Lough Neagh Partnership is to spend up to £250,000 looking at the future management of Ireland’s largest fresh water body, including potential public ownership.
The organisation, the board of which includes the Earl of Shaftesbury, as well as councillors and community representatives, has been awarded lottery funding to research a new “heritage protection plan” for the long-term conservation of Lough Neagh.
On Tuesday, the recently restored assembly will debate a Sinn Féin motion calling for a “cross-departmental body to be set up to address the immediate issues facing Lough Neagh”.
The motion supported by MLAs Philip McGuigan, Linda Dillon and Declan Kearney urges the executive to “put in place a new management structure and plan to include input from communities and organisations with an interest in the welfare of the lough”.
Last year witnessed an unprecedented environmental catastrophe on Lough Neagh, which provides 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water.
The impact of widespread nutrient run-off from agriculture, sewage released by NI Water, and leeching from septic tanks along the lough shore was exacerbated by invasive zebra mussels and rising water temperatures.
Extensive areas of the lough, the largest of its kind in western Europe, were plagued by toxic blue-green algal blooms.
The area around Lough Neagh is owned and managed by a variety of public and private bodies, while the bed of the lough is owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury.
The current earl, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, who is based in Dorset, is understood to receive a royalty for every tonne of sand extracted from the lough’s bed.
He has previously indicated a willingness to sell his stake in the lough but has concerns around its future management.
A working group set up in 2012 by the then agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill concluded there were no “tangible benefits to the effective management of the lough, should it be brought into public ownership”.
Gerry Darby, manager of the Lough Neagh Partnership, told The Irish News that his organisation had no desire to buy the lough but was keen to use the funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to facilitate it being brought into public or community ownership.
“The purpose the grant is to draw up a new long term heritage resilience plan for the wider Lough Neagh landscape and to examine public or community based models for the purchase and consequent management of the bed and soil of Lough Neagh,” he said.
“The partnership will only act as a facilitator and has no interest in bidding for the purchase of the bed and soil itself.”
He said he wanted to avoid the lough being purchased by private interests and that it was envisaged that resources or income from the lough would potentially “be demarcated to be spent on the sustainable development and protection of Lough Neagh”.