Our next government can fix Fermoy Weir for €750,000, Paul Kavanagh tells Donal O’Keeffe, or it can waste €3million on a vanity project in the Triangle Field, ‘and still not fix the weir’.

“It’s madness,” Paul Kavanagh says over a coffee in Charlie Mac’s in Fermoy on Saturday. Kavanagh is a Fermoy Rowing Club stalwart, and a member of Save Our Weir, Save Our Salmon, a group made up of representatives from over a dozen local clubs.

“Why would we waste €3 million of taxpayers’ money when that money could be far better spent housing the homeless or helping people on trollies on hospital waiting lists?

“We can fix Fermoy Weir to the satisfaction of all of the clubs using the river, and to the satisfaction of the EU Habitats Directive, for what is. in governmental terms, small money but we’re being told no, it’s €3 million or nothing for a white elephant in the Triangle Field, and we won’t even fix the weir for that.

“Are we back to the Celtic Tiger days when ministers would spend money like water and sign blank cheques for whatever was put in front of them? We have one State agency – Inland Fisheries Ireland – dictating to the detriment of everyone.”

If Kavanagh sounds frustrated, it’s probably understandable. The fight to save Fermoy’s crumbling weir has been going on for almost a decade and a half. (Declaration of interest: I am part of that campaign). Ahead of the election, the group has delivered 6,000 leaflets around the town.

Fermoy Weir has been neglected by its owners (Fermoy Town Council from the 1980s to 2014, Cork County Council thereafter) for decades. In November 2006, John Browne TD, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, told those gathered in the upstairs lounge of Fermoy Rowing Club that The Man From Europe was going to charge Ireland hundreds of thousands of Euro a day in fines if Fermoy Weir wasn’t replaced with a rock ramp pass, a modern concrete monstrosity of the type which had ruined the Nore in Kilkenny.

A 2009 trip to Brussels by Rowing Club members (this writer included), and members of local angling clubs, and a meeting with The Man From Europe established that said Man From Europe – actually from Mitchelstown – had never threatened to impose a rock ramp pass on Fermoy, and Ireland’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive would be satisfied if Fermoy Weir was restored to its original function, that of getting salmon upstream to spawn.

Despite being exposed as having apparently over-sold their plans to remove Fermoy Weir, the Southern and Regional Fisheries Board, since amalgamated into Inland Fisheries Ireland, has continued to peddle the line that a simple renovation of the weir would not satisfy Ireland’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. This despite a clear answer to the contrary from the EU office responsible for enforcing the Habitats Directive.

Serious damage to the weir this time last year saw a massive section across from the Garda station on O’Neill Crowley Quay wash away. Resultant record low water levels upstream have cost Fermoy Rowing Club its training grounds up toward Castlehyde, and last year saw the cancellation of the 80-year-old Fermoy Regatta. Kavanagh says that if the regatta is cancelled again this year, the town will lose its date and that will be the end of an event worth hundreds of thousands of euro to the town.

Kavanagh says the people of Fermoy are in no doubt that the damage to the weir was caused by a lack of maintenance by its owners Cork Co Council, and Fermoy Town Council before it, and by in-river road building and piling of the OPW Flood Relief Works.

With Cork County Council recently committing to borrow €750,000 to fund a repair and renovation of Fermoy Weir, campaigners are calling on the next government to match that funding.

“A repair or refurbishment will cost an estimated €1.5 million,” Kavanagh says. “In fairness, Cork County Council has stepped up to the table and funded half the design and planning costs and have also agreed to earmark half of the repair and refurbishment costs, to be funded via an EU loan.

“The problem is Inland Fisheries Ireland, the State agency answerable to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. They’re holding everyone to ransom, not alone by insisting on a new, multi-million euro fish pass to be built in the Triangle Field, but also by insisting that no repair to Fermoy Weir can be carried out at all, unless it is at the same time as their new fish pass.”

Paul Kavanagh met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Kent Bridge two weeks ago, and found the Fine Gael leader engaged and informed on the issue of Fermoy Weir.

“Once he realised this is a triathlon course, and once he could see the damage to the weir, he seemed to understand what we’re talking about.”

Kavanagh says he knows of one councillor telling people on the doorsteps that the problems with Fermoy Weir were caused by Fermoy Rowing Club opposing the initial rock ramp pass proposals. Kavanagh is scathing of this councillor’s claims, and points out that members of all of Fermoy’s angling clubs opposed the rock ramp pass too.

“We’re all united on this. We want to see the weir restored to its original design, and get water levels back to normal. We want to get salmon moving up the river, and we want kids from the Rowing Club to be able to train up as far as Castlehyde again.

“We also want to see the Skipper Kipper back on the water with the wheelyboat. Ireland’s only Mark II wheelchair-accessible fishing boat is a magnificent asset to Fermoy, and it’s up on blocks because the water is too low. That’s an absolute disgrace, and whoever is the next Minister for Disabilities should get down here and help us.”

Kavanagh is adamant that if a simple repair and refurbishment of Fermoy Weir were carried out, the multi-million euro fish-pass up through the Triangle Field on the Blackwater’s north bank would be completely unnecessary.

“John Anderson built Fermoy Weir when he founded the modern town, and it is our foundation stone,” he says. “Salmon have passed freely up the fish ladder for over 200 years.

“Why blow €3 million when €750,000 will do the job?” he asks again.

“We’ve already established that a simple repair and refurbishment would satisfy Ireland’s obligations under the EU Habitats Directive. We want salmon to be able to get home to spawn. The people of the town, all of us, consider this our river, and we are committed to our environment.

“Fermoy Weir is the town’s foundation stone,” Kavanagh says and concludes: “There’s no reason a refurbished weir couldn’t be the making of us. Look at the green energy we could harvest here. We could light the town, for free. Look at the tourism potential along our river.

“The wheelyboat would only be the start of it. All we need is a bit of political vision and leadership. All we need is someone willing to stand up to Inland Fisheries Ireland.”