If an inland greenway route from Westport to Murrisk goes ahead “you will never see a war in Ukraine like it” says Mayo councillor

Long read: Planning of County Mayo’s Westport to Louisburgh Greenway is progressing, with a 6km section between Belclare near Westport and Murrisk at the foot of Croagh Patrick at public consultation. The route would join onto the Westport to Achill greenway, which is directly across the Clew Bay, but tensions are rising over the “preferred route”.

Supporters of the greenway say it is important to mention that the authorities promoting the greenway include Mayo County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) staff in Mayo. They also say that local elected councillors have agreed on the overall policy of planned greenways around Mayo.

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IMAGE: The planned primary network of greenways — image from the Mayo County Development Plan, which councillors approved.

It’s not something that’s been dreamed up by some bureaucrat in an office in Dublin. But that fact isn’t stopping the rhetoric in that vein.

Cllr John O’Malley (independent), while speaking to this website, compared the use of farmland for greenways to the actions of Cromwell, who’s described as the “greatest villain in Ireland’s history” and also made the link to Ukraine (see more on that below).

Then, over the weekend at a protest against the greenway route, Gerry Loftus of the Rural Ireland Organisation, which he founded, used the old rhetoric that the area west of the Shannon is being turned into a national park — this decade’s old apparent transformation of the west of Ireland has been very slow as only 0.9% of Ireland’s area is a national park.

At the protest yesterday, Loftus vocalised his anger that there was no consultation with landowners. However, the consultation with landowners — which is ongoing — could only start when a preferred route was chosen. More general consultation was run before this round of consultation.

TII officials have outlined how the inland route is preferred because the route along the road is confined, including by the bay and because of the number of houses along the road.

The problem is where to put greenways. There are no publicly owned canal towpaths in most counties, and while Mayo does have a disused railway still owned by CIE, the saga of the Western Railway Corridor is a whole other article. Overall, there are generally relatively few tracks of State-owned lands, and they are disconnected from each other.

That means if greenways are to be progressed, they’ll likely be partly routed via farmland. Then, we have the thorny question of using Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs), where the State acquires land for the public good.

In the case of the South Kerry Greenway, a High Court judgment by Judge Richard Humphreys outlined in 2021 that CPOs can be used for greenways. That was then challenged, but the Supreme Court decided not to allow two appeals against the decision to go ahead. The High Court judgment stands.

The High Court judgement and the Supreme Court’s refusal mean anybody trying again to challenge the fundamental issue of using CPOs for greenways is likely to risk high legal fees for little to show in the end.

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) seem to have taken this view with its involvement in drawing up the Code of Best Practice for National and Regional Greenways. It outlines how the aim should be agreement rather than hitting what many see as the ‘nuclear option’ of using CPOs.

Loftus at the weekend said he wants the IFA to withdraw their support for the Greenway Code, but he also seemed unclear what the code was, including linking it to the reason why there are CPOs for farmland (which is a decision of politicians and the Courts).

And Cllr John O’Malley (Independent), speaking last week by phone, said he doesn’t see the “need” for a greenway as he would a road, and he thinks there will be “war” over the issue.

IrishCycle.com contacted the councillor after he had told the Mayo News, a local newspaper, that: “I tell you we are not going to let this greenway go through and spoil the lovely village that is tranquil and quiet. It is not right that anyone should come in and infringe on anyone else’s land. If someone comes down and tries to come through our land, well I tell you something, you will never see a war in Ukraine like it, and that is for sure. It won’t happen.”

“I wasn’t really comparing it to that [the war in Ukraine],” Cllr O’Malley said last Tuesday. When contact he seemed at first to be back off from comparing the reaction to a greenway, a walking and cycle path, to a war which, as of November 2023, at least “10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, have been killed and over 18,500 have been injured since Russia launched its a full-scale armed attack against Ukraine on 24 February 2022” according to the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission.

Recent estimates put the Ukrainian armed forces deaths at above 31,000, while Russian military deaths have surpassed 42,000. Some sources say both sides have publicly underestimated the level of military losses.

But he continued: “What I meant was that there is a war in Ukraine but that if they [Irish authorities] were to try to come down to go through the land there would be a war as well.”

Asked about what illegal action he’d undertake or support against the route going ahead, he got aggrieved as if he wasn’t comparing a walking and cycling path to an illegal war.

Cllr Peter Flynn (Fine Gael) said he wants the project to be progressed and he would also support the route along the road, but that it is also not without issues, including having to CPO parts of gardens of a large number of houses along the road, and still having to CPO strips of farmland.

Cllr Flynn said: “It’s fine for the likes of Cllr John O’Malley, Chris Maxwell [an election candidate] and Gerry Loftus to make this part of their election campaign, but there’s an opportunity here for landowners to engage with landowners where they get a [up to] €20,000 payment if they sit down with TII to have to consultation, and just to allow the environmental impact studies to go on. It allows people then to figure out that the greenway will follow the boundary of their site, so it would minimise the disruption to their land.”

“That’s before you get into the discussion of the land value and the compensation for the land and whatever lost payments — [landowners] will lose the single farm payment for a piece of land they hand over, but you will be compensated for that for whatever you lose, it’s long-term value,” Cllr Flynn said.

