Environmental Impact Assessment: Doonbeg

April 27, 2008

There is inevitable potential for conflict between the aims of economic development and the aims of environment policy.

Over the years, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has evolved to counter criticisms that ERDF programmes and projects failed to take account of environmental concerns.

In the 1990s, two large-scale Irish golf projects brought this question of the relation between ERDF and the environment to the fore: Carton House and Doonbeg. Research in the early 1990s had shown that Ireland lacked large-scale tourism facilities compared to its major competitors.

Tourism development has been a key factor in the growth of the Irish economy and ERDF grants have supported a wide range of Irish tourism projects, including golf projects. The government authority in Co. Clare on the West Coast of Ireland, Shannon Development (SD), had identified Doonbeg as a potential large-scale golf tourism project.

Promotional material to potential developers made clear that the overall investment required by SD was around IR£10–12 million and that there was the possibility of a significant one-off grant from the ERDF.

American developers, with plans to spend IR£12.5 million on a prestige links course, luxury hotel, leisure centre and golfing village, were chosen by SD and an ERDF grant of IR£2.4 million was approved by the Irish authorities.

The grant was suspended, however, by the European Commission following complaints on environmental grounds by an Irish MEP.

An Environmental Impact Assessment conducted on the site, which is designated under the EU Habitats Directive as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) because of rare grey dunes, revealed a rare whorl snail Vertigo angustior, also listed for protection under the EU Habitats Directive.

Eventually all parties reached agreement on a Management Plan for the site, including a 50 acre portion fenced off for preservation and not in play. Ireland’s leading conchologist, Dr Evelyn Moorkens, who conducted the EIA, described the agreement in Gilleece, 26/10/00 as “a model for the way developers and conservationists can work together”. Golf Europa’s Steve Pope visited the site in June 2001. Fenced off SAC areas are, in places, close to greens, tees and fairways.

No ERDF grant can be secured without full consideration of all relevant EU policies and laws. Just as an ERDF grant may oblige a “traditional” golf club not to discriminate against women, so it will oblige ERDF applicants to ensure full implementation of all EU environment law.

These legal requirements should, of course, be implemented regardless of grant aid availability. ERDF grants serve to sharpen the spotlight on developers and, in the case of Doonbeg, become political footballs kicked between national authorities, interest groups and the European Commission.

ERDF grant aid provided financial resources, which helped Shannon Development to attract one of the world’s leading golf architects to the West Coast of Ireland and he has succeeded in creating a stunning new links course. But EU environment law – Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitats Directives – and a rare snail have had a small, yet undeniable, impact on the design of the Doonbeg golf links.

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