Michael Clifford: The woodturner who is a splinter in the thumbs of the planners (2023)

Peter Sweetman, accustomed to anger in the face of his objections, has received bullets in the post three times. He says: “I like them because once I have them it means they can’t be used to shoot me.” Michael Clifford reports

Peter Sweetman had a busy few days earlier this month. He initiated two High Court actions and received a ruling in another in the space of a week. These are among the estimated 20 or so actions with his name on them currently being processed by the court.

Sweetman is the country’s foremost litigator in objecting to major development or infrastructure projects. The term “serial litigator” is often used to refer to cranks.

Sweetman is no crank, or at least not one without the substance to back up any crankiness or contrarian instincts.

The 78-year-old former woodturner has a long record of success in the actions he brings, including three at the European Court of Justice in the last decade.

He is also referred to as an environmentalist. All of his actions relate to planning of one sort or another. In most cases, his objections are rooted in planning processes for developments in which most environmentalists would share his concerns.

However, the two actions he launched earlier this month would challenge this categorisation. One was against the planning permission for a greenway destined to run along an old railway line in South Kerry.

The project has suffered numerous delays, mainly from a small group of landowners along the 32km route. The greenway is regarded as an economic and community saviour for the fast depopulating Iveragh peninsula. Approval was finally given by An Bord Pleanála in November.

Then, on the deadline day for appeals, Sweetman and a landowner, James Clifford, lodged their High Court action.

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One of the main grounds for the objection was that there was a “failure to take the requisite measures to establish a system of strict protection for the Kerry slug and Lesser Horseshoe Bat in their natural range”.

Another group of landowners is taking a simultaneous action challenging the use of a compulsory purchase order for the greenway.

But it is Sweetman’s objection that has given rise to particular ire. He does not live in the area – he is based in Mayo and is from Kildare – yet EU law permits his objection as a concerned citizen.

He says:

I have never got as much abuse as I have over that greenway.

He says he was told of abusive posts on Facebook and that he received a number of calls which he didn’t answer but he assumed were abusive.

“I always WhatsApp when I get a call from an unidentified number and ask 'who is this?' and none of those got back to me so I presume they weren’t being friendly.”

He is accustomed to some anger in the face of his objections. “Over the years I’ve received bullets in the post three times,” he says. “I like them because once I have them it means they can’t be used to shoot me.”

The other new objection he has launched this month is against a planned offshore windfarm near Arklow in Co. Wicklow.

In recent decades, as wind has been promoted as a prime source of renewable energy, the optimum solution discussed in the face of objections from various communities, has been offshore windfarms.

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So when a proposal for a major farm comes along, it might be assumed that environmentalists would welcome it. Not Peter Sweetman. When he believes that something is not complying with the law, he acts.

“I don’t go looking for these projects, these days they are brought to me,” he says. “I could take on 10 times what I’m doing.

The way I see it, I’m an old fashioned Fine Gaeler. I believe in compliance with the law, which I don’t think Fine Gael does at the moment.

While he might appear an unlikely Fine Gaeler, he is in fact blue-blooded in political terms. His father Gerard served as Minister for Finance in the Inter-party coalition between 1954 and 1957. Peter’s granduncle Roger was a member of the first Dáil and an early advocate for a peaceful resolution to the Civil War.

Peter was educated in Glenstal Abbey, one of the most expensive fee paying schools in the country. He says that by the time he completed his second level education he couldn’t read, having suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia.

He studied photography in London. “I was very interested in trees,” he says. “My portfolio that got me into Regent Street (technical college) was on the trees in Hyde Park, and my passing out portfolio was on foxes in Highgate cemetery. That place was full of foxes at the time, sitting on Karl Marx’s tomb and all.”

A career photographing show jumping events beckoned, but then at 26 he was involved in a serious car accident that necessitated nearly a year in hospital.

“I was in the Mater flat on my back and the psychiatrist in there had just come back from the US where he’d studied about dyslexia, which wasn’t widely known at the time. He actually taught me how to read.”

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He spent a brief period working as a lumber jack – ironically, one of his major cases in recent years involved halting the felling of trees – and moved from that onto woodturning.

“I was quite good at it,” he says. “The other day Micheál Martin was being interviewed in the cabinet room on TV and one of my works was there in the background. Charlie Haughey bought it off me.”

Mary Robinson also appreciated his work. “She gave one of my pieces to Nelson Mandela. I believe it’s in Mandela’s widow’s home now in Mozambique.”

The world of planning opened up for him in the early nineties under the most mundane circumstances.

“It was a NIMBY thing,” he says. “This fella wanted to build a piggery next to lands in Naas that had been in my family for years.

Pig factories. Who wants that? Pigs go in and sausages and shit comes out.

He researched planning law and challenged it. In the end the pigs stayed at home. He went after more pigs a little later when he became involved in a campaign to restrict piggeries around Lough Sheelan in Co Cavan. (One kindred spirit he had in that campaign was Michael McCabe, father of the well-known former garda Maurice).

Since his initial foray into the world of planning he has been a constant thorn in the side of public planning bodies and developers. With his long, grey hair swept back and a preference for jumpers and cardigans he could be mistaken for a refugee from a 70s rock band in the company of the suits that people wear at planning hearings and court cases.

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In 1994, he toyed with the idea of standing for the Green party.

“This was when the Greens were an environmental party,” he says. He claims to have been in the reckoning for a party nomination in Leinster at the time.

“I went off to do a project in Africa in the course of the campaign for the nomination and when I came back everybody who was going to vote for me voted instead for the other person (Nuala Ahern). So I stood on my own bat in that election as an independent. I didn’t do any campaigning.”