He said: “All of these discussions need to be had, so, at least then you can ensure the fairest value is got, that the best possible route is picked as part of the discussion, and you get that up-front payment €20,000 into your pocket for having the discussion in the first place.”

The IFA negotiated the payment in 2021. It is scaled — it ranges from €6,750 for where the route will cross 1-100 metres to over €22,000 for more than 500 metres. The IFA’s website provides a detailed breakdown of the payments.

“The IFA have signed off on that document, this isn’t something that’s been hatched by the Government or the Green Party or anybody else who’s an easy target. It’s something that has been formulated with the [farming] representative bodies,” said Cllr Flynn.

“It’s not all about money, it’s about being able to contribute,” said Cllr Flinn. He said that many landowners on the original greenway, on the other side of the bay, are “really proud to have contributed to a real gem in our county and a real assist in our county, that’s not just for tourists but for the locals who use it for walking and cycling. “

While interviewing Cllr O’Malley he repeatedly took issue of where he thought I might be from — I eventually told him: Mayo and when he kept asking about landowner I had to remind him not everyone is privileged enough to own land.

While he didn’t mention the Corrib gas project, I grew up with it as a live issue in the county, reading about it — the difference with a greenway is that at least so-far there’s nobody claiming there’s a  threat of it exploding and its ownership is public. Locals also end up being some of the main users of greenways

Cllr O’Malley said: “I don’t know where you’re from, but you don’t understand the feeling that goes with land, that goes very deep.”

When asked if he thinks there’s a difference between a greenway and a road, such as the new N5, which not just went through farmland but ripped through hills between Castlebar and Westport, he said, “That’s a horse of a different colour. That’s a piece of infrastructure that was needed very badly. A greenway through farmland is not something that’s needed very badly.”

He said: “There’s land all over the country that was CPOed for motorways or roads, and that’s something that’s understandable.” He said roads were needed for transport.

But in his judgement, Judge Humphreys highlighted the problem with the thinking around greenways being “needed” or not.

Judge Humphreys said that those taking the case against Kerry County Council’s use of CPOs for greenways “quibble with the reference to community need”, but he said: “Necessity for compulsory acquisition does not require absolute necessity”.

The judgement said: “It requires a determination that the acquisition is desirable or expedient having regard to public benefits such as the creation of public infrastructure and meeting community need. That involves a judgement as to public benefit and does not require some sort of artificially high threshold like a finding that the existing infrastructure is dangerous.”

Taking a step aside from greenways for the moment, the judgment means that not everybody has to agree with a facility being built for the “community need” to exist. And, in the context of the law around CPOs, the word ‘need’ shouldn’t be seen as some kind of pure or basic need.

When IrishCycle.com tried to refer to the High Court judgment that CPOs can be used for the common good including greenways, Cllr O’Malley said “You’re all for the High Court” and, responding to a question on if he agrees with the law, he added: “I don’t agree with land being taken by force, never will.”

But when reminded that he agrees with CPOs being used for roads, he said: “You don’t seem to get it at all… a greenway isn’t needed. A greenway really isn’t needed… they are all talking greenways but they are all wrote up for a lot more than what they are worth.

Cllr O’Malley said: “I have land along the greenway between Westport and Newport and there’s less and less people on it since it was done. Because it’s only a fad.”

He went on to say that somebody had just called him, and that person had said greenways were “white elephants.”

Greenways are generally planned for a number of community benefits including tourism and also including road safety by offering an alternative to walking or cycling along a busy main road. One of the most underestimated beliefs is it giving locals a route to safety walk and cycle along.

“I’ve no problem at all with greenways,” said Cllr O’Malley. He said he walked the Westport to Newport section of greenway to Achill with the engineers before it was built, adding: “But we didn’t impinge on anybody’s land, we didn’t go into anybody’s farmland and said we were splitting their field, we ran it down along the road.”

The designers of the route if at all possible look to avoid these crossing by routing the greenway path along the boundary of field.

However, the Great Western Greenway between Westport and Achill was not only routed along roads. In many cases, it also runs along the boundary between fields, and, in a limited number of cases, it runs through land. An unusual setup is to have the field open (unlikely to be repeated) and in farming use with livestock grates at both ends (the third image below), but a more typical setup is where there are two gates on both sides of the greenway to allow access to a lot of land.

(article continues below images)

IMAGE: A farm crossing warning sign on the Old Rail Trail route between Athlone and Mullingar.

Farm crossings of greenways have been used on a number of greenways, with a layout where fences can temporarily halt greenway users and block livestock from entering the greenway.

Farm underpasses — or depending on the terrain, overpass — are also under in some cases, usually where there’s a high volume and frequency of movement of machinery or livestock, which is unlikely to apply.

Cllr Flynn said: “The last thing TII or Mayo County Council wants is to put a route down the middle of a piece of land if there’s a section left or right of it that can be used. Also, if you sit down with the project team, you [landowners] can look at what other accommodations works such as fencing can be done.”

