Sweet – perhaps, but vicious

Tony Lowes interviews Peter Sweetman

The cost of litigation, Judge Michael Peart suggested at a recent conference, is “a deterrent to any but the rich, the courageous and the foolhardy”. Ireland’s most famous serial environmental litigant is Peter Sweetman, a long–haired, septuagenarian  photographer,  wood sculptor and former jockey   operating with or through various groups, companies, and as a ‘man of straw’.

Peter Sweetman can be difficult. Even offensive. That’s what makes him effective. He was once barred from environmental charity, An Taisce’s premises after he made unsubstantiable allegations about staff. He has twice resigned from Friends of the Irish Environment, which he helped establish in 1997.  He’s the sort of man who nearly got beaten up by a relation of John Gormley after he’d insulted the former Green Minister. He was summoned for littering after discarding a cigarette butt outside council offices when he had gone out for a cigarette break from his vociferous complaining. He leaves a trail of politically driven social devastation in his wake yet he often appears in the company of pro–development lawyers or personnel from his sworn enemies, Shell


Exceptionally reluctant to accept that he is wrong, he does listen to others and is typically generous and encouraging to community groups. The only people who can control him are strong–minded women, and he has found considerable autonomy with his partner Monica Muller. His convoluted, though occasionally penetrating, brilliance has wreaked havoc amongst developers and polluters for the last twenty years.


Sweetman went to Glenstal Abbey school, but left it without having learnt to read properly, perhaps due to dyslexia. Computers and spell check had a huge impact on his efficacy, empowering him to write submissions and legal arguments. Sweetman requires little sleep and takes it at strange hours. Something of a snob, he is obsessive about his unusual but distinguished family, especially his father, former Fine Gael Minister for Finance, Gerard, from whom he could not ostensibly be more different.


He worked as a jockey and photographer for years but now earns a difficult living as an environmental litigant and ‘lawyer’, living, unsurprisingly, near the Shell refinery in Rossport. Sweetman loves to gossip.


He is anarchic and hilarious but he is also heroic. Characteristically he throws lots of mud, but he has achieved more for environmental law than anyone else in the country.


Peter Sweetman, former jockey, is off:


“I came from a political dynasty. There was a famous by–election in Wexford where Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin all turned up to address the crowd after the same mass – and they were all Sweetman first cousins.

My father was Fine Gael. Mother was non–political. Father would have been considered of the West British and my mother was definitely West British. Both of them went to school in England entirely. My father then went to Trinity. Neither of them spoke a word of Irish.

My mother never went to the same school for two terms. She went to various schools – I think almost every Catholic boarding school in England had a session with my mother. She was ‘difficult’. That’s where I got a lot of me from.

There was a famous incident in the ‘30s at a Hunt Ball in Naas where she was dared to do something particular, right, for which the reward was a car. Which she collected. Leave it at that.

My father, Gerard, went into law and stood in politics first 1932. He was elected to the Senate in 42 and became Minister for Finance in the 1954–57 Governments. He appointed [TK] Whitaker – that was called a ‘decision so stupid it should never be allowed to happen’. Whittaker was 36 and there had never been Secretary General under 60. He was a Principal Officer at the time – he wasn’t even an under secretary.  My old man was nearly sacked over it”.

When I volunteer the conventional view that credits Whittaker with being one of the architects of modern Ireland, Sweetman is something between defensive and offensive: “my old man was the architect – he produced him out of the pack”.

“My old man used to refer to himself as the Minister for Poverty because you couldn’t be Minister for Finance when there was no money and we were absolutely broke at the time – the greatest challenge was to move into the 20th century away from insular DeValerism – DeValera was still dancing at the crossroads.

Then my father was killed in a car crash – I was 28. Fine Gael more or less presumed that I was going to stand in the by–election and I refused – it was the best decision I ever made because I’d be an alcoholic probably now. I wasn’t the sort of person who sat in the back row and shut up – it was not my nature.

I always believed they look at the children of politicians going into the Dáil and if they had an independent mind in those days they were in trouble for not saying the same thing as their father and if they said the same thing as their father they were only saying the same thing as their father so they were on a hiding to nothing.

The thing that really got me going was a pig unit in 1984 – a 10,000–sow unit  as part of Pascal Phelan’s integrated sausage factory. I’m a NIMBY – it was on the banks of the Liffey on land that had belonged to my grandfather. It never got off the ground.

The first thing I did beyond pigs was Kill dump. That was 1992. A very important thing happened at the Kill dump hearing. Barrister James Macken was appearing for the local residents and I met his devil – that was the most important thing – Michael O’Donnell.  We’re 19 years together now [Sweetman does not mean they live together]. We got on – we were both nutty enough together [ed’s note, only one of the two is nutty and it is not O’Donnell] and O’Donnell thought outside the box. Everyone else said that’s the way it is and Michael said there were other ways.

