The Earth's Corr: DUP ministers are holding back the plan to 'fix' Lough Neagh

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Andrew Muir and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly visited Lough Neagh together in March
-Credit: (Image: Rebecca Black/PA Wire)

DUP ministers are holding up the plan to ‘fix’ Lough Neagh as well as the environment strategy on which it’s based, I can report. The latest environment strategy to tackle pollution, air and water quality and protect nature, first crossed the Executive table in March and has still not been approved.

Its development, along with Northern Ireland's environmental improvement plan, was included in the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs minister’s first day brief.

But it seems Andrew Muir’s bid to improve the Northern Ireland environment with a range of measures including tougher penalties for polluters is being held up by one party.

READ MORE: NI 'bottom of the class' on greenhouse gas cuts, says professor

READ MORE: Court of Appeal rules Edwin Poots' gas caverns decision was 'irrational'

Sources have told me that party is the DUP, which holds the posts of deputy First Minister, Education Minister, Communities Minister and a junior minister role.

I have asked the ‘Democratic Unionists’ why they are holding back both plans and requested an interview with one of their ministers about it. But they did not respond to my request.

DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly -Credit:Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Communities Minister DUP MLA Gordon Lyons
Education Minister Paul Givan speaking at the Assembly
DUP junior minister Pam Cameron
Communities Minister DUP MLA Gordon Lyons -Credit:PA Wire

What we do know is that the party has waxed lyrical about the issues facing communities around Lough Neagh since blue-green algae caused havoc for people, businesses and recreational users of the lough last year.

And with the same toxic algae already confirmed in 20 samples gathered from Lough Neagh, a number of reservoirs and other lakes, this year - the plan to tackle pollution is more urgent than ever.

The Assembly passed a motion calling for an “ecological and biodiversity crisis” to be declared in Northern Ireland in May, which highlighted the “biodiversity and ecological breakdown in Lough Neagh”.

It was put forward by opposition party the SDLP and MLAs from every party spoke on it. DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen even acknowledged that NI has a “wider environmental issue”.

The party’s deputy First Minister, Emma Little Pengelly, also said during a March visit to Lough Neagh that protecting the lough was a collective priority for the executive and that they are “determined to work together to find solutions” and take “immediate action”.

But that is clearly not the case, when they won’t approve plans that will allow that work to start. So why, when their politicians acknowledge we have a major and urgent problem, are they holding up plans to tackle the roots causes? In one word ‘farming’.

I know farming is important, we need food, but we also need functioning and healthy ecosystems to allow them to continue growing and producing that food.

When will the penny finally drop that if farms continue polluting and decimating nature that they are shooting themselves in the foot? And do the DUP not realise people all across NI care about what is happening to Lough Neagh and water bodies across Northern Ireland - and are crying out for leadership and an urgent response to those issues?

Our biggest freshwater lake provides half our drinking water - and 40% of Belfast’s - but it also support livelihoods outside of farming including in recreation and fishing.

NI has around 25,000 farms - but far more voters are being impacted by the state of NI waters than farmers. When the DUP’s very name suggests they are ‘democratic’ it’s an absolute disgrace they are holding back plans that will improve lives for so many.

Lough Neagh swimmers want to get back in that water, walkers deserve to use the shores around Lough Neagh without worrying it will kill their dogs, companies that based their recreational activities on the lough should be able to get back to work and fishers livelihoods also need to be protected.

We’ve heard NIEA say in the past, it will take 20