Tuesday 12 November 2013

Lisadell Judgement, How does this affect access to Commonages?

The Supreme Court judgement on the long running dispute about public rights of way on the Lisadell estate in Co. Sligo may have consequences for access to commonages throughout Ireland. The ruling that a long history of public access does not of itself create a right of way for the public is a welcome development, not just for commonage farmers but also for recreational users of upland areas. For farmers this means that a right of way cannot be created over their lands without their consent, this is a key issue because there is a world of a difference between inviting/ allowing/ tolerating recreational users and granting a permanent right of access to anyone at any time. Ironically if people like those in "Keep Ireland Open" could only see it, this is also of benefit to recreational users of the countryside as it allows the many farmers who welcome visitors to continue to do so without fear of permanently losing control over part of their lands. Had the judgement gone the other way it could have precipitated a rush to block access so as to prevent rights of way from becoming established. I do not believe that such a development would have been in anyone's long term interest.

There is no doubt that the recreational value of upland areas is immense, however it is fraught with difficulties. While walking and climbing based tourism generates welcome business in some rural areas, in most cases there is no viable mechanism to allow the benefits of this to trickle down to the landowner. Comparisons with Scotland or England are not very useful, as in places like the Lake District and much of the Scottish highlands, land ownership remains concentrated in a relatively small number of big estates. This allows the creation of viable walking routes by an individual landowner or a very small group of such owners. This task is more difficult in Ireland as land reform in the 19th/20th centuries means that a useful walking route will have to traverse the properties (both commonage and privately owned) of many different farmers. However "difficult" should not mean impossible and by negotiation the establishment of such routes can and does happen. Indeed many of these routes are already operating very successfully.

The suggestion by "Keep Ireland Open" that farmers representatives at such talks are only interested in the "brown envelope" is not helpful. To assert that seeking to realise a cash benefit from the use of your land is somehow corrupt or sinister is unjustified and does not bring a solution to the access issue any closer.

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