The EU has already agreed that a simple repair of Fermoy Weir would satisfy Ireland’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. Everything else is bureaucratic self-justification by Ireland’s permanent government, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
I was on This Week on RTÉ Radio 1 recently, talking about Fermoy Weir, the historic keystone of the modern town, badly neglected by its owners in Cork County Council and about to wash away completely.
As usual, I cringed when I heard myself on the radio – I honestly hate the sound of my own voice – but I thought the report was very good. John Burke, the programme’s editor, had contacted me and we had arranged to meet in Fermoy, over by the park gates.
I brought John through the Triangle Field and out onto the weir. It’s a sorry sight these days, as you know if you know Fermoy. We went under Kent Bridge, and over to the section of the mill-race wall fell away completely this spring. I tried to give a potted history of the weir, and the town’s relationship with the river, explaining that there has been a weir on Fermoy’s Blackwater for at least 800 years.
I spoke about the Cistercian monks who first built their monastery here. Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII got a mention, as did the town’s founder, Scottish entrepreneur John Anderson. I tried to explain how the millpond created by Fermoy Weir had given us Olympian oarspeople, triathletes, record-breaking swimmers, and a healthy angling tourism trade; and why the damage to the weir has left the tranquil waters of Barnane and Castlehyde at an 800-year low.
It didn’t make the final cut, but I showed John the holes on the underside of Kent Bridge, drilled by General Liam Lynch’s anti-Treaty forces as part of an aborted Civil War plan to dynamite the bridge and close the main Cork to Dublin road.
Olga O’Sullivan from Fermoy Rowing Club contributed brilliantly to the report, talking about the problems caused for the club by the two-metre drop in water levels resulting from the damage to the weir. My colleague from The Avondhu, Emily Aherne, gave an excellent summation of the story, and Fine Gael Councillor Noel McCarthy gave, to be fair, a commendably gloomy appraisal of the chances of anything actually being done to repair Fermoy Weir.
Then John Burke got to the important bit.
“Inland Fisheries Ireland hold a key area of responsibility for regulation on the river. They say that simply repairing the weir will not guarantee safe passage of fish. They believe that a new fish bypass is needed, running more or less parallel but separate to repaired weir …
“Not only would Inland Fisheries not accept a straight-forward repair to the weir, they also say that if Cork Council simply return the weir to its former glory, that would place the weir in non-compliance with EU directives.
“In a written statement to RTÉ … Inland Fisheries said: ‘If the Council re-instates the weir to its original condition without constructing the agreed bypass channel at the same time, then the Council could be deemed to have deliberately made itself non-compliant with the Habitats Directive’.” (My emphasis.)
There’s one vital word in there: could.
To unpack that: Cork County Council could simply restore a listed, protected historical monument which for two centuries did a fine job facilitating upriver salmon migration. (That would cost probably €2 million.)
Cork County Council could simultaneously decide that it didn’t wish to blow perhaps another €3 million, simply to placate one solitary State body.
If Cork County Council did this, Inland Fisheries Ireland is saying, then it could ‘be deemed to have deliberately made itself non-compliant with the Habitats Directive’.
But deemed so by whom? Who would determine that Cork County Council was non-compliant with the EU Habitats Directive?
Let me help you out there, Cork County Council. The section of the EU making that determination would be the Directorate General for the Environment.
Exactly ten years ago, I was part of a delegation which travelled to Brussels and made a presentation the EU Environment DG. There we were told that “the existing fish ladder at the weir is broken, is not serving the function for which it is intended and is capable of being repaired”.
We were further told that a full repair of the salmon ladder of Fermoy Weir would satisfy Ireland’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive.
So, in plain English, we were told – by the section of the EU which polices the EU Habitats Directive – that a full repair of Fermoy Weir to its original condition would not make us non-compliant with the Habitats Directive.
Or, to change Inlands Fisheries Ireland’s claim to what it should say:
‘If the Council re-instates the weir to its original condition without constructing the agreed bypass channel at the same time, then the Council could not be deemed to have deliberately made itself non-compliant with the Habitats Directive’.
I’ve written here many times before of how this whole saga was kicked off, over a decade ago, when officials breezed into town and told us we had to replace Fermoy Weir with a rock-ramp pass or The Man From Europe would fine Ireland “hundreds of thousands of Euro a day”.
In the decade since we made that break-through in Brussels, officials from Inland Fisheries Ireland have continued to peddle the same old lines.
They gave up the ghost on the rock ramp pass, and now they want a €3 million salmon bypass, and still The Man From Europe is being fitted up as the bad guy.
There seems little chance at the moment of an Irexit, with Ireland’s EU membership enjoying 90% approval ratings.
Ireland’s anti-EU movement is for the most part a tiny collection of right-wing cranks, religious loons, and anti-immigrant alt righters. Irexit has yet to gain any sort of foothold in Irish politics local or national, but if ever it does, I wonder whether it might in part be caused by Irish politicians, and Irish bureaucrats, blaming The Man From Europe for their own vanity projects, and for their own self-justifying territory-marking.
LBC broadcaster James O’Brien, the man who has become for many the voice of the UK’s Remain campaign, has as his pinned tweet the comment “It’s so easy to forget that this is all utterly unnecessary.
It’s so easy to forget that – if only Cork County Council and the Irish Government stood up to Inland Fisheries Ireland – we could get serious about repairing Fermoy Weir and meeting our actual obligations under the EU Habitats Directive, while simultaneously restoring our river to its former splendour.
The EU would be satisfied with a simple repair of Fermoy Weir. The rest is noise.