The need for land access in Ireland

One way to help recover the Irish economy would be to take advantage of Ireland’s wealth of historic monuments and scenery to boost the tourist industry. In Ireland, look at any OS map and you’re practically tripping over historic monuments of one sort or another. I felt the urge to go visit a couple of the Tower houses in my part of Cork and I was not short of ones to choose from. There are an estimated 2,000 tower houses across the country, along with hundreds of stone circles and megalithic monuments. This handy wee tool should give you a feel for what I’m talking about.

However, the problem in Ireland is that we have no right to roam as in Scotland, nor even the basic land access (designated rights of way) in England. This is largely a throw back to the days when Ireland was ruled by the UK and much of the land owned by absentee British landlords. They made every effort to keep the Irish in their place, which meant not giving them any sort of rights, if it could be avoided.

In the lead up to independence and immediately afterwards, efforts were made to allow those on the land in Ireland to buy it, often at a significant discount, with little thought given to sorting out issues such as access rights first.

Consequently as the castles I was seeking to visit were on private land, I had to take a long stealthy detour to get near some of them. As unfortunately many farmers are reluctant to grant access to their land. This can result in some tourists telling right old horror stories about Ireland, which hardly does the tourist industry any favours.

Again, this doesn’t universally apply. Some farmers don’t just allow access but encourage it. For example one of the best starting points up Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s highest peak) is “Cronin’s Yard”, where Mr Cronin (a local farmer) has long allowed people to park in his farm yard and change afterwards in his barn, for a small fee (2 euro last time I was there).

But, at the other end of the scale, there are those that put up “no trespassing” signs and bluntly cut off access…or have threatened and intimidated walkers to the point that they’ve since been jailed. In part this is motivated by the usual towny v’s country prejudice (us with our mobile phones and DVD’s! ;D) as well as the mercenary attitude taken by some of the better off farmers (who seem to want a subsidy from someone to do anything). However it sometimes occurs out of genuine legal concerns.

The legal limboland that exists as far as private farmland in Ireland means that essentially it affords the opportunity for judges and ambulance chasing lawyers to make up laws as they go along. Now in theory landowners should have nothing to fear, as they should be exempt under a law passed in 1995. However there are so many contradictory clauses from other laws, that its difficult to be sure as the whole matter has only been tested a handful of times (but that said on every single occasion the case was struck down).

Ultimately the solution would be a new law that would firstly guarantee farmers have nothing to fear in terms of being sued and would require respect for the countryside code as a condition for access. Although I would note that most hillwalking and climbing clubs already have such a provision for that in the club rules, as well as a requirement for third party insurance for all club members. In return the law would open up access to land for recreational purposes. Just such a law is being debated in the Irish Parliament as we speak.

However the major road block is a combination of two things – money and politics. Like I said some of the farmers (not all, generally a few of the wealthier ones) are a bunch of crafty cute hoors. They have become quite apt at wriggling subsidies out of the Irish or EU governments. I described in a previous post the scandal of the “slipper farmers” who are paid subsidies for essentially doing no farming. Some Irish farmers (not all, often the more affluent ones, this is the very problem) get up to 71% of their income from subsidies. So ultimately this access issue boils down to someone paying the farmers for access and the sums they seem to think they should be paid are not small.

Now this would be the point where the government would step in and apply the national interest (i.e. the bulk of people want access to farm land, even among farmers, it would benefit the tourist industry, etc.), drive the law through and tosh a few coin the way of the farmers for a couple of stiles (to insure they don’t need to worry about people climbing over fences). Unfortunately, the Irish farmers lobby is too powerful for either of the main parties in Ireland to risk offending. Hence the stand off continues to the determent of the country.

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