A far-reaching decision at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg earlier this week could see landowners and householders through Donegal facing bills of several thousand euro each in displacement compensation as an unintended consequence of the verdict on a reparations case brought by the descendants of World War II refugees against the German government.
Polish lands given to German citizens following the Nazi invasion in 1939 were retained after the war, as many of the original landowners became refugees, and the survivors and their descendants successfully argued in the Court that they were entitled to compensation for the land grab.
Rapporteur to the court Mr Poisson D’Avril prepared an analysis of the judgement afterwards, which suggested that the decision was not time limited and requires others who lost land and possessions as a result of historic conflicts to register claims with the court within one year for resolution, provided they can demonstrate clearly the provenance of the claim to their lands, a provision designed to limit the number of asserted titles.
Ironically the decision comes as Donegal commemorates the quincentennial of the Flight of the Earls, many of whose descendants preserved their lineages abroad, and Mr D’Avril has pointed out in his report that under the European Court principle of ‘Festum Stultorum’ (‘justice is eternal’), Irish-descended lords such as the Spanish-based Comte de Tyrone and Don Leopoldo Duque du Teruan O’Donnell can submit papers outlining their genealogical claims.
Lords from Inishowen, Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone left Ireland on Friday 14 September 1607, following their defeat against the English at Kinsale at the end of the Nine Years War instigated by Red Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill against attempts by Elizabeth I of England to extend English influence in Ulster.
Following the exile, their lands were seized by the English government, and this act ultimately established the title of all property in county which was sold to tenants in the nineteenth century as a result of the Land Acts.
Over 50,000 families and businesses in the county may be affected by the decision, according to initial estimates from the Department of the Environment based on a survey of Land Registry deeds.
‘Obviously the implications of the decision are unexpected,’ a Department spokesman said, ‘but we are co-operating with the Commission and preparing a computerised list of all property-owners in the affected areas as required by our obligations under the European Union treaties.’
Liabilities arising out of the decision will run into the millions of euro, European Commission official Mr Lirpa Loof estimated, as he outlined preliminary steps for the processing of the Compensation of Conflict Claims tribunal, which is expected to begin hearings in one year’s time on 1st April, 2008.