Northern Ireland

Fresh questions raised about purdah guidelines as Andrew Muir announces Lough Neagh action plan two days ahead of Westminster poll

The pre-election period designed to prevent those in office using their position for electoral gain was blamed last month for delaying the Programme for Government

Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir speaks to the media at Stormont on Tuesday, in relation to the problems of Lough Neagh
Picture Colm Lenaghan
Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir’s latest range of measures aimed at improving water quality has prompted fresh questions from opponents about the rigour of purdah.

The minister unveiled a series of “actions” on Tuesday that are designed to arrest the deteriorating state of the north’s waterways and stem the toxic algae that has plagued Lough Neagh.

His announcement came less than two days before the polls open for the Westminster election with one political rival suggesting “people will be asking serious questions about the timing”.

The unveiling of the Alliance minister’s 20-point action plan is the latest in a series of announcements this week which have raised questions around the rigour of guidance for ministers in the run-up to polling day.

The pre-election period designed to prevent those in office using their position for electoral gain was blamed last month for delaying the Programme for Government.

Some five weeks ago, First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was going to be “very difficult” to publish Stormont’s long-awaited policy plan until after the election.

Michelle O’Neill made a statement to the Assembly on Tuesday
Michelle O’Neill assembly in May that it was going to be 'very difficult' to publish the Programme for Government because of purdah. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

But in recent days, executive ministers have made a series of policy pledges which appear to stretch the guidance on pre-election announcements.

The Northern Ireland Executive has published guidelines on the conduct of civil servants and special advisers during an election campaign but the Executive Office has confirmed to The Irish News that this does not apply to ministers.

The plan aimed at reducing agricultural pollution outlined by Mr Muir and implemented by his department forms part of a broader Lough Neagh Report and Action Plan which the executive has yet to agree.

The measures include providing training in compliance to slurry spreading contractors and the establishment of an enforcement team to “explore and fully consult on enforcement methods including fixed penalty notices for non-compliance”.

The minister said he would continue to engage with his executive colleagues to secure agreement on the remaining issues within the report, however, he said it was necessary to take immediate action.

“We know that the policies and programmes we have advanced in the past have contributed to creating the impacts we are now witnessing,” he said.

“We also know that excess nutrients in the environment cause pollution in our waterways and we also know the main contributing sources are agriculture and, to a lesser but still significant extent, wastewater, from both treatment works and septic tanks.”

SDLP rural communities spokesperson Patsy McGlone said any steps taken to address the ecological crisis at Lough Neagh were “obviously welcome” but he said it was taking too long for Stormont to agree a comprehensive plan.

“I have serious concerns that a large proportion of the plan has not been agreed to by the executive,” the Mid Ulster MLA said.

“People will be asking serious questions about the timing of the announcement two days before an election.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the public had heard “enough posturing from Stormont” over the Lough Neagh crisis.

“Environmental campaigners who have fought to save Lough Neagh will clearly see through this cynical electoral stunt,” he said.

“What we to see now is urgent moves to bring Lough Neagh into public ownership, to hold industrial polluters to account, and to establish and independent environmental protection agency.”

The Irish News asked the Executive Office about accusations of ministers breaching purdah. The response provided referred only to Monday’s monitoring round.