'We jumped the gun on this,' says local councillor

Harry Keaney

Published 14/01/2009 | 11:31

North Sligo councillor Patsy Barry told a meeting of Sligo County Council on Monday how he was very sore, annoyed and angry over the way in which a motion came before and was passed at a previous meeting of the council in relation to amending the County Development Plan to make provision for the preservation of public rights of way through the Lissadell Estate.

Saying he had been the voice of reason at the previous meeting, he recalled how he had "pleaded" for the matter to be discussed at an area meeting and that although the decision in relation to the motion was unanimous, in football parlance it was a case of the "scoreline not telling the full story."

"I think we jumped the gun on this," he said, adding that he had been "isolated" and "felt very left out" of what had happened. "The way we handled it was wrong," he said. Councillors agreed on Monday that Sligo County Council's manager and officials enter into discussion with the owners of Lissadell and local people with a view to having the matter of public rights of way over private roads in Lissadell resolved.

At the outset of the monthly meeting of the council on Monday, Clr. Barry proposed that Standing Orders be suspended to allow a discussion on the issue. He asked that the Manager make a statement on the matter to clarify certain issues because he said the whole thing had "taken legs" and there were "a lot of falsehoods out there."

Clr. Seamus Kilgannon seconded the motion that Standing Orders be suspended.

County Council Director of Services Declan Breen told councillors that no notice had been served on the owners of occupiers of Lissadell. The procedure had not commenced. The council had legal advice and about 40 submissions. Some people expressed a view that public rights of way existed over certain roads. The council was considering the position and would be taking a decision in the near future.

After serving a notice on the owners or occupiers, there would be a six weeks period for submissions. These would be considered by councillors before deciding any roads would be included in the development plan.

Mr. Breen told councillors that they hadn't taken a decision about an amendment to the County Development Plan but were beginning a process. The owners could also go to the Circuit Court.

Referring to the 40 submissions, Clr. Barry said some people were concerned that their names were in there, and felt their names should be removed.

Clr. Barry had asked if negotiations had irretrievably broken down. He thought that before the councillors made a decision, they should have before them the number of letters that were exchanged.

Clr. Barry said he felt "very left out of this" and he only lived five miles from the gate of Lissadell. "We are a disgrace," he said. Clr. Kilgannon pointed out the loss of jobs and asked: "Can we afford to lost 40,000 to 50,000 visitors as you go into the spring."

Clr. Barry said he was "greatly aggrieved that there was no consultation about this." He also said he understood there was some changes to the Notice of Motion.

"I have not been party to any of this. Whomever the cap fits can wear it now," he said.

In answer to Clr. Margaret Gormley, Mr. Breen said he had no knowledge of changes to the motion that was passed.

Clr. Joe Queenan supported Clr. Barry who, he thought, was very reasonable.

Clr. Queenan said that watching it from outside, this had been a PR disaster for Sligo County Council.

"Is this a matter at all for the council or is it an executive function?" he asked.

And in the event of the council executive making a decision, he asked if it had any impact on any other rights of way within the county.

Clr. Albert Higgins said his understanding was that what "took place the last day" was the start of a variation to the County Development Plan.

Mr. Breen said he had no difficulty if an area meeting decided to discuss this.

Clr. Barry: "I appealed for that the last day. I was completely overthrown the last day when I asked that, but the silence was deafening. There was a wall of silence from the top table."

Mr. Breen said that at no time had officials any difficulty with any member putting anything on an agenda.

As regards negotiations having broken down, Mr. Breen said there was nothing broken down as far as he was concerned and he would welcome an opportunity to meet with the people affected.

Clr. Higgins said his understanding was that a variation of the plan was the function of the members.

"I kept my mouth closed the last day because it's opening a hornets' nest throughout the county," he said, adding that he was led to believed it was a variation of the plan and that "we were in control." He said a lot of members didn't speak the last day because it was only a start of a process.

Mr. Breen said the ultimate decision on whether to vary the plan rested with the elected members. The actual decision was reserved to the members by law.

Clr. Joe Leonard said the process gave the right to a fair hearing and that was very important.

He welcomed the statement by Mr. Breen that the officials were willing to discuss the issue with the local community and the affected landowners. There was an opportunity for the landowners to discuss this with the council and that was very important. He also thought it would be very useful to discuss this at an area meeting and he had no difficulty with that.

