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Man loses court battle to stop £160m road through Seamus Heaney homeland in Northern Ireland

By Alan Erwin

An environmentalist has lost a High Court battle to stop a planned new £160 million dual carriageway going through landscape made famous by poet Seamus Heaney.

Chris Murphy was challenging plans to build a section of the A6 Belfast to Derry upgrade close to wetland where migratory birds forage.

But a judge rejected claims that the proposals breach a habitats directive on specially protected areas.

Dismissing his case, Mrs Justice Keegan said: "The decision reached was lawful and rational."

Mr Murphy, who represented himself in the judicial review challenge, is now considering whether to appeal the verdict.

The ornithologist took legal action in an attempt to halt construction of the part of the road near Moosbawn, Co Derry - the childhood home of the former Nobel laureate poet.

The route was identified following a public inquiry nearly a decade ago.

With commuters regularly facing rush-hour gridlock, former Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard gave the green light to the scheme last year in a bid to significantly improve a major transport corridor.

Proceedings centred on ecological checks made to potential disturbance to whooper swans on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg from the disputed Toome to Castledawson stretch.

Mr Murphy claimed the plans will cause irreparable harm to an area worthy of word heritage status.

In impassioned submissions he compared building a road through the site to cutting away at a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Further assessments have been carried out since the Department first made checks on the presence of nesting birds, badgers and bats.

But the court had to determine whether these actions were part of a fulfillment of obligations under the relevant habitats directive.

Mr Murphy argued that it was "ridiculous" to contend that only 2% of the 41,000 hectare site could be impacted by the road.

Counsel for the Department responded that he dual carriageway would have minimal impact on fields where the migratory birds feed.

He also contended that swans foraging on the wetland close to the route are more disturbed by people than roads or cars.

Mrs Justice McBride was also told that the legal challenge could have a "severe public prejudice" in a case where vesting has already taken place.

Ruling on the case, the judge rejected all arguments advanced by the bird watcher.

"I find no breach of the habitats directive," she said.

"I do not consider the decision making is procedurally flawed."

Praising Mr Murphy on how he had acted, she added: "He conducted his case impeccably, with the assistance of his wife.

"I know he will be disappointed by this decision, but I commend him for the care and attention he has applied to this case and for raising environmental awareness of this important issue."

The Department is to seek costs against the environmentalist.

But before leaving court Mr Murphy indicated he will be considering an appeal against the judgment.

He told Mrs Justice Keegan: "We are talking today about one of the most important sites in Europe, not just Northern Ireland."

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