IRELAND'S £4.8BN road programme could be delayed for a year because of a deepening dispute waged by Irish farmers over payments for land bought under compulsory purchase orders.
The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) has barred all survey and site investigation work on farmland since June, demanding higher compensation and swifter payment.
The temperature of the dispute rose dramatically last week, with the National Roads Authority (NRA) accusing the IFA of putting up to 50 lives at risk as a result of the delay in completing the new, safer roads.
The IFA described the claims as 'outrageous' and rejected accusations that farmers had intimidated site investigation teams. It is negotiating directly with the Department of the Environment and now wants the NRA replaced by a new land acquisition agency.
'There have been fierce, misleading and mischievous comments made by the NRA, ' said IFA campaign leader Francis Fanning.
Denial of access to land has brought the situation to a 'critical point', said NRA head of corporate affairs Michael Egan.
He said that some work, such as environmental impact assessments, cannot be carried out in winter when flora, fauna and wildlife will be dormant or hibernating.
'This will mean putting some work off until spring which could have major implications for the timetable for delivery and could mean delays of up to a year, ' he said.
Around £10M of site investigation contracts due for award as part of the country's £4.8bn road programme are now on hold because of the dispute. NRA costs are running at around £400,000 a week owing to downtime for idle site investigation teams.
The dispute has left Norwest Holst Soil Engineering with over 20 staff standing by for over five weeks on the N2 Dublin to Derry road near Monaghan.
'We would expect that within the contract there would be provision for payment, ' said business development manager Mike Newton. 'However, we would prefer to get on with the work and hope the dispute can be resolved soon.
IFA sources told NCE on Monday that 'very sensitive' negotiations with the government were under way, but indicated that earliest resolution could be up to four weeks off.