In an exclusive interview Peter Sweetman tells Margaret Donnelly he has no axe to grind with farmers
Peter Sweetman is not opposed to forestry, he says, he’s opposed to the Government “getting around EU legislation”.
Known for his numerous submissions, the Mayo-based environmental activist currently has 21 outstanding objections against Coillte, but says he’s not to blame for any alleged shortage of felling licences, which others claim is causing a shortfall of timber in the country.
“They are accusing me of stopping all the wood because I have these 21 appeals. On August 5, 2020, Coillte put in 300 applications for felling licences. If I have 21 out of 300 they lodged I am not causing the world to stop. It's all spin — inefficiency always needs a scapegoat.
“I am not against forestry. I am very tree mad and am surrounded with them here. I am objecting to the fundamental principle of getting around European directives and court cases. I believe in the old-fashioned Fine Gael thing of compliance with the law.
"A felling application is also an application to re-afforest. If the land was never afforested properly the first time around, and never had an EIA when it should have, it needs one next time around, but we ignore that."
It was around this time last year, Sweetman says, that he started to get “really pissed off” and started to put in a “good few submissions”, but his history goes back further.
The son of former Fine Gael Minister for Finance Gerard Sweetman, he decided “a long time ago that I objected to hereditary politics and we're terrible in Ireland for it. There has only been one son of a TD who died in office, where neither the widow or the son stood at the by-election and that's me.
“We went from landlords controlling the country and we gave that to the politicians and priests. The priests own-goaled and now we're left with the politicians.”
The fact we could complain we didn't have a minister in the west, he says, is wrong. “When you're elected to the Dáil you're supposed to represent the entire country.”
Sweetman’s first significant cases about forestry saw him taking two cases to Europe. “One was about the Hen Harrier in Keeper Hill. I overturned that Coillte/ESB windfarm development.”
Next up was a cased relating to appropriate assessment for the freshwater mussel in the River Nore.
“We took that to the European court from the High Court and we won. The decision there was that you cannot take mitigation measures from the appropriate assessment at the screening stage.”
This, he says, was the fundamental part of the whole case.
Sweetman’s issues with Environmental Impact Assessments is that they don’t happen how they should.
“If you want to plant 90ha of forestry in the one place, you put down 45ha in one year and then three years later you can plant the other 45ha, without an EIA.”
A cow shed, he says, over a certain size requires planning permission. “The fact whether you build an extension one year or ten years from the original shed, you still need planning permission, but the forest service and the Minister says as long as you put it (forestry) three years after it's OK.
“I would say a proper EIA on forestry could be throwing up the fact the flooding on the Shannon is caused by the draining of the bogs in Leitrim. It's quite likely. These are things that have to be looked at.”
Sweetman is also critical of the recently announced public consultation by the Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett on changes to the Agricultural Appeals Act, which he says would restrict the ability of some people to appeal forestry decisions, including the giving of licences. It proposes that a fee would be part of the appeals process; it's currently free to appeal and open to anyone.
Further the consultation document is proposing the Minister can issue directives to the Forestry Appeals Committee. It is also looking to determine who a 'relevant' person is in order to be eligible to appeal.
The deadline for submissions is this Friday and Sweetman is undecided if he’ll put in a submission before taking the whole thing to court.
According to Sweetman, that bill is contrary to the Habitats Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive, the Strategic Environmental SEA) Directive and the Aarhus Convention which deals with access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.
“I’m looking for full compliance with the EIA, Habitats Directive and the Aarhus Convention. The only Minister in Europe diminishing the Aarhus Convention, which is a green convention, is the Minister for Forestry, Pippa Hackett. That's pretty awful from a Green Minister," he says.
He also says the Forestry Appeals committee claims to be unattached to anything, but the new forestry act would give the Minister power to make directions at them. “They could say all Coillte decisions have to be passed."
People say Sweetman has only won 10pc of his appeals, but according to him: "I think I have won 100pc of my appeals. It depends on what you call winning.
"My basic appeal, on the basis of the information provided, is that it's not possible to grant permission for this development. If the appeals board goes and asks for further information before they can make a decision, I reckon I've won. I don't think the Forestry Appeals board has made a decision to grant a forestry or felling licence this year without looking for further information. I think that's a victory for me, it's proving I'm right.”
Sweetman is highly critical of what he calls “secrecy” within the forestry sector.
“EU law is public but the entire forestry sector is secret. When you apply for a felling licence, you have to put a site notice up and you have to put a copy of the site notice into the planning office. But the copy of the site notice that goes on the public file in forestry has the name of the owner blacked out. It's part of the secrecy.
"Even a forester could not do a proper EIA on a development, as they can only look at their own application. If you want to do a proper cumulative effect as to whether the development is more than 50ha you have to look at the ones next door if they are adjoining. The full idea of open, public consultation is just not there.”
Sweetman says he has no axe to grind with farmers looking to plant or fell forestry."If the farmer sends me the relevant information, which would cause me to say it's fine, I will withdraw any application. The actual assessments — if it requires an EIA, if there is adjoining forestry how much land and if it needs an NIS, you have to submit that. That's all I want.”