Northern Ireland

Analysis: Much of the blame for Lough Neagh catastrophe can be laid at Stormont's door

As the debate about taking Lough Neagh into public ownership intensifies Political Correspondent John Manley argues that Stormont has consistently failed to safeguard Ireland's largest water body...

Toxic algae and green algae sludge on the shores of Lough Neagh. Picture by Alan Lewis
Toxic algae and green algae sludge on the shores of Lough Neagh. Picture by Alan Lewis Toxic algae and green algae sludge on the shores of Lough Neagh. Picture by Alan Lewis

The catastrophe that has unfolded on Lough Neagh over recent months is the result of neglect and the failure of both politicians and civil servants to take responsibility for safeguarding our natural heritage.

Ireland's largest fresh water body has been plundered and polluted to a level that it can no longer withstand. The result is an environmental disaster that may have already gone past the point where it can be effectively redressed.

Its current state highlights the short-sightedness of vetoing the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency and then actively encouraging the intensification of agricultural production.

Human sewage, whether pumped directly into the water or leeching from septic tanks has also had a detrimental impact on water quality, exacerbated by an increase in the water temperature due to climate change and the presence of invasive zebra mussels.

The sight of potentially lethal blue-green algae blooming across swathes of the lough has revived the debate about its ownership.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, whose claim to the bed of the lough and its banks dates back centuries, is often cited as the cause of many of today's ills.

However, he does not own the water in Lough Neagh and is not responsible for maintaining its quality – this is the responsibility of various government departments and agencies.

The earl has made significant profits from the extraction of sand from the bed of the lough over decades but this was carried out with the agreement of numerous direct rule and devolved administrations. The absentee landlord can't be held responsible for problems over which he has no control.

Across generations there's been a lack of decisive action by politicians of all hues that would have protected this valuable asset. 

In 2020, the then infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon approved continued sand dredging in Lough Neagh, which had been carried out completely unregulated over previous decades.

The SDLP minister said she had made a "finely balanced decision" and concluded that dredging would cause "no adverse effect" to the lough's protected areas".

Eight years earlier, following an assembly debate, the then agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill established a working group to conduct a 'scoping study' about taking Lough Neagh into public ownership.

The group was made up entirely of civil servants – three from the Sinn Féin minister's own department and its arm's length bodies and one each from the departments of regional development, environment, enterprise, and culture, arts & leisure.

It carried out an "informal consultation" with no less than 57 groups, ranging from Invest NI and the Ulster Farmers Union to Friends of the Earth and the National Trust. 

Read more: 

  • Lough Neagh could take two decades to return to 'good' ecological status, agency warns
  • John Manley: Time to face facts about legendary Lough Neagh

It took some two years before the group's report was published. It found there was both support and opposition for bringing the lough into public ownership, while there was consensus on the need for improved management.

The working group concluded that there were no "tangible benefits to the effective management of the lough, should it be brought into public ownership". Neither did any of Stormont's departments believe nationalisation would have any advantages, so with the executive's blessing they supported the status quo.

"The implementation of a potential new, overarching management structure is considered to be the best approach to delivering the diverse range of objectives sought by stakeholders," it said.

Regrettably, an effective management plan was never put in place, contributing to the catastrophe we're witnessing today.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 44-year-old earl who inherited the title after his elder brother died suddenly in 2005, is said to be receptive to the idea of selling the lough, if conditions are right and a proper management structure can be put in place.

That would require foresight and courage from our politicians, who for the time being can claim they are hamstrung by the absence of an executive.

It'll be interesting to see if things are done any differently if and when the institutions are restored.