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What Does Consultation Mean?

The picture above shows the pleasant scene of the Cape Clear Ferry leaving Ireland’s most southern harbour, t on Cape Clear off the West Cork coast. It is one of the most beautiful parts of our coastline. If you have listened to my Podcast on for this month, February, (just across the next column on this website) you’ll have heard the discussion with the Fair Seas environmental organisation about the latest developments in the designation of a major sea protected area off Wexford. The area is bigger than County Wexford itself. That is according to the Minister who designated it, Green Party TD. Malcolm Noonan who is the Minister for Heritage. The designation is under the oldest piece of European Nature legislation – the Birds Directive . Protectinvg birds, particularly in regard to sea birds, is very important.

This is the second time Minister Noonan has made a designation which does not appear to have involved much consultation with stakeholders. The envronmental organisation, Fair Seas, has pointed this out quite forecefully. Their Campaign Co-ordinator, the very experienced Dr.Donal Griffin, explains their concern on my Podcast this month, while welcoming the protection of birds. While Minister Noonan announced his designation, in the same timeframe, his ‘boss’ – the senior Minister in Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien – issued public advertisements announcing a ‘consultation process’ about the ‘Candidate Special Protection Area – the seas off County Wexford.

Under the heading: ‘GOVERNMENT NOTICE FOR THE ATTENTION OF MARINE USERS OF THE SEAS OFF COUNTY WEXFORD, Minister O’Brien said he was “considering clarifying” a Special Protection Area under ‘The Birds Directive’ and that this consultation process would be open for submissions from the public until April 9.

What did this indicate about the Government and political attitude towards the process of consultation?  Was it somewhat contradictory – an announcement by the Junior Minister which could be read, or misread, as a conclusion and a ‘consultation’ process by the senior Minister.

So I asked the Department Press Office for an interview with Minister Noonan, for which I would travel anywhere, anytime to meet him or by phone, anytime. The response was: “Minister Noonan is unavailable at present.” Despite further requests over the past weeks he has remain so, though available elsewhere on radio and television and in the national media.

Eventually the Department sent another comment from Minister Noonan:

“The announcement of the Seas Off Wexford SPA is great news for everyone who cares about our oceans, providing vital protections for seabirds and the ecosystems that support them. It’s important to note that any designation is a statutory process that involves a number of steps. This process, as laid down in the Birds and Habitats Regulations 2011, provides that the site is legally protected from the date that Minister O’Brien and I notified and announced it. There are now two, three-month windows during which anyone can submit an objection or observation on the designation on scientific or ornithological grounds, and I’d encourage anyone with such concerns to do so. All will be given proper consideration before the designation process is completed.”

Minister Noonan is quite entitled to act as he did under The Birds Directive which is a narrow piece of legislation which focuses on scientific evidence in regard to the species it seeks to protect, but does not take into account economic, social or other issues arising from the designation.

But, what does all this indicate about the process of consultation, with so many demands and pressures now on sea areas. There are demands for Marine Protected Areas – MPAs; Special Protected Areas;SACs – Special Conservation Areas; OREs – Offshore Renewal Energy, windfarm locations; quite a lot. There’s a target for 30 per cent of Irish waters to be covered by protection within six years – 2030, bringing regulatory controls. Marine Spatial Planning is very important… What will be the effects on recreational activities, on watersports  – boating, angling, sailing, on commercial activities – the fishing industry … on commercial shipping? There’s a lot involved.

Tom MacSweeney

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