A MAJOR scaling back by Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan of the turf-cutting ban was quietly hailed by government TDs and senators as they prepare for elections next May.
Mr Deenihan's new plan was given a guarded welcome by environmental campaigners Friends of the Irish Environment, who hailed the work done to improve environmental protection.
But turf-cutting campaigner Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan said the plan smacked of an election ploy.
Mr Deenihan yesterday announced that turf-cutting could continue on 45 bogs planned for closure this spring on land designated as a 'Natural Heritage Area'.
In practice, it means that 2,500 people who were to be banned from this spring are now free to continue cutting, while a number of other bogs which are to be closed from 2017 involve fewer cutters and smaller bog plots.
The changes follow intensive discussions with EU officials in efforts to defuse a row which threatened Ireland with fines from Brussels of up to €25,000 per day.
The latest formula involves designating other bog land in public ownership or where there is less regular turf cutting.
It comes in a series of three documents which aims to chart the future of Irish peatlands. The plans offer no change to the ban on 'Special Areas of Conservation' for which there is already a compensation scheme in place which officials say has already paid out €7m.
Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment said the group had reservations about the longer-term effects.
"But if this work had been done back in 1997, a lot of trouble could have been avoided," he said.
However, Deputy Flanagan warned that the proposals must be treated with caution as the details could contain measures obstructing turf-cutters.
He also accused the Government parties of acting to protect their candidates in next May's local and European elections.
"Let's just say if there was an election every year, there'd never be a ban on turf-cutting," Deputy Flanagan said.
Fine Gael East Galway Senator Michael Mullins said he was very pleased that the majority of NHA bogs had been exempted. FG's Galway West TD Sean Kyne also gave the changes a broad welcome, saying they were a good compromise.