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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 31st December 2011 

Back in the summer I was one of the people who criticised a UK government minister for making false statements about Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, on his Facebook pages.

A couple of press reports from the Republic of Ireland show that it is not just UK politicians who don’t understand the laws they are responsible for. The stories concern a councillor in Kerry County who has called for the Irish government to re-instate the money set aside for removing ragwort from highway verges.

Eire is a country where the pre-credit crunch boom was far larger than it was for many others and, as a result, the post-credit crunch bust is far more difficult to overcome. Against that background, it is hardly surprising that the Irish government is looking for every opportunity to save money.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Cllr Michael Gleeson told the Kerry County Council December meeting that ‘[ragwort’s] continued proliferation, in breach of the Noxious Weeds Act, is a health hazard and a disrespect to the law of the land’. He also said that ‘It's shameful that Local Authorities all over the country flaunt the law by ignoring ragwort on the roadsides’.

Given that people of people in the UK claim that simply allowing Jacobaea vulgaris to grow is illegal, I was interested to see what the Noxious Weeds Act actually says. Luckily, the Irish government maintains an online Statute Book and it wasn’t hard to find the Noxious Weeds Act, 1936 which is the relevant piece of legislation.

It is one of those wonderful pieces of legislation that is circular in its definition. A noxious weed is a plant growing in an area deemed to have noxious weeds growing in it as long as the Minister has issued an order declaring the plants to be noxious weeds.

The act does not name any individual plants but, in 1937, the then Minister of Agriculture issued an order making thistle, dock and ragwort noxious weeds anywhere in the Republic of Ireland. That order seems to be still in force in those terms and I can’t help wondering what fun the legal profession would have with such loose terms for defining the plants if it came to a major court case.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

So, it seems, Councillor Gleeson was right to protest about the law being flouted. Except that the act is a little ambiguous. Section 3 does say that ‘Where any noxious weeds are growing on any land the responsible person in respect of such land…shall be guilty of an offence under this section’ but Section 5 then says that officials can issue a notice requiring the landowner to deal with the noxious weeds and talks about the offences arising from ignoring such a notice.

It would seem, therefore, that, if the Irish government doesn’t want to spend money dealing with ragwort, it only has to ensure that no notices are issued. But, actually, its buffer is greater than that because section 8 states that ‘Proceedings for an offence under any section of this Act shall not be instituted except by or with the consent of the Minister’.

There is no indication of any requirement for the Minister to justify refusing consent and no mention of a procedure to force the Minister to give consent if he is not so minded.

Years ago, I belonged to a theatre club that used a local authority owned theatre. An enthusiastic new fire officer conducted an inspection and found numerous faults. We took the list to the borough engineer as it was up to him to do any repairs. He was also the fire officer’s boss. Within a week a new report was issued saying everything was fine and no money needed to be spent.

That seems to be the way the Irish government can deal with ragwort.