Clr. Michael Fleming said his question was how this affected rights of way all over the county.

Clr. Margaret Gormley said that while it was Lissadell House today, she asked about ordinary farmers in other places.

"We are opening a can of worms here," she said.

She hoped common sense would prevail and that there would be a successful conclusion to discussions. They wanted to retain all the jobs and tourism coming in.

"Lissadell is for the betterment of this county," she said.

Clr. Paul Conmy said that 100 years ago, there was a Mass path on his land.

"We are opening a can of worms," he said, adding that he was fully in favour of tourists coming to Lissadell because the spin-off benefitted the whole county.

Said Clr. Sean MacManus: "This is a bad situation we are in at this time."

He said when this came before them initially, many councillors gave their approval on the understanding that it would eventually come back before councillors. He said if there were a vote, his vote would be slightly different.

"This had enormous negative ramifications for the whole county," he said, adding that they couldn't afford to lose this quality visitor attraction, and the national media spotlight on Sligo did not help.

Clr. MacManus also pointed out that he thought Standing Orders precluded councillors having a rescinding motion within six months.

Clr. Veronica Cawley said she didn't think anybody envisaged or wished to go down the route of closing Lissadell. She thought they had to find out once and for all if there were rights of way.

She said there was great work done at Lissadell and it was evolving as a flagship and it would be a major loss to the area.

She added that they needed advice on rights on way and it seemed there were questions about two routes, one past the house and access to the sea. However, she said she knew if she had children, she would close the routes.

"It's sad for Sligo when this happens, particularly in the present economic climate. We are all reasonable people and I am sure the Walshes are reasonable people," she said.

Clr. Jerry Lundy: "I think consultation is better than confrontation. It saddens me that a major tourist flagship like Lissadell House closed yesterday. There are job losses involved in this. Either a right of way exists or it doesn't."

Clr. Jude Devins said that as Cathaoirleach of the council and as a councillor from North Sligo, he was deeply disappointed about the level of consultation he received prior to the motion at the previous meeting.

He understood it was the start of a process and that the burden of proof would be on the owner of Lissadell to prove a right of way did not exist.

Clr. Devins said he also had reservations that the council could become embroiled in a costly legal process. He had felt it should have been first discussed at an area meeting. He recalled that Clr. Barry had pleaded that it be put back to an area meeting and "certain people greatly resisted that process."

Clr. Devins thought this was not the right process.

"This was entered into with too much haste," he said, adding that the vast majority of people in the local area and in Sligo were quite happy with the way Lissadell was being run, with the investment there and jobs, and with the access there and the ability of people to walk the lands. People had no opposition to walking the lands and were treated with dignity. He knew there had been isolated incidents but he knew the people who owned Lissadell were not involved.

Clr. Devins said Clr. MacManus was right in saying the councillors could not rescind the previous motion.

Clr. Barry said that when the motion came before the executive and the chairman, he was annoyed. He was annoyed that Clr. Leonard said there was no legal implication for the council and he was also annoyed that the council was told that legal advice it got couldn't be given to the members because it might come against the council further down the road in court.

"The tide is gone out on these people without their clothes," said Clr. Barry, who added that he had got a lot of criticism.

He recalled how Clr. Fleming had called for the council to deal with the matter and Clr. Leonard had gone on local radio saying this was a unanimous decision. However, Clr. Barry said that in football parlance, one would be saying the scoreline did not tell the full story.

Clr. Fleming said he admired the work carried out at Lissadell but he had major concerns about rights of way. He didn't want a decision made on this at an area meeting but made by the whole council and it was his understanding a decision would have to be made by the whole council eventually.

Mr. Breen said that under the Roads Act, the council had a statutory duty to protect public rights of way. This did not happen very often and the council would not be using that power lightly.

He said that at all time, the council had been willing to meet with the owners and occupiers and, at the end of the day, it would be matter fort the elected members.

On the proposal of Clr. Kilgannon, seconded by Clr. Barry, the council agreed that Sligo County Council's manager and officials enter into discussion with the owners of Lissadell and local people with a view to having the matter of public rights of way over private roads in Lissadell resolved.

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