Opinion

Focusing on Lough Neagh's ownership won't solve the toxic blue-green algae crisis

The Irish News view: Proper management, joined-up government and serious sanctions for polluters are essential to protect the environment

Children on the shore at Ballyronan, Co Derry, just one of the areas where the plight of Lough Neagh is causing profound concern. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Children on the shore at Ballyronan, Co Derry, just one of the areas where the plight of Lough Neagh is causing profound concern. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

The Lough Neagh crisis has taken a fresh twist with an intervention from the Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper.

Mr Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, owns large parts of the lough bed and shore, having inherited them in 2005 after – in the space of six tragic months – his father was murdered and his brother died suddenly from a heart attack.

Once described as a "tattooed young raver", the 44-year-old, who is based in Dorset, seems prepared to take a different approach to that usually associated with English landlords and the aristocracy who have interests in Northern Ireland.

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He told The Irish News that he is deeply concerned about the algal bloom on Lough Neagh "as it can pose serious risks to human and animal health". "The current situation highlights how critical this has become," he says, referring to the toxic sludge which has caused profound worry since before the summer and led activists to hold a 'wake' on the shoreline.

The Shaftesbury estate makes money from Lough Neagh by selling licences to sand extraction companies but Mr Ashley-Cooper says he remains open to the idea of discussing the future ownership of the lough.

That includes selling his own interests, something which was explored in 2012. At that stage a price of £6 million was reported, but civil servants later advised against the government pursuing the purchase.

Transferring Mr Ashley-Cooper's interests to public ownership would not be a panacea for the deep problems which have emerged in recent months; other people and agencies also have property rights to the lough.

However, it could also be argued that ownership is not really the issue. Rather, it is how our waterways and land are managed more generally, including the sanctions imposed on those found to pollute and damage the environment.

Mr Ashley-Cooper argues for a "centrally-managed, government body which has the authority to regulate all of the activities which impact the health and protection of the lough".

On the face of it, this would have considerable merit. But the fact remains that it is the mish-mash of competing policies at Stormont and lack of coordination between government departments and ministers which has overseen the circumstances which have led to Lough Neagh's contamination.

For example, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has now acknowledged that "more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient surplus from the agricultural industry". This follows concerns over the flagship Going for Growth strategy, which was designed to boost the agri-food industry.

It is clear that joined-up government which is not only better but which also prioritises the stewardship of our precious environment must be at the top of Stormont's agenda if power-sharing returns.