Brexit preparation group has not met since before Stormont election
A COMMITTEE planning for Brexit's environmental impact in Northern Ireland has not met since ministers left their posts, a lobbyist said.
The expert consultative group was established to develop a negotiating position for forthcoming talks but has not met since before the Stormont election at the start of this month amid the collapse of political leadership.
Beauty spots such as Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough straddle the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and their sustainable management faces particular challenges on the UK's frontier with an EU state.
Northern Ireland Environment Link chairman Patrick Casement said: "It is very difficult to make much progress.
"We talk to the civil servants in Northern Ireland and we do talk to them on a constant basis but with a lack of political leadership an awful lot of things have come to a halt."
Lough Foyle marks the boundary between counties Derry and Donegal in the north west and Carlingford Lough separates counties Down and Louth.
The Loughs Agency protects fisheries and marine resources in the area.
It was established as one of the cross-border bodies under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and witnesses before a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee meeting at Westminster said it could be affected by Brexit.
After the exit its area of responsibility will include the UK's border with the EU, and a regulatory deal will need to be agreed.
Mr Casement's Environment Link promotes the importance of environmental issues.
He sits on a Brexit consultative committee linked to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Mr Casement said it met until the day environment minister Michelle McIlveen had to leave her post amid the collapse of power-sharing.
"She asked for it to go on meeting. The two meetings that were scheduled were both cancelled so there has been no further discussion about the issue," he said.
"We are left with virtually nowhere to turn other than to come here to Westminster to discuss it with you."
A statement from the department said Brexit remained a departmental priority.
"We have continued to engage with stakeholders and earlier this month had a positive meeting with NI Environment Link updating them on progress to date.
"Senior officials from the department have also arranged a series of meetings with the individual members of the Brexit Consultative Committee and the department values their continued engagement and contribution to the process."
Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee in Dublin was told yesterday that Brexit could "wipe out" towns and villages along the border.
Niamh Smyth, a TD (MP) for Cavan and Monaghan, counties on the southern side, said unrestricted cross-border trade was critical to the recently improved fortunes of the once badly-deprived region.
Pointing out the reliance on the dominant agri-food industry in particular, she said many dairies and food businesses operated as if no border existed.
"As we know, various stages of production happen on both sides of the border, there are gallons and gallons of milk going from one side to the other, and as it stands at the moment you wouldn't even know you are crossing the border," she said.
"If that were to change, to become a very visible, tangible, hard border, who knows what that would mean for these industries. It could wipe out a constituency. It could wipe out the whole border region."
Ms Smyth told Dublin's Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Committee, that it was "soul destroying" to contemplate the border region returning to the dark days of the Troubles-era checkpoints and a hard frontier.
"We have come so far, it is unrecognisable going back to when I was a child," she told the committee, investigating the impact of Brexit on the region.
"Nobody lived in these towns, never mind worked in them, because there was no purpose to them, there was nothing to keep us there.
"They really are only getting on their feet. There is still a long way to go in certain towns and villages, and this could just wipe us out."
"There has to be a special case made for the border."
JJ O'Hara, a tourism official from the Republic who is in the Border Communities Against Brexit organisation, told the committee the reality was that a renewed hard border will "bring trouble".
Any new UK-EU frontier border should be "in the Irish Sea and not in Ireland", he said.
"The reality is that we are a very small island, and to be cut in two is not an option," he said.
John Sheridan, a farmer in Northern Ireland who is also part of Border Communities Against Brexit, warned against Brexit negotiations being allowed to "ruin" Ireland.
"I really believe, and I have lived on the border all my life and spent probably as much time in the south as I lived in the north, it would be a shame to let Brexit, which is triggered today, ruin this country," he said.
Separately, Ireland's Small Firms Association (SFA) has told businesses to "prepare for the worst".
Sue O'Neill, SFA chairwoman, said: "Issues affecting the border with Northern Ireland and businesses who operate close to the border must be given the attention and sensitivity that they deserve."