Patrick Murphy: To clean up Lough Neagh, we need to clean up politics

Protesters staged a 'wake' for Lough Neagh to highlight fears that the lough is dying. Picture by Mal McCann

Although most commentary compares Lough Neagh’s pollution to a disease, the real problem is that it is just a symptom of a much wider ailment.

Calls for cleaning up the lough are a bit like trying to remove measles spots from a child’s face. The spots are not the problem. To clean up Lough Neagh, we must first clean up agriculture and industry, clean up what passes for politics and clean up the sectarianism which diverts the electorate away from real issues.

Welcome to the poisoned north.

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The biggest contributor to the lough’s pollution (60 per cent) is agriculture, mainly through slurry and fertiliser run-off into rivers which enter the lough from five counties. There is legislation to address it, but government agencies are short-staffed (18 per cent fewer since 2013) and poorly financed (£800 million of cuts this year alone).

So we need either stronger legislation and/or fewer animals. Tighter legislation would mean lower farm incomes. Fewer livestock would undermine the beef and food processing industries. Which political parties would support either approach?

Although 40 per cent of our drinking water comes from Lough Neagh, 200,000 tonnes of sewage are discharged into it annually, along with industrial and agricultural effluent. (And Heaton-Harris wants to charge us for drinking it.)


Algae on the surface of Lough Neagh at Ballyronan Marina


That produces high levels of phosphates and nitrates. They form algae on the lough’s surface. The arrival of zebra mussels (an invasive species from Eastern Europe) has made a bad situation worse. They filter the water, allowing more light to reach greater depths. The algae therefore spread deep below the surface, completely choking the lough.

In 2001, Environment Minister, the late Sam Foster, told the Assembly that zebra mussels had arrived here and elsewhere in Ireland. Sinn Féin welcomed the minister’s all-Ireland approach (only partitionist zebra mussels are bad).

In 2002 the Assembly collapsed for five years, just before the first zebra mussels reached Lough Neagh. Stormont’s absence gave them a five-year head start. There is no appropriate legislation to tackle invasive species. We have action plans, but no money, no action and no urgency.

I see that lack of urgency as a board member of the university-based, not-for-profit River Restoration Centre (RRC) in England. There is no equivalent to RRC anywhere in Ireland, so it provides advice, consultancy and training over here. The north is in environmental denial.

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For example, algae thrive in warmer water and climate change has increased the lough’s temperature by one degree since 1995. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson dismissed last year’s heatwave as “a couple of warm days”.

That comment might be called political pollution, a problem made worse as special political advisers take precedence over civil servants in ministerial decision-making. You can’t clean up Lough Neagh without first cleaning up Stormont.

Sadly, the electorate has not voted for a clean-up. In the recent local elections only the Green Party campaigned on the environment. It won 5 seats out of 462. In effect, nobody voted for Lough Neagh. Sectarianism beat science. It even beat common sense.


Green algae bloom at Gawleys Gate, Lough Neagh. Picture by Mal McCann


Sinn Féin calls for “urgent action”. (There was no urgency when it held the agriculture portfolio at Stormont.) The SDLP wants Stormont recalled even though its neglect facilitated pollution. The DUP says nothing. (“Problem, what problem?”)

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) here has top-class scientists. (I sat on its board for six years.) They estimate that it will take up to 20 years to remedy Lough Neagh naturally. Who will take a financial hit to tackle it? Farmers? Industry? Not likely.

Who will take a political hit? The Executive parties? No chance.

There is money in exploiting nature, but not in fixing it. If we do not fix it soon, there will be nothing left to fix. In the meantime well-meaning lough supporters campaign to remove the measles spot on the face of our environment.

They must first realise that the real disease facing them is not just environmental. It is primarily political – and that will be much harder to clean up.