Declassified Files: Senior civil servant questioned protection for peat bogs

A senior civil servant questioned moves to protect some of Northern Ireland’s most sensitive and most historic habitats, arguing that only “the most extreme” environmental reasons should prevent them from being developed, declassified files reveal.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 8th January 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 8th January 2020, 9:26 am
Black Bog, an important habitat
Black Bog, an important habitat

Gerry Loughran, who would go on to become head of the civil service, set out his views on the conservation of bogs in a January 1987 memo which has been declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast.

Peatlands are now viewed not only as key habitats for wildlife, but as important carbon sinks – which can lock huge quantities of carbon in the ground – in the battle against climate change.

Mr Loughran, who is now Sir Gerry, responded to a file about the Black Bog in Co Tyrone and the wider issue of seven bogs which the department intended to declare as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI).
He said: “I know this part of Tyrone and perhaps that is why I regard as bizarre the proposition that we should spend scarce resources simply to prevent much needed economic activity in what is by any standards one of the most God forsaken poverty-stricken areas in this country.

“Perhaps I could generalise my concern. Peat is one of our very few indigenous resources and it has helped to sustain poor communities throughout the ages. I would argue that only the most serious environmental reasons (for example, potential pollution) should stand in the way of primary economic activity.
“The planning presumption in favour of the developer should be even stronger if there are economic gains, including jobs. Each case should be considered on its merits and I am by no means satisfied that the Planning Service should automatically adopt a refusal stance simply because there is a conservation interest.

“There is of course pressure to designate Black Bog and other others but there are other interests, not least the people who actually live in remote rural areas.”

Mr Loughran said that before the issue was discussed with other government departments he wanted to have a meeting about it “in the first instance”.

He added: “I am particularly anxious that we should consider how we weigh the conservation case against other considerations. If we are to declare these ASSI’s, we will have to demonstrate that we have fully considered all the relevant factors.”