Senator Michael McDowell: It seems to me if this is one of the genuine motivating factors one would expect it to appear as one of the criteria by which regulations would be crafted, but we do not see this. In a spirit of genuine conciliation in this debate it seems to me the Minister should indicate she is open to accepting the introduction of road safety as one of the constraining factors in section 8 if her section 8 is to proceed.
The second point that occurs to me is there is a distinction between section 8(1) which is a burning section and section 8(2) which, at present, is a cutting, grubbing or destroying section, but the Minister now indicates it is purely to be cutting. It is very notable from the wording of section 8(1) it is proposed it should apply to such part or parts of the State as the regulations may permit. When we look to the regulations envisaged by section 8(2) no such geographical criteria are there. If we were considering a genuine pilot study to evaluate whether this should take place on scientific grounds, and bearing in mind the implications for wildlife and flora and fauna, one would expect, even from the point of view of having control studies and the like, that any scientific approach to a pilot study would look at areas where it was permitted and areas where it was not permitted, and see whether there was any significant difference between the two. I was interested that Michael Viney in an article on this subject in The Irish Times pointed out there are particular species which produce second clutches of eggs and chicks in August each year. The beekeepers of Ireland have come forward and their objections are based on the needs of bees with regard to cutting back that year’s growth.
This brings me to the next point the Minister mentioned in her contribution. She mentioned the regulations she had in mind would deal with roadside hedge cutting and non-roadside hedge cutting where it was necessary for land management in a tillage context. Why is this not mentioned in the section? I am worried by a particular point in all of this. I do not doubt the Minister’s good faith for a minute, but it is all very well to say that cutting would be restricted to that year’s growth, whatever that would mean for bees and animals dependent on berries, but if somebody brings a machine into a field and starts cutting, afterwards who will say the person cutting went further than this year’s growth? In the real world what inspector will be sent out, and by whom, to crawl along the hedges and state that cutting has gone a bit further than this year’s growth and it is 4 inches into last year’s growth? Where will the line be drawn? People will not be out with secateurs and measuring tapes. Either a hedge cutting machine will be deployed on a hedge or it will not. In the aftermath, there will be nothing to show how far into last year’s growth the cutting actually went. There will be no person whose job it is to state the cutting went further than this year’s growth because that person would have to prove he or she was there last year and saw the state of the hedge last year.
I come back to the point about the provision on cutting, grubbing and destroying being a nationwide operation as section 8(2) stands. There is not the mechanism, machinery, resources or capacity on the part of any wildlife agency or conservation body to do anything effective to stop widespread cutting of hedges in August once an order is made under this regulation. Nobody will be able to police any regulations effectively. I do not see why we have not been shown the draft regulation. We pass referendums and we see the draft Bill. The child adoption Bill was put before the people, the abortion Bill was put before the people, divorce legislation was put before the people in draft, various pieces of legislation are put before the people on occasions so they could work out what they were actually voting for. On this occasion no attempt has been made to produce a draft regulation which has the limiting factor such as tillage and land management and this season’s growth, all of these issues are just absent from the legislation. It occurs to me that if this season’s growth is to be a genuine criterion, there is absolutely no reason it should not be mentioned in the legislation in respect of off-road hedge cutting. I presume the Minister would tell me before we go much further that she would accept an amendment on Report Stage to do that. If she is not willing to say that, and put it in the legislation that it is intended to have that minor effect, there is no point in making a speech justifying it in this House by reference to something she is not willing to commit to in legislation.
Likewise, if it is required for the purposes of reasonable land management, what do we mean by that? If it is to be in a tillage context, let us see what is actually meant by all of that. What I am coming down to is this – that the amendment proposed is effectively putting in place a standstill until some scientific basis for a change in this area is established on scientific grounds. That is the precautionary principle that we are supposed to follow in environmental matters. It worries me that this seems to be a very unscientific, broad-brush approach and one which gives a free licence to all farmers to attack any hedge. Even if the Minister took out grubbing and destroying, as long as there is something left at the end of the operation the possibility of proving that any particular landowner had infringed the legislation would be very small indeed as would the the chance of enforcing it.
Lastly, I do not want to reignite the controversy that we saw some moments ago. This is not a question of the townies versus the farmers. This is not about idealists. Some of us are very conversant with rural Ireland, and know what it is like when a bramble grows out of a ditch and it forces bikes out into the road and such like. No one needs to have a particular background to know what growth occurs and what the road safety implications can be of roadside hedges growing out onto the road in summer. By the same token, although some people may get hotheaded on social media and use broad-brush language about this particular proposal, the Minister should not underestimate the feeling that there is on this issue. It is not just that The Irish Times wrote an editorial on this and praised this House for querying what the Minister is doing. There is a huge amount of people in Ireland who object to this, they object to its unscientific basis, the manner in which it has been done, the absence of draft regulations, the unthought-out way that this has been done; they object to what they suspect is just a deal done with farmers’ organisations and that it why it is being pushed forward with such vehemence. We live in a very uncertain world but I do believe that if by any chance the Minister manages to progress this into legislation she should bear in mind that this Government has a lot of problems – we only have to look around at what has been happening in the last week – and this is going to alienate a very significant area of votes from it. They are not just people who sit on beanbags thinking about San Francisco in the 1960s
Senator Michael McDowell: This is not a case of a minority of tree-huggers or people who live in some sort of idealistic world. This is a case of real ordinary people who are upset about this. It is a significant group in Irish society. As somebody who uses them myself, I cannot object to there being some order on them and if resources permitted somebody might enforce minimum standards of safety on the use of our canals and rivers. If the Minister wants to bring order to Irish waterways, I have no problem with all of that but I ask her to consider this. This legislation could do without section 8.
Senator Michael McDowell: I do not think it would be regarded as a humiliation for the Minister if at this stage, she said she would like to think about it further. There are an awful lot of people outside this House who would say she should get on with her Bill and leave out section 8. Those people would be well disposed to the Minister if they felt that she had listened to a debate in this House where considered opposition to section 8 had been voiced. I do not think that it would do any harm to her electorally or to her ministerial standing. As one of the people who admires many of the things the Minister does, I do not believe that it would detract in the slightest if between now and Report Stage, she were to reconsider her support for section 8. I do not think that the farming organisations would go mad if she modified section 8 along the lines that she says she intends to do and could do by restricting its application. I do think that with so many political problems around her neck, this is not a case of her taking the hard decision in the national interest. It does not fall into that category and the Minister should not think of herself, or the Government of itself, as taking the hard decisions with a whole lot of intemperate, ill-informed critics voicing half-thought out opposition. This is something where most people, I think reasonably, come down against section 8 if they consider the issue. Most independent commentary comes down against section 8. I ask the Minister, between now and Report Stage to consider whether this Bill would not be a far better Bill if she walked away from section 8 and said that she had listened to the debate in this House. That is what the Seanad is for. She has not tried to push it through on a whip. The balance of opinion in society is against it. There is not a very good scientific basis for enacting section 8 at this stage; in fact there is none. The Minister is not merely a Minister. She is also a politician, and I am saying that it would be good politics to delete section 8 from the Bill completely.