He received 3,228 votes, or 1.2% of the valid electorate. Ahern was elected to one of the four MEP seats.

Afterwards, Sweetman claims that he wanted to join his local Green organisation but HQ objected on the basis that he had stood against the party candidate. Since then he has been largely apolitical.

In the 2000s he became involved in the Shell To Sea campaign in north county Mayo, a campaign that was to change his life in that he ended up moving to the county.

What prompted him to do that? “What do you expect it to have been? A woman of course.” He is also the father of an adult son and daughter.

Unlike the vast majority of serial litigators, he has no trouble in finding solicitors and barristers to represent him.

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That is down to his reputation for winning, and consequently his lawyers getting their fees paid by the other side.

When he loses, he is not pursued for costs as legally he is a man of straw. In those instances, his lawyers have to go hungry but the public body or developer is still obliged to pay their own legal counsel.

Irrespective of outcomes of previous cases, Sweetman is entitled to object as often as he wants under the Aarhus Convention.

The EU agreement in its access to judgment principle sets out the “right to review procedures to challenge public decisions that have been made without respecting…environmental law in general".

One person in the legal world who has encountered him says that he is taken extremely seriously. “I’ve seen him at conferences where he would have had respectful exchanges with people like Frank Clarke (the chief justice).

He certainly knowns what he is about.

A contrary view is offered by a source who has had experience of a Sweetman case. “While the principle of the Aarhus convention has merit, you have to wonder is this what they envisaged when it was drafted. Has the bar been set too high?” this source asks.

“Peter Sweetman is a shrewd operator and very knowledgeable but in all the decisions and proposals that he is managing to stall or overturn, is the public interest being served? Does the benefit to the environment that he advocates, often pretty minor, really outweigh the public interest in getting some of these proposals built for the overall good.

“There is also the cost in public money for all of these cases. In many instances I simply don’t think the public interest is being served. If you don’t want any public development done, Peter Sweetman is your only man.”

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The man himself counters this with simple logic.

“How can complying with the law be anti the public interest? Public servants are not the final arbitrators of the law, the courts are. If what they have done is not against the law then I don’t win.”

He also points out that his legal position as a man of straw is entirely protected by the Aarhus convention.

Last week his latest case came up with an application for a judicial review of an An Bord Pleanála decision to grant permission for a development of two blocks of apartments in Mallow.

The court sat using a remote hearing, allowing the applicant to tune in from his home in Mayo. Judge Garret Simons in delivering his ruling remarked that Mr Sweetman was a well-known environmentalist in relation to challenging the law.

The application was granted. On the same day, he had another victory with a High Court ruling in his favour over the extraction of water from Lough Corrib.

Despite the creeping advance of senior years, he has no intention of pulling back from the application of vigilance of how the State is planned and built.

“After the car accident in my twenties I was told that I wouldn’t be walking by my fifties,” he says. “And here I am still managing to walk, still going at my age. No reason to stop now.”

A taste of Sweetman

Trees and more trees

One industry that Peter Sweetman has had a major impact on in recent years is forestry, which is ironic in light of his own trade as a woodturner. Forestry is a €2bn industry, rivalling the beef sector in agriculture.

There is a shortage of timber in the country as a result of appeals against tree felling and tree planting in the last two years in particular.

Most of these appeals are based on infringement of EU directives on biodiversity.

For instance, between the beginning of 2018 and the middle of last year, Sweetman was responsible for 351 appeals out of a total of 624.

In September, the government brought in legislation to strengthen the law and take account of the EU directive but problems still persist in the area.

“It’s unreal how wrong we got forestry,” Sweetman says. “We don’t have forests we have plantations in this country."

There is no environmental gain from them even in relation to climate. They can dispute that but the science says it’s true.

There is mixed opinion in the industry about culpability for the clogging up of the appeal system with some blaming the department for not getting its act together and others hitting out at the number of appeals which some claim are being lodged on a blanket basis.

No way through

In 2013, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Galway by-pass should not proceed as designed as there was a risk that it would bring about “the disappearance or the partial and irreparable destruction of a protected site”.

This ruling was based on the EU habitat directive and the court was requested to consider it by the Irish Supreme Court.

Environmentalists were very happy with the ruling that came from Sweetman’s persistence. An Taisce, the heritage group, described it as “a huge leap forward for nature conservation, not only in Ireland but across the EU".

The result was a delay in the by-pass for the city which has not yet been fully completed.

Don’t build the wall

Last March An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for a coastal protection wall proposed by the Trump organisation for its hotel and golf club at Doonbeg, Co Clare.

The ruling overturned permission given by the county council. Sweetman along with environmental organisations had objected to the wall on the basis that they were not satisfied there was sufficient protection for the integrity of a nearby Special Area of Conservation.

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Trump’s organisation had claimed doing nothing was not an option and if permission was not granted it might bring the viability of the whole enterprise into question.

Substitute consent

Last July, Sweetman had a major victory in the Supreme Court when a ruling declared that the concept of substitute consent was not compatible with EU law.

Substitute consent is a form of retention planning permission for infrastructure projects. Typically, it would be a route to go down for a developer if it was found that the project did not include an Environmental Impact Statement when first built.

A number of wind farms that were found to have been built contrary to planning permission have, in recent years, applied for substitute consent. By and large, it is always granted.

The Supreme Court found that it was not compatible with the law because there was no provision for the public to make submissions at that stage of the process and because there was no provision for a test of “exceptionality” to determine why a particular project should be included in the process.

This will make it more difficult for projects to retrospectively apply to retain planning permission if it is not built according to proper planning in the first instant.

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