Cllr O’Malley wants the greenway routed further away altogether. He said the greenway between Westport and Louisburgh could “go out along the road.” But when asked if he would also support landowners along the road if the greenway were planned to be built there and they didn’t want it there, he said they could be compensated.

When asked again if one of the landowners took the same stance as the landowners he is supporting on the inland route, he said, “There’s always a way to get around those things along the road” because “you’re only taking a little edge of their land” and “not destroying the whole field.”

Cllr Flynn said: “I’ve always argued to get the route to Louisburgh as quickly as possible, follow the road line, build the greenway along the side of the road, make it happen.”

But he said that there are now higher standards for greenways and there are issues with the road route.

He said: “Of all sections between Belclare to Murrisk is the section along the road which would impact the most on houses — if you take from Murrisk out to Louisburgh, there’s few houses along the line of the road but between Belclare to Murrisk you’re dealing with a completely different animal because you’re curtailed on one side by the sea and on the other side you have a number of houses that are impacted.”

Cllr O’Malley claimed that the current inland preferred route is fixed with the yellow line shown on the map below, but Cllr Flynn said that “it’s completely untrue” to say the route is fixed. Indeed, TII and Mayo County Council are currently seeking to talk to landowners about fine-tuning the route, including taking suggestions for alternative routing within the greenway corridor which is shown in the red shaded area around the yellow line.

Cllr Flynn said: “It’s like a broad brushstroke when TII set out a road — the road is probably 200 metres wide on the map, but then as the consultation goes forward and the environmental impact assessments are done, it then ties it down to a narrower route. In the case of a greenway, a three metre strip which is required.”

And a greenway, he said, is “not like a road”, in how it nearly goes in a straight line. Greenways can be more flexible.

The maps as part of the public consultation show a yellow line and a broader route corridor in shaded red around it:

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“Whatever the High Court has said,” Cllr O’Malley said, “The fact of the matter is that these people work the land and produce food off it, with full traceability and the people who want to take it off them, if they were to go out and work it, they’d bloody well die because they’d perish.”

But when asked if he had ever met a road engineer with a rural background, he seemed to concede that some engineers might actually have a farming background.

Cllr Flynn said senior staff and the project team area from farming and rural backgrounds, mostly from around Mayo. “And then the consulting crew who are on it are not based in Dublin, they are Barry’s in Castlebar, it’s a local Mayo company. So, this nonsense being peddled that all of this is being forced on us by Dublin is completely untrue. It just doesn’t stack up.”

UPDATE: This article was updated to give a more correct picture of the death toll of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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  1. Was through Murrisk yesterday (in a car) and was appalled at the way the current layout simply ends in bollards, not even giving people using bikes a way of accessing the main roadway — never mind infrastructure to warn and slow people in motor vehicles. Bizarre – though hopefully temporary.

    • I’m a local resident and I totally agree with you Will.
      It’s not safe for our kids to cycle on with the way it suddenly ends. Can’t wait for the new route away the road.
      There are lots of locals that won’t be voting for Mr. O’Malley with his narrow minded opinion.
      A green way brings so much to a locality.

  2. Independent Councillors never disappoint in the use of histrionic rhetoric (Mannixing?) against cycling facilities. This Councillor likens it to both the Ukraine War and Cromwell’s conquests while refusing to criticise far more intrusive road projects. The existing Greenway (Westport to Achill) is heavily used locally and also lightens road use. It also allows people to safely cycle or walk, which is not really possible otherwise.

  3. Councillors trying to get personal attention ahead of elections to the detriment of cycling infrastructure. Same carry on by another councillor calling the new N5 ‘lethal’ despite it probably being the safest road in Mayo.

  4. Liam MacNally is putting the boot in again in today’s Mayo News. Comparing the option of CPOs on the Belclare-Murrisk route to old colonialsim. Horrible divisive language that only serves to damage ongoing negotiations.

  5. Perhaps people should go look at the proposed route to day . Bring a life jacket and kayak with you . Try not to step on any protected species or flora while your at it .

    • Hi Pat, as far as I can see, any route in an area like this will have sensitive areas. There will be trade-offs in any route.

      A safe and attractive route along the road would likely impact the Clew Bay Complex Special Area of Conservation. It also seems like it would have a far greater impact on people’s houses, requiring at least the shortening of fairly short gardens. Why do you think the current objectors are showing no concern for these issues?

      Unlike what has been claimed, greenways are not like roads and are far less impactful on the environment and people than roads.
      For example, if a greenway has to cross a waterlogged area, it can use a structure like a bridge, boardwalk, or other elevated track—one on the Rive Boyne Greenway is nearly 900 metres long.

    • Hi Pat
      Had the pleasure of cycling the Velo Francette in France. Part of the route is through the Poitevin Marsh never needed a life jacket or kayak and with the boardwalks did not step on any protected species or flora.

  6. This is a really fantastic report giving enough full quotes from the likes of O’Malley to show him up as the selfish, entitled fella that he is. Hilarious that he doesn’t see the contradiction between supporting CPOs for his favourite transport method and opposes them for a method he himself doesn’t use. I wonder if people like him will ever change or do we just have to wait for them to fade out of politics.


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