2 December 2004 Edition

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Revolting peasants in Wicklow

Hill walkers in Wicklow

Hill walkers in Wicklow

NEWS that the peasants are revolting in Wicklow over blocked rights-of-way and legal harassment is setting the cat among the pigeons down at the Law Library as well as the whisper-filled corridors of Wicklow County Council.

Wicklow Circuit Court recently granted a group of locals from the Enniskerry/Glencree area more time to prepare their defence in a case where mega-rich builder and property developer Neil Collen is seeking to legally harass any walkers impertinent enough to follow an ancient right-of-way he is determined to block.

Collen heads up the Collen Construction Company, an outfit that is no stranger to readers of An Phoblacht. In 2001, the company dragged 17 brickies before the High Court for picketing during their battle to oppose subcontracting on Collen's sites, which their union, the BATT, said was holding down wages, making sites unsafe and helping the developer to dodge his responsibilities.

The men, as we reported at the time, were held in contempt of court for their picket and were only freed after a whip-round amongst supporters raised the penalties demanded by the judge.

Last year, Collen found himself on the other side of the law when his company was fined €60,000 in the Naas Circuit Court for breaches of the safety regulations which led to 19-year-old Michael Mortimer from Mountrath falling to his death from a shed roof on one of its sites at the Curragh in Kildare.

And in 2001, Deputy Tony Gregory called in the Dáil for the company to be prosecuted for vandalism after they demolished the architecturally important Wiggins Teape building at East Wall, just three days after An Bord Pleanála had called for its retention.

Collen stands to make tens of millions from the East Wall development, where the company is building 157 apartments — one of a large number of highly lucrative developments it enjoys around the country. He is now reckoned to be one of the wealthiest developers in the land. No wonder he is unhappy to look out of the window of the large but strange house he recently inherited in the magnificent Glencree Valley and see — even in the distance - ordinary folk enjoying a free stroll.

It is hardly surprising that he has been rushing to M'Luds in wigs to put a stop to this effrontery.

Collen started by putting the legal squeeze on two hapless locals who had the temerity to include the delightfully scenic walk, a small part of which goes through his land, in a pamphlet describing walks in the Glencree area.

Unfortunately, hardly any so-called rights-of-way in Ireland are registered. This means that most of the mass paths, traditional walking routes and even long-distance trails are constantly in danger of legal challenge from landowners — and the law is heavily weighted in their favour.

Collen demanded the guide book writers withdraw their booklet, threatening an action for slander of title — an archaic civil charge under which a landowner claims damages, insisting that something which somebody has said or written reduces the value of their landholding.

Collen's solicitor, Gus Cullen, warned that, in addition to damages, he would demand the court award costs against the guide book writers. They went to see a senior counsel who advised them that, unless they were willing to put their houses on the line, they had better sign a craven statement thrust before them saying that they accepted there was no right-of-way across the land.

After considering taking out second mortgages to fund a case, the pair bent the knee — secure in the knowledge that the battle against the new Squire of Glencree was only just beginning.

When locals organised a Right-to-Walk protest march on 19 September, Collen went to the Circuit Court in Dundalk and took out an injunction against a local artist whose e-mail had appeared in the North Wicklow Times in connection with the walk. The injunction effectively banned the walk. He also took out an injunction against the paper for daring to publicise the event.

But when he tried to have the injunction blocking access to his land made permanent at Wicklow Circuit Court on 29 October — effectively closing it off for all time — members of the Enniskerry Walking Association, through their Chair Niall Lenoach, objected.

Lenoach asked Judge Pat McCartan to give him until February to make his case. He also said he wanted to enjoin Wicklow County Council and Attorney General Michael Byrne in the matter. The Council, he said, has failed completely to protect rights-of-way, even though they are obliged to do so under statute. The Attorney General is, under the Planning and Development Act, obliged to provide protection to local government in carrying out this and other crucial functions.

Both, said Lenoach, have signally failed to do their job. Worse, if Collen's injunction had been made permanent, this would pre-empt Wicklow County Council from carrying out its function in relation to assessing and ruling on the disputed route across his land.

Judge McCartan rejected Collen's plea to extend the injunction or make it permanent and granted the adjournment.

"In almost every other country in the Western world, rights-of-way receive a far higher level of protection than in Ireland," said Lenoach after the case.

"Fear of crippling law suits and gombeenism in local authorities has combined with a stunning lack of political imagination in the Dáil to ensure that the basic civil liberty of being able to enjoy our physical heritage is under threat as never before.

"This is not... as Fianna Fáil likes to portray it... a matter of well-heeled walkers trampling over the land of ground-down small farmers. It is about a new landlordism where extremely wealthy and selfish landowners are conniving to deprive ordinary people of one of our greatest simple pleasures and rights — access to the countryside. Our opponents want to block off all their land from the common people."

Niall Lenoach, a secondary school teacher, intends to represent himself in the case.

His supporters are already gathering affidavits. And make no bones about it — their battle is on behalf of us all.

By the way, since the injunction is now lifted, you might like to take a stroll along either of the two contested walking routes in the Glencree Valley. The autumn colours are glorious right now and the Enniskerry Walking Association at enniskerrywalking @eircom.net will give you directions and details.

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