An Taisce welcomes landmark decision of the European Court of Justice regarding the Galway Bypass and the Habitats Directive

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The European Court of Justice today delivered a landmark judgment in the long-running Galway bypass case brought by environmentalist Peter Sweetman.

The road scheme would have resulted in the permanent loss of approximately 1.47 hectares of protected limestone pavement a priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive within a distinct sub-area of 85 hectares, forming part of a total area of 270 hectares of such limestone pavement in the Lough Corrib Natura 2000 site.

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg today ruled that the integrity of a Natura 2000 site like Lough Corrib will be adversely affected where the competent national authority concludes that [the] plan or project [in question] will lead to the lasting and irreparable loss of the whole or part of a priority natural habitat type whose conservation was the objective that justified the designation of the site concerned as a Natura 2000 site.

In such cases, the only legal route potentially available to allow a plan or project to proceed is via a strictly regulated derogation provision (Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive), which applies only where there are no alternatives, where there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest for proceeding, and where compensatory measures are adopted (typically involving the designation of like-for-like replacement habitat at ratios generally well above 1:1).  In many cases it is simply not possible to meet the terms of this derogation.

In the case of the Galway bypass scheme, the result of todays judgment is that a permanent, irreplaceable loss of 1.47 hectares of limestone pavement – as proposed – would represent an intervention which would adversely affect the integrity of the Lough Corrib site.  This directly contradicts An Bord Pleanala’s decision that the project would have a locally significant negative impact on the site, but that such an impact would not adversely affect the integrity of the site.

The UK government was also on the losing side today, having intervened in the case – effectively in support of An Bord Pleanalas interpretation of the law – the UK evidently fearing the potential impacts a more conservation-friendly interpretation would have on projects within its borders.

Interestingly, the case pit An Bord Pleanala, Galway County and City Councils and the UK on one side, against Peter Sweetman and the Irish government on the other, a decision having been taken under Green Minister John Gormley to support the pro-conservation view.  The case now reverts to Irelands Supreme Court, which must apply the European Courts ruling to the facts of the Galway bypass case.

Commenting on todays judgment, Andrew Jackson, Natural Environment Officer with An Taisce, said: This is a huge leap forward for nature conservation not only in Ireland, but across the EU.   From now on, any partial, irreplaceable loss of a priority habitat must be held to affect the integrity of the Natura 2000 site in question.  The result is that projects which will permanently damage priority habitats within the Natura 2000 network will be able to proceed only in very limited circumstances.  The beneficial conservation impacts of todays judgment will be felt across Europe e.g. of the 72 EU priority habitats, Ireland hosts sixteen, but somewhere like Spain hosts more than 60% of the total.  Tomorrow Europeans will thank Peter Sweetman for fighting this case all the way to Luxembourg.


For further information, please call:

Andrew Jackson, Natural Environment Officer, An Taisce  Tel: 0879 313 717

Charles Stanley-Smith, An Taisce Communications Tel: 087 2411995



An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland




  1. The full judgment of the European Court of Justice –