A “total change in attitude” is needed to ensure that the country’s countryside, coastal areas and mountains are accessible to all people without reluctance from landowners and farmers, the group Keep Ireland Open ( KIO).
Legislation is urgently needed to “strengthen the common law right of ordinary citizens to walk around their countryside,” said Michael Murphy, KIO West Branch Secretary, who spoke via Zoom to attendees at the group’s annual general meeting in Dublin on Saturday.
‘We desperately need legislation to parallel the law which has benefited England, Wales and Scotland so much,’ Mr Murphy later told the Irish Times by telephone. “The model is already there for us, just look at the Countryside & Rights of Way Act (2003). They have a fine network of ancient routes throughout Britain which in some cases date back to the Middle Ages. It’s done wonders for their local economy and there’s no reason we can’t apply that model here.
“The attitude towards access to land is totally different in Britain where there is no confrontation, unlike here where the landowners defend everything and have an attitude of not conceding anything . We need to stop viewing farmers and landowners as the elite; there are other people who live in this country who should be able to benefit from their campaign. We are stuck in these attitudes that are rooted in the old days of land warfare and land ownership as the rest of Europe moved on.
Mr Murphy noted that individuals and small community groups are being “worn out” by landowners closing beauty spots and trails to the general public. However, he stressed that the proposed legislation would pose “no threat” to people’s land ownership.
“Nobody wants to take anyone’s land, this access will only improve the economic well-being of the regions. There is a gain in this for everyone. We are simply looking to cooperate and move forward together.
Matthew Hooper, also a KIO member, has spent the past 14 years opposing the fence erected on Fenit Island in County Kerry in the early 2000s which prevented members of the public from accessing the footpath coast of the island. In January 2022, after years of campaigning and legal proceedings, a Tralee Circuit Court judge ordered the “unauthorized fence” to be fully removed within nine months and also ordered the defendants to pay a substantial part Kerry County Council court costs.
Mr Hooper said members of the Fenit community who had spent years campaigning for the fence to be removed from the island of Tralee Bay felt “completely vindicated” by the court’s decision.
“The public had had access to the island for generations and the erection of unauthorized industrial scale fencing to prevent such access was simply wrong and should be challenged.”
He noted that a 14-year campaign to remove fences was “unsustainable” and warned that while the Fenit Island Coastal Path “remains defined as a path that has been used by the regular public, it’s still not a public right of way.” Ireland has an “urgent need for change” around access routes and it cannot be left to individuals and small community groups to take over landowners and planners, Mr Hopper said.
‘England and Wales have 140,000 miles of public right of way and the economic and health benefits of encouraging the public to walk are now fully accepted by politicians,’ he said. He added that research by the University of Exeter had found that the health and wellbeing benefits of walking along the coastal paths of South West England could be valued at more than 75 million pounds sterling (88 million euros) per year in savings for the health service.