Government has claimed from the beginning that their plans are necessary because Europe is planning on fining Ireland tens of millions, apparently per day, if salmon could not traverse the weir. As noted above, we already knew from Kathy Sinnott that the European Commision Environment DG denies this suggestion and we wanted to hear this directly from the office.

(ii) The Standing Scientific Committee is the nationally and internationally accepted barometer of Irish salmon figures and they prove that, since the ban on drift-net fishing, salmon upstream of the weir are recorded as being in surplus of quota. In fact the Munster Blackwater is considered the second best river in the country for salmon conservation. Officials from the DCENR and the Southern Regional Fisheries Board rejected the S.S.C. report at a public meeting in Fermoy last Autumn and we wanted to establish that the EU goes by the S.S.C. figures.

(iii) We have discovered, in the last few weeks, that the section of riverbed which the Department plans to dredge in order to facilitate their proposed rock ramp pass is in fact the habitat of Freshwater Pearl Mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) which is an Annex II protected species under the EU Habitats Directive (9222/43/EEC). Any heavy construction work in the river would inevitably stir up significant levels of silt in the river and this would prove lethal to the mussels.

In relation to the first point, our meeting opened with the re-iteration that Europe has not threatened any sanctions upon Ireland in relation to this matter.

Regarding the S.S.C. figures, it was confirmed to us that that the EU does indeed work from these figures and, upon examination, the European Commision Environment DG accepted that, with recorded levels of salmon upstream of Fermoy vastly in surplus of quota, the weir in Fermoy does not in fact present a real obstacle to migratory salmon.

On the matter of the Munster Blackwater being the home of 46% of all of Ireland’s Freshwater Pearl Mussels, the European Commision Environment DG expressed strong concern that due consideration would need to be given to this habitat. It was further stated that, seeing as the Rowing Club and the local anglers are in accord with their desire to see the weir very carefully restored to its original, 1799, condition then the EU would be happy with this outcome.

Our trip to Europe gave us a lot of answers and it also cleared up a pair of mysteries which had perplexed us for a long time. We had been told by Department officials that they did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to their proposed work and we could not understand how this could be the case in an EU designated Special Area of Conservation.

We had also questioned why the hatchet job on our weir was being bundled in with the Flood Relief Scheme and the nice man from the Office of Public Works, at a meeting in the Grand last Autumn, told us that it was “an act of administrative convenience” as they would be in town anyway and sure they might as well do the weir work while they’re in the water. He became very uncomfortable when we quizzed him about transparency and costings. When our president, John Murphy, called this arrangement “a foxer” the man from the O.P.W. suddenly remembered a prior engagement and, in the vernacular, legged it.

Thanks to Europe, we now know that any work carried out under the cover of flood relief is actually exempt from Environmental Impact Assessment.

Well, perhaps not now that Europe knows what’s really going on…

Also, Article 117 of the 1959 Fisheries Act is actually superceded by the EU Habitats Directive.

And so, a week later, three days ago the time of writing, we met with Conor Lenihan, the new line minister and our third in as many years. In a fortuitous coincidence, our latest visit to Leinster House took place on the same day as the publication of An Bord Snip Nua. At a time of national financial crisis, we found the minister very open to ideas which might save money.

A journalist by trade, the minister asked some very shrewd and awkward questions of his civil servants and he seemed unimpressed with the answers they gave him.

This was the first time we have dealt with a minister who departed from the script written for him by Department officials and that in itself is cause for hope. He seemed displeased when reasons of “commercial sensitivity” were given for not giving him a straight answer as to how much the rock ramp pass would actually cost and he appeared very interested in our statement that we believe we could fix the weir ourselves if we had fifty grand.

Minister Lenihan went from an initial impression that the matter was closed and the rock ramp pass could be installed to the stated opinion that his advisors had an awful lot of homework to do before anything could be done. He also responded to our litany of rowing clubs closed due to state inteference in waterways that he wouldn’t want to see another club put out of business.

This could be described as yet another kick to touch but let it be. We found Minister Lenihan to be a very personable and receptive man and I hesitate to say it, but hopefully we are finally starting to get somewhere.

We have made huge progress in the past two weeks and that has been thanks to tireless work from our members and friends. Our public representatives, on all levels, have done everything we asked of them and in some cases much more. We have got our story to the national press and onto Radio One. Kav was on Drivetime again on Friday and you can listen to that by going to http://www.rte.ie/radio1/player_av.html?0,null,200,http://dynamic.rte.ie/quickaxs/209-rte-drivetime-dri-marywilson-Friday.smil and forwarding to 01:40.

Most importantly, the support of the people of the town has been hugely empowering to us and also very humbling. Our friends in the angling clubs, the swimmers, kayakers, the boxers and all the others have stood with us and we won’t forget that.

Our parting shot to Minister Lenihan was to present to him a petition that the weir be saved. This was signed by over 3000 people.

As a Rowing Club we have never claimed to own the river but as townspeople we most certainly do.

Thanks again for all of your interest and support.

Donal O’Keeffe
Hon Secretary
Fermoy Rowing Club

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Responses

  1. Congratulations on all your hard work and the really professional way in which you have conducted this campaign. It certainly looks as though you are finally getting the results you deserve. If you need any help please don’t hessitate to contact me.

  2. Good news and well done to all of the people who’ve worked so hard on this!

    Martina Lloyd (London)


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