Gerry Loftus, at left, pictured with Kathleen Garrett in welcoming the new GP, Dr. Amjed Ahmedm, to Nephin Medical Centre in Lahardane a number of weeks ago. PHOTO: CONOR MCKEOWN

Will Lahardane community resilience hold sway in key Mayo local election battle?

by Caoimhín Rowland

A looming spectre remained large in Balla Community Hall as Gerry Loftus’ Rural Ireland Organisation rallied the Craggagh community in support of their campaign to prevent the planting of sitka spruce in their village.

“We’ve done our bit” was a common refrain as young farmers and concerned members of the community voiced the fact that they’re pro-trees, pro-biodiversity and pro-climate measures.

“But sitka spruce is a scourge on the western seaboard,” particularly to Mayo which bears the burden of forestry companies planting of the towering trees banned in many European countries for over a decade.

The reason why it is so popular in Ireland is because it’s hardy, grows fast and returns a profit for investors.

It’s as simple as that. Everyone has seen a sitka spruce plantation after it’s been cut. Imagine looking at that for the rest of your days.

The reason why they’ve been banned in Norway is because it drives out human habitations, never mind the desolate blanket of darkness unfit for nature’s smaller creatures.

The community of Craggagh’s complaints resonate with a lot of rural people - and hopefully will be taken on board by an out-of-touch government which talks the talks on balanced regional development but on the ground it scuppers the potential and livelihoods of those of us living in rural areas.

Councillor Al McDonnell also alluded to this during his tirade on the matter at the February meeting of Mayo County Council.

He spoke about the department shooting down the municipal district’s plan for further urban sprawl in the county town and instead favouring ‘compact development’.

Councillor McDonnell almost had to take pause after saying those two words.

“An affront to our rural tradition,’ he cried.

I don’t ever remember suburban housing estates with postage stamp back gardens being an integral part of Irish heritage, but then again I know little about selling houses.

Back in Balla, other cries also bellowed. Councillor Michael Kilcoyne was of the belief ‘the country is being taken over by outsiders’.

He derided people in attendance for voting Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a common refrain that is accelerating and growing legs, and the likely imminent departure of Michael Ring from political life in Mayo will accelerate such a trend already witnessed in neighbouring Roscommon and socially similar Donegal and Kerry.

They’ve no sitka spruce in Meath, but they want to plant on good land in Mayo now, Gerry Loftus said when he finally broached the mic at the event he planned and organised.

He allowed every political candidate in attendance to speak before him and graciously donated the supporting slot to Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.

For many politicians in attendance, it was an information evening, an opportunity to electioneer three months out from a local election and an event to be seen at.

The news ‘boiled the stomach’ of Louisburgh native Chris Maxwell, a former Fianna Fáil candidate and farmer himself.

He spoke about the work that goes into reclaiming land and now it’s being handed over to what Aontu’s Claremorris candidate Paul Lawless calls a ‘faceless entity’.

Newly coronated candidate Aidan Browne also made an appearance, a newcomer to the political scene but no stranger to a Gerry Loftus show, having been involved in the Lahardane GP retention group.

The Lahardane people’s ears were burning due to the good words and grace from politicians who spoke - many and all complimented Loftus.

As Councillor Kilcoyne said: “The only man to ever re-establish a rural doctor’s surgery.”

Harry Barrett offered solutions via the High Court for the people of Balla and highlighted the precedent of Peter Sweetman challenging the department through the Aarhaus convention.

An ever pragmatic campaigner and another in the slew of buoyant independents.

Rose Conway-Walsh warned the audience when she spoke.

“Independents more often than not vote with government in the Dáil,” she said, as she looks to improve her party’s polling numbers that have been gorged on by an array of pesky independents.

Gerry Loftus, who has been tracking sitka spruce plantations and Coillte involvement for some time now, rose to speak, in between puffs of his nicotine peace pipe and amidst the fog of confused political commentary.

He spoke at length about the destruction of rural Ireland. A mastermind subject of his, if you will, he said there are 800,000 hectares of sitka spruce in Ireland and 70% under the control of Coillte.

The government have changed state aid rules to favour investors and now carbon accounting and the trading of carbon credits will see more and more communities impacted by the plight seen in Craggagh.

He demanded a meeting with Minister Pippa Hackett about the issue and wants her to commit to banning sitka spruce in Ireland.

He said: “Go to Meath. There are no plantations there of those trees but the west of Ireland is seen as a commodity to be sold off for carbon credits."

Sitka spruce trees already loom large over many rural areas, the west has taken in its fair share of the monoculture crop, yet the spectre of Gerry Loftus declaring his candidacy for the Castlebar Municipal District was the white elephant in Balla.

He's another independent who has good grace and favour from the public. Whether that translates to votes behind the curtain in June is another question entirely.

All we can say is he already has incumbent councillors beating to the sound of his drum.