I was never really a Fine Gaeler – I was labelled it.  In a way the politician I was closest to [I’m agog] is now the President of Ireland, Michael D. Michael D was a green socialist and I think I was probably a green socialist.

Roger Garland [the first Irish Green Party TD, 2002 – 2004] and I believed at that time certainly – and I think he still does, and we were proved right – that green politics are the politics of protest.  You keep moving the goalposts.  As you get more support you move the goalposts – you don’t use it for power.

And then Friends [Friends of the Irish Environment] came along in 1997 and Sara Dillon [Visiting lecturing in Environmental Law at UCD, now lecturing in International Trade law in the US] advised us about the Doonbeg golf course in County Clare. We settled the case and it was one of the  best things we did: for the sake of the snails who have now multiplied massively [Dillon hated the settlement].

The day I met [Environmental Solicitor] Greg Casey was probably the most important day of my environmental career because he was doing what I was trying to do and at least there was someone I could talk the same language to. We clicked from day one. There was much we had to talk about. There isn’t a day goes by when we don’t talk to each other.

Myself and Bland [Peter Bland, Junior Counsel] and Greg  would rehearse for cases.  One of us would be the judge – we produced these ridiculous ideas for solutions.  One of us was prosecuting [sic] and the other was the defence counsel– and we had to try and win.  So all the mistakes got done during dinner.

I suppose about 2001 we decided we were going to set the State up and make the Habitats Directive work. And we decided then that the case to make it work was the Galway By–Pass.

The case went a long way to establishing what was the integrity of a designated site: the issue was whether removing 1.7 hectares of a karst limestone pavement of many hectares damage the ‘integrity’ of the site and was prohibited under the Directive. It’s a question that’s still being asked. Neither any local authority nor An Bord Pleanála in Ireland has ever agreed anything at all will affect the integrity of a designated site.

My argument is once you take away one square inch the integrity of the site is no longer whole.

In the Shell situation if you are going to dig up the SAC you can’t say it won’t affect the integrity of the site because you are digging it up. You can’t come to the conclusion that with restoration there is no adverse impact. If it’s a priority habitat it’s a ‘no no’.

The fundamentals of the Civil service are what’s wrong in Ireland. The Minister is supposed to take the advice of the senior civil servants who act only on the interactions of the Minister so neither of them is ever guilty of anything.

When I went down the first time to Shell I went to the meeting in the Hall in Carrightioge, they wanted someone to do the legalities. I said to them straight up I will not be able to stop this development but we will be able to delay it somewhat.  I was thinking perhaps a couple of years – I wasn’t thinking 10! What I wanted was that the thing would be built properly and that it should be sited in the right place for it. But all that any of us could ever do was to improve it to the extent that at least it would be as safe as humanly possible – what they had proposed originally was so slap dash…

[Marine Minister] Frank Fahey’s famous site was entirely the wrong place because we are in the middle of the Glanamoy bog complex – possibly the largest sub–arctic wilderness in Europe – a  mountain wilderness within 200 feet of sea level: the amount of German camper vans coming to look at this was huge but they’re not coming anymore. They won’t come near us – they’re frightened.

The Irish have a phobia against planning – not just the Planning and Development Act – we don’t plan anything.  We have muddied along with water, we’ve muddied along with  sewage, we’ve muddied along relevant to roads, we built some roads that were necessary and some that were totally unnecessary.

The most crazy of the whole lot was the bypass of the Wexford bypass because the existing Wexford bypass hadn’t even reached half capacity. It was a dual carriageway with roundabout which can safely take about 9,000 cars daily and though in fact there were lss than 4,000 but they wanted to build a motorway. We had crazy schemes like the Shannon tunnel which is costing us a fortune. The Public–Private Partnerships are an accounting fiddle – they mean the next generation pays for it”.

I intervene to ask if there has been any improvement in Irish planning.

“It’s a fundamental point of Irish projects they they tell us what they are going to do rather than ask you – despite the EU–imposed need for Environmental Impact Assessments. So we still don’t know where we are – look at the history of the National Children’s Hospital. The whole aquaculture system is off the wall – bananas. Then we have raw sewage discharging into places like Newport.

The German lesson is you don’t spend money on infrastructure during the boom – you use it to cushion the bust. We spent it all”.

