A turf cutter has vowed he will be back cutting turf on EU protected bogs in East Galway next month - weather permitting - after efforts by the State to prosecute four men failed at Galway Circuit Criminal Court this week.
The four men who were in court this week said it was a great day for rural Ireland as they walked free from court moments after their trial collapsed due to lack of evidence.
All four were initially charged in 2013 with cutting turf on three EU protected bogs in the Woodford and Portumna areas of South-East Galway in 2012.
Following several adjournments in the intervening years, their trial finally opened before a jury today in Galway.
However, moments after it began, Judge Rory McCabe directed the jury to return a verdict of “not guilty by direction of the trial judge”, after the State conceded it could offer no evidence as a crucial prosecution witness was in Australia.
Moments beforehand, Anthony Porter(51), Bauntia, Woodford, pleaded not guilty to a single charge of using machinery on an EU site, to extract turf or peat, at Clonco bog, Woodford, on August 21, 2012, which would affect the integrity of the site in contravention of the European Communities (Birds and Habitats) Regulations 2011.
Co-accused, Michael Darcy(50), Ballycahill, Killimor, Ballinasloe, pleaded not guilty to cutting turf on protected bog at Derryvunlan, Portumna on May 23, 2012.
He also denied and second charge of cutting turf on Clonmoylan bog near Killimor on May 22, 2012.
Pat McDonagh(49), from Killeen, Ballyshrule, Ballinasloe, pleaded not guilty to cutting turf on August 21, 2012, at Clonco bog, Woodford.
His colleague, Padraic Byrne(64), Killimor, Ballinasloe, also denied cutting turf at Clonmoylan bog on May 22, 2012 and again at Derryvunlan bog the following day.
Judge McCabe told the jury panel earlier he had been told the trial would not be proceeding but he was required to follow the correct procedure and empanel a jury.
After a jury was empanelled, Galway East State solicitor, Ms Geri Silke, intimated there was a problem with a crucial State witness and she was not in a position to offer any evidence.
Judge McCabe then directed the jury to find the four accused not guilty.
A group of supporters, who had been holding a silent protest earlier outside on the steps of the Courthouse, clapped loudly at the back of the courtroom as the judge told the men they were free to go.
Several representatives across the political divide were also present in court to lend their support.
Afterwards, Mr Gearoid Geraghty, solicitor, who represented the men, said: “It’s been incredibly stressful for the men and their families. These are ordinary, country people and they have been here now on fourteen separate occasions awaiting trial.
“They don’t see themselves as criminals. They’re just doing what they’ve done all their lives and their parents and grandparents did before them.”
Spokesman for the men, Michael Darcy added: “We’re delighted it’s all over because it went on for the last seven or eight years.
“It’s a great day for rural Ireland because now we’ve been vindicated and we can cut turf in our own bogs.
“We’re delighted it’s all over because it was very stressful. I could be going down the street and someone would say ‘there’s one of the criminals’, so we’re delighted now that it’s finally put to bed.
“From day one it was wrong, when two guards and two rangers came into the bog and told me I was cutting turf illegally on a European site. How can any property be a European site without even talking to the people who own it? And that’s why I stood my ground and if I hadn’t stood my ground and stayed cutting turf other people mightn’t and it might be over.
“So, we will be cutting turf again and we won’t be stopped. We will be back out on the bogs in a month’s time, weather permitting,” Mr Byrne said.