Lough Funshinagh debacle: When rights of residents come last before the law

It’s nearly a year now since I hung up my microphone and my wellington boots and waders for RTE News and turned my attention instead to mainstream community development on a full-time basis. The very last story I covered for the national broadcaster was a very positive one (at least I thought so at the time), to go out on – the remedial works being started to try and alleviate severe flooding for the families living next to Lough Funshinagh in south Roscommon, and the installation of a new pipe to bring away the flood water back into the Shannon. How wrong I was!

  I remember very well the day we shot the story. It was a beautiful and sunny early summer’s Sunday morning. My cameraman Jimmy Norman and I headed over to Rahara for a prearranged meeting with Patrick O’Donovan, the Minister of State at the Department of the Office of Public works, and local councillor Laurence Fallon. The OPW’s DG Maurice Buckley was also to attend. The four of us made our way into a field to the spot where the diggers had already started to clear the way for the new pipes to go in and bring the water onwards to the Shannon in the distance. There was a palpable feeling of relief in the air – especially among all the neighbours as they told us how they sensed their nightmare was coming to an end.

  It’s fair to say at this juncture that Lough Funshinagh was one of the stories in County Roscommon that dominated much of my time as Midlands Correspondent with RTE News. In my very early days in the job, it was here I was first summoned by Matt Nolan from Ballygar, a vastly experienced fisheries officer with the then Shannon Fisheries Board. Matt rang to tell me of the remarkable events that had taken place when the water in the turlough that had been there for centuries simply disappeared overnight down a swallow hole back into the Shannon – leaving thousands of perfectly healthy fish stranded and marooned on the bed of the lake and destined to die unless they were taken away instantly.

Gay Byrne Show

By the time I arrived at Funshinagh, most of the fish had been rescued safely into tanks of water on pick-up trucks, but there were a few characters over from the town of Athlone who were taking their own shares of what was left on the ground for dinner – and lots of barrels of dying fish in the area. We filmed the story that day and reported the remarkable occurrence on the Nine o’clock News that night. I will never forget the legendary broadcaster Gay Byrne opening his popular morning radio show the next day with the immortal words: “There it was – GONE!” as he described to the nation what happened to the lake and the poor fish in the space of only a day or two.

  For some ten years after that original story, I heard little or nothing more about Funshinagh, but with the severe rainfall and heavy flooding of late 2008 and onwards, things were to change dramatically – and for the worst. For reasons never properly explained, the said swallow holes at the bottom of the turlough didn’t work any more at that point, and thousands and thousands of gallons of water that should have flown back into the Shannon simply stayed up in the turlough in Rahara. The levels soared, and soon began to cause absolute chaos for local home owners and landowners, with heavy flooding nearly every year.

  I saw it for myself winter after winter thereafter. I saw the O’Meara family flee from their home with the water coming in, the Beatties under similar threat, and others desperately bringing in pumps and generators in the battle to keep the water out. It was a shocking time – one that was really stressful for everyone. Even though report after report was carried out by the experts, the word came back that the cost of fixing the issue and saving the other homes and land there would be too prohibitive.

Emergency measures

Eventually, the Chief Executive of Roscommon County Council, Eugene Cummins, took the bull by the horns and embarked on a different approach. Faced with the prospect of more families losing their homes, he evoked special powers at his disposal. The CE told a council meeting that emergency works were going to be carried out to put in that new major discharge pipe (classified as exempted development under Section 4 of the Planning Act, with planning permission not being required). He also said an environmental impact study or application to An Bord Pleanala was not necessary – and he determined that a register of the soil abstractions would be completed and the project would be in compliance with the rules, and meet the obligations of climate action/low carbon objective.

  It was – in the words of the county manager – an absolute crisis situation where family homes were at risk and urgent action was needed. The work therefore began with the blessing of the OPW and the Government – and the families waited for their nightmare to officially end.

  Last week at a council meeting in Roscommon the extraordinary news emerged – most regrettably – that far from the nightmare being actually over, the whole works at Funshinagh would have to stop. Eugene Cummins admitted to the elected members present that a long-running legal battle with environmental group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), over the remedial works at Lough Funshinagh, has left the taxpayers of Roscommon with a legal bill “in excess of a quarter of a million euro”. Worse again, the relief works could still not go ahead. I have to say that I, for one, could simply not believe what I was hearing.

Plan in shreds

At that council meeting, Eugene Cummins launched a seriously scathing attack on FIE, and robustly defended his own role in the saga. Confirming that the council had already faced “over ten High Court appearances”, Mr Cummins said he was satisfied, without any doubt in his mind, that he had done “everything legally and humanly possible” to ensure that the residents and farmers living in the area around Lough Funshinagh could remain in their own homes – but still the plan to put in the new pipe was in shreds.

  “Every action I took, I did it legally,” said the Chief Executive, who expressed his anger and deep hurt at the outcome of the legal challenge. It’s worth reading the text of what the county manager said.

  “Every stone we unturned, they challenged it to ensure that we could not give comfort to those in danger of losing their homes,” he said, adding that the works that the council was proposing to carry out would have involved disturbing “the same rock that is disturbed when a slatted shed is being built or when a house is being built”. But, he indicated, FIE had managed to convince the High Court that there was “a conforming issue”.

  Describing the Friends of the Irish Environment at that council meeting as “strangers with no connection and no empathy” who had “invaded” the local community, Eugene Cummins admitted that he was “very angry, hurt, frustrated and disappointed” at the outcome of the legal case, and added that it was “a sad day for this nation of ours”.

  All of which brings us to the sad conclusion that in this case there is no such thing as emergency aid for people who are losing their homes, that the law does not recognise a crisis or emergency in front of them, and that people’s rights to stay in their homes come last.

  What has happened in Rahara is an absolute disgrace. Urgent new legislation is needed to sort it out and support is needed for the residents and the county manager. The sooner it happens, the better.