It is becoming increasingly clear that the Heritage Bill bears little resemblance to its title, a fact highlighted by Senators at the third debate in the Seanad last Thursday 2nd March. Senator David Norris called it ‘complete and absolute nonsense’, ‘an election gimmick to buy the farmer’s vote’. Senator Norris asked why the Government is doing ‘a volte-face’ on what now Taoiseach Enda Kenny expressed in a Dáil debate on 15th December 1999, as he commended the Minister at the time for proposing to regulate hedge-cutting dates:

“The legislation must be much tougher and regimented here in the sense that local authorities should be under no illusions that there are times specified in the Bill during which hedge-cutting and trimming may be legitimately carried out. We do not want environmental savagery to which I referred to take place in the middle of the nesting season on the excuse that it is for public safety or health.”

Concern over the lack of heritage in this increasingly contentious bill was brought up by a number of other senators, who also lamented the lack of dialogue, progress and engagement with civil society groups on the issue since the last debate.

“The last thing it seems to be doing is protecting our heritage” Senator Kevin Humphreys

Senator Alice Mary Higgins asked

“whether this is a heritage Bill or whether it contains components which make it an anti-heritage Bill”.

“This is not about greening Ireland but destroying it” - Senator O’Sullivan

Similar sentiments were echoed by Senator Ruane and Senator Craughwell.

Misinformation and lack of science

The lack of scientific support for what is being proposed was reiterated, including the misinformation surrounding it. Senator O’Sullivan labelled the proposal of carrying out a survey ‘absolutely unscientific’, a joke’, ‘totally flawed’, suggesting instead an environmental impact assessment of the hedgerow system and wildlife corridors throughout the country. Senator Humphreys pointed out that there is misinformation on the Bill among members of the government, including Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who “seems to think this bill is only for the hedges along the roads and that it is a baseline study and a pilot scheme”, (whereas in fact no baseline study exists).

Senator Fintan Warfield urged Minister Humphreys

“to appreciate the views of those Members who are arguing in the interests of rural Ireland based on their scientific knowledge and the knowledge of local authorities across the State...”

Accusations of anti-rurality

Accusations of anti-rurality and lack of understanding of rural life have been levelled at those supporting the environment in relation to the bill, but these accusations were firmly rebutted by Senators during the debate, with Senator Humphreys making the point that “everybody in the House wants to ensure rural Ireland is viable, with a strong agricultural community.” Senator O’Sullivan reminded the Seanad of her own farming and rural background and reiterated the views of farmers she consulted with that heritage is hugely important to them and their role as custodians of the landscape. She cited the bill as damaging to the rural way of life and to the farming community, particularly for small farm families wanting to avail of funding through schemes such as GLAS.

Putting the brakes on the road safety argument

The conflation of hedge-cutting with the road safety argument was again raised in the debate, with a reminder that Fianna Fáil continue to send out stock responses citing the road safety issue as the justification. This argument has been discredited in previous debates as there is as Senator O’Sullivan stated “ample provision made for road safety” through the Road Traffic Act. Furthermore, in recent consultation with farmers, Senator O’Sullivan found that the argument is being "clouded in matters of road safety" and that for those farmers it is not a major issue in the month of August.

A bill with ‘Heritage’ at its core

Senator Higgins called for the need to have a bill which matches its title, and impressed on Minister Humphreys her responsibility to ensure that the bill has heritage at its core. It was also pointed out that the Minister also has a responsibility to ensure we meet our own legal obligations to protect our heritage and environment.

“The Bill should look to reflect all the obligations under the various heritage related Acts as well as the many national and international environmental, social and other heritage acts to which we have signed up.”

The debate is far from over but as we go deeper into the issue, the nature of the bill has become abundantly clear. As stated during the debate, many members of civil society, not only environmental groups but also members of the farming community see that this bill is not a Heritage Bill but rather one that can be detrimental in environmental and social terms.

An Taisce commend the Senators David Norris (Independent), Kevin Humphreys (Labour), Grace O’Sullivan (Green Party), Alice-Mary Higgins (Independent), Fintan Warfield (Sinn Féin), Gerard Craughwell (Independent) and Lynn Ruane (Independent) for speaking out against the bill so resolutely, for recognising that ‘the hedgerows of Ireland matter,” (Senator Higgins) and that a closed season on hedge-cutting and upland burning is paramount for the protection of wildlife and biodiversity which is dependent on it. An Taisce hope to keep working with the Senators and thank them for their support and dedication to the issue.

The proposal from Senator Murnane-O’Connor (Fianna Fáil) to work with An Taisce, BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust, the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland and the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations is extremely welcome. An Taisce hope to positively engage with Senators Murnane-Connor and Paul Daly who spoke on the bill at the debate and also with other members of Fianna Fáil to discuss the bill and to also dispel misconceptions surrounding it.

The issue is gaining momentum, with more and more people beginning to understand its disastrous implications. The hugely positive demonstration on Thursday 2nd March outside Leinster House, the numerous emails, tweets, letters opposing the bill and 26,764 petition signatures are a testament to that. Those voices can no longer be ignored.