Ireland broke EU law by failing to establish hundreds of conservation zones, judges at the European Court of Justice have ruled.

The European Commission designated more than 400 sites across Ireland for protection under the EU’s Habitats Directive.

But, despite years of delays, the government failed to set up all of the sites as special areas of conservation.

The EU’s Habitats Directive is designed to protect animals, plants and habitats across Europe and is broadly seen as a major success story.

Its official name is the directive on the “conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora”.

Under the law, Ireland was classed as an important zone within the ‘Atlantic biogeographical region’.

Many sites have gained protection. But not all of the ones the EU demanded.

Protected areas in Ireland (green) under various EU laws, collectively known as Natura 2000 sites

In court, the Irish government argued that “formal designation of the sites… involved the need to engage with 18,516 landowners individually and to deal with the 674 appeals”.

That takes time.

EU law allowed six years to put all the zones in place. The deadline “expired on 7 December 2010”.

European Commission and Irish government have spent more than a decade in back and forth discussions to resolve the outstanding sites.

This morning the European Court of Justice ruled in the EU’s favour.

Time is up.

According to the court, 217 sites still need to officially desinated as protected zones. 140 areas must be given site-specific “conservation objectives”.

If Ireland still fails to act, the EU can take the government back to court and demand fines are imposed.

In a statement, Heritage Minister, Malcolm Noonan TD, said “we recognise the importance and the significance of the judgement and the findings of non-compliance with the Habitats Directive…I am confident that we will respond to this judgement swiftly with positive and constructive actions in order to bring Ireland into full compliance.”