Northern Ireland

Stormont parties at odds over future ownership of Lough Neagh

Recent satellite imagery showing the level of algae in Lough Neagh. Picture: Copernicus Open Access Hub
Recent satellite imagery showing the level of algae in Lough Neagh. Picture: Copernicus Open Access Hub Recent satellite imagery showing the level of algae in Lough Neagh. Picture: Copernicus Open Access Hub

Stormont's parties are divided on whether public ownership would resolve the environmental challenges currently facing Lough Neagh.

The unprecedented level of algale blooms on the lough over the summer has prompted calls for Ireland's largest fresh water lake to be nationalised.

Belfast City Council last week backed a Green Party motion calling for the public acquisition of Lough Neagh.

The lough's bed is owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury, but a variety of Stormont departments and arm's length bodies are responsible for its governance. 

The earl has previously signalled that he would consider selling Lough Neagh, which provides around 40 per cent of the north's drinking water.

A 2014 civil service report commissioned by the then agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill concluded that there were no "tangible benefits to the effective management of the lough, should it be brought into public ownership". 

It instead recommended the implementation of an "overarching management structure".

Read more: John Manley: Time to face facts about legendary Lough Neagh

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Sinn Féin said it had "long advocated" Lough Neagh be brought into public ownership.

The party's environment spokesperson Philip McGuigan said the lough "plays a key role in our environment, biodiversity and the local economies of the areas that surround it".

"As well as being a major environmental asset, there is tremendous economic and tourism potential in the lough if it is managed properly," the North Antrim MLA said. 

"It should be brought under public ownership so that a clear management structure can be developed and long-term plans made for dealing with the numerous issues that face the lough."

The SDLP also supports public ownership, claiming the current situation "creates obstacles in dealing with the issues we are currently experiencing around blue-green algae blooms". 

"We want to see a taskforce created of all relevant stakeholders to stage an immediate intervention to address the current issues, while also looking to safeguard the lough in the long-term," a party spokesperson said. 

However, Stormont's other parties are less focused on ownership and believe effective management of the lough is more important.

A DUP spokesperson described the lough as "one of Northern Ireland’s crown jewels" but added that it had declined in recent years.

"Key stakeholders would remain the same regardless of its ownership status," the spokesperson said. 

"A better management plan is therefore urgently required rather than prolonged negotiations over future ownership – the focus should be on action and delivery rather than on structures and governance."

Alliance believes the priority is the "protection of the very valuable natural ecosystems" alongside "securing resources and actions to protect the natural environment, in the interests of those who live and work around Lough Neagh and use it recreationally".

"Whilst Alliance is happy to support exploration into the future ownership of Lough Neagh, to provide clarity for future planning and strategy, this must not be seen as a magic solution, or come at the cost of other actions required in relation to eliminating pollution and ensuring enforcement," a spokesperson said.

The Ulster Unionists place the delivery of a "unified strategy" ahead of the issue of ownership.

Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott said: "It is imperative that all those with any involvement in the operation and management of Lough Neagh, whether political, agricultural, environmental, business or community, should be talking to each other to identify and act on solutions before it is too late.

"I am writing to the Office for Environmental Protection, asking them to investigate the role of local departments in this matter."