Abstract of PhD Thesis

Interpretation, governance and conflict: A critique of protected area planning in Ireland

Noel Healy, National University of Ireland, Galway (2010)

This thesis explores the intricate political environment and power struggles which mould and contest Irish protected area decision-making structures by comparing two controversial cases of tourism development in the West of Ireland – Mullaghmore and the Cliffs of Moher. Using an innovative multi-method approach to data collection and analysis that combines survey data, interviews and observation, it shows that conflicts over the development of visitor centres reveal serious gaps in Ireland’s approach to protected area planning that impede sustainable tourism efforts. By exploring the views of locals, planning professionals, public representatives and visitors, this research offers a multi-layered analysis of planning, governance and sustainable tourism development in Ireland.

Initially, this thesis presents evidence to show that the particularities of the Irish political system and the prevalence of a producer-orientated development paradigm combine to reinforce a productivist and exclusionary approach to protected area planning. Recent efforts towards participatory tourism planning have been weakened by a strong political influence in planning, the prioritisation of scientific ‘expertise’ over local knowledge, a lack of research on hosts’ and visitors’ attitudes and behaviour, a fragmented inter-agency style of governance and serious gaps in legislation, policy and management. Following from this, the thesis argues for a shift in Ireland’s tourism planning towards a more open, inclusive and transparent system that aims at greater sustainability while responding to a volatile global tourism market. It contends that a successful approach to planning, resource management and nature protection must be culturally sensitive and take seriously the needs of both hosts and guests. This implies radical transformation of visitor centre development, in particular with regard to their location within communities. To this end, the thesis recommends institutional reform to facilitate full and inclusive participation of all stakeholders, particularly local communities and visitors, and advocates the establishment of a Burren governing agency.