Tony Lowes with additional material by Michael Smith

Village Magazine, February – March 2013

Sweetman Cases:

Michael Smith reviews Peter Sweetman’s important environmental cases



The  Supreme Court declared State developments had to undergo Environmental Impact Assessment , so abolishing the “Crown Prerogative”. Sweetman acted with Roderic O’Connor, and Michael O’Donnell was the barrister.


A High Court case was in the end settled with the developer on the terms that Evelyn Moorkins was appointed to determine if proper measures were being taken to preserve the whorl snail, which is now breeding successfully in Doonbeg Golf Course and no longer threatened. Sweetman acted with Tony Lowes. David Healy and Friends of the Irish Environment.

Kildare bypass

Sweetman acted with local landowner and fellow lay litigant, Percy Podger concerning Kildare County Council’s failure to protect the  Pollardstown Fen from a serious  risk of drying up from placing the motorway into a deep cut. Although it was the An Taisce complaint to the EU citing objections from the Kildare Planner and the Office of Public works that caused the EU to pull the plug, leading to a long and controversial delay and ultimately the lining of the road cut to protect the Fen adding €22 million to the road cost.

Slane bypass

An Bord Pleanála refused permission as “Traffic flows on the N2 appear to be influenced by the absence of tolls on this corridor, which encourages traffic to use this route through Slane.” i.e. the solution was to toll the corridor not build a new road. Sweetman and Roderic O’Connor acted for the residents of Rossnare.


Ballina/Bohola bypass, Co Mayo

An Bord Pleanála refused permission on the basis of European conservation designations affecting the River Moy and because of “the existing and future predicted traffic volumes on the N26” – showing that the development was substantially overdesigned as a trophy road. Sweetman acted with Richard Rea.



Ballyboffey/Stranorla byass, Co Donegal

An Bord Pleanála refused permission because of a

general over–reliance on the deferral of road design and

environmental mitigation measures, which measures are considered

necessary to support the application for approval, to the ‘detailed

design’ stage of the project” ie dealing with complications was left too much to a later stage. This was a rare example of the Board following EU jurisprudence on the need to assess the detail in environmental impact statements. Sweetman acted with Richard Rea.

M3 Navan by pass, Co Meath

An Bord Pleanála  found “The design criteria shall be further modified so that the predicted noise level from the proposed road development shall not exceed 55 dB LA10 (18 hour) at 1 metre from the facade at Ardbraccan House”. This was very important as it was the first time that a special case was proven in a road development. With Greg Casey on behalf of landowner Sarah Lawson.


Galway City Outer Bypass (Lough Corrib)

A recent opinion from the EU advocate general defined the crucial environmental matter of when development is possible in a Special Conservation Area: “An effect which is permanent or long lasting must be regarded as an adverse one. In reaching such a determination, the precautionary principle will apply”. The European Court of Justice usually follows its advocate general. Sweetman challenged an adverse High Court  decision arguing in particular that the Board had been wrong to conclude that the road project would not adversely affect the integrity of the Lough Corrib site. Having lost that application at first instance, he lodged an appeal before the Supreme Court, which – for the first time ever in an environmental case – referred the questions to the ECJ. Sweetman’s pleadings against the Wexford bypass were made largely on the same grounds.


Shell in Rossport, Co Mayo

A settlement with Shell resulted in the moving of a pipe from proximity of 70m  to houses to 525 m from houses and a change in its pressure from a maximum of 345 bar to a maximum of 100 bar. which Frnk Fahey gave permission was 70m from houses at 345bar pressure. The pie is now under the bay 525m from the nearest house (Monica’s) and at a max pressure of 100bar. Not perfect but a hell of a lot better than what Fahey gave permission for. With Monica Muller

New lake in Bantry, Co Cork

This was the first successful use of the 1942 Water Supplies Act mechanism for seeking a review in the Circuit Courtod Cork County Council’s failure to conduct an EIA. Sweetman acted with Brian Harrington and Greg Casey.

Standish Saw Mills

The case forced the EPA to actually enforce conditions – something that they have not been very good at. Sweetman acted with Greg Casey and Ciaran Damery – and braved bullets and mass cards in the post.

Shannon Airport sewage, Co Clare

Forced Shannon Airport to comply with a condition to build a sewerage system rather than dumping it into an SAC unprocessed. Sweetman acted for Councillor Billy Leen while An Taisce pursued the issue at EU level

Lough Sheelin

Sweetman sought the recovery of once–dead Lough Sheelin by forcing the pig industry into compliance with elementary pollution legislation.

Metro North

Forced Railway Procurement Agency to provide large–scale additional  Information – effectively new EIS – which delayed the project for over 15 months. Sweetman

 acted with Roderic O’Connor for the Dublin City Business Association, which believed the €6 billion needed for the scheme made it disproportionately expensive.

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