Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh : Stormont Environment Minister Andrew Muir urges officials to prioritise clean-up

Andrew Muir told the Assembly the budget allocation for the lough was ‘disappointing’.

Algae on the surface of Lough Neagh at Ballyronan Marina
Algae on the surface of Lough Neagh at Ballyronan Marina (Liam McBurney/PA)

Stormont’s Environment Minister has asked officials to reallocate resources within his department to ensure prioritisation of efforts to tackle environmental problems in Lough Neagh.

Andrew Muir told the Assembly the budget allocation for the lough was “disappointing”.

He said he had received £1.6 million in capital funding and no resource funding for the issues besetting the lough.

Lough Neagh is the biggest freshwater lake, by surface area, in the UK and Ireland, supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water and sustains a major eel-fishing industry.

Noxious blooms covered large parts of the lough across last summer, and also affected other waterways and beaches in the region.

Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural fertiliser running off fields were believed to be a major contributory factor.

The spread of the invasive zebra mussel species is also understood to have played a role, as they have made the water clearer, allowing more sunlight to penetrate, stimulating more algal photosynthesis.

Climate change is another factor cited, with the highest water temperature at Lough Neagh recorded last June.

Mr Muir told the Assembly on Monday he was aware of the re-emergence of algae this year, including build-ups below the surface.

“I received £1.6 million of capital (funding in the budget) but I didn’t receive any resource, so the budget allocation to my department was disappointing, but I’m not going to just stop there,” he said.

“What I’m doing is engaging officials to see how we can reallocate resources within the department so we can put the necessary resources into this area.”

Hee added: “We need to invest in turning the situation round in Lough Neagh.”

The owner of Lough Neagh’s bed, the Earl of Shaftesbury, has stated his openness to exploring future ownership options.

Mr Muir said public or community ownership models were being explored for the longer term.

He said his personal preference was for a community ownership model, citing successful examples of that approach in Scotland.

The minister also told the Assembly he had commissioned scientific research to assess the effect of removing sand from the lough.

Last week, members of the Save Lough Neagh campaign group met Mr Muir to discuss issues with the lough.

The group issued an update on that meeting on Monday.

“Broadly, we wanted to receive the department’s acknowledgement of the fact that the crisis at Lough Neagh was seen as an emergency and that urgent action would need to be taken – but unfortunately this was not forthcoming,” the group said.

“The minister’s timescales seem to revolve around ‘years or decades’ – something Lough Neagh does not have.

The group said it had not received “concrete promises” from the minister and called for “people power” to deliver action.

“To the people concerned and outraged by this crisis, to lough shore communities – our campaign is committed to intensifying this fight and to keeping the pressure on,” it said.

“We have more protests and public meetings planned in the months ahead.

“When the algae blooms return this summer, maybe then will the minister listen to the people and take the urgent action Lough Neagh needs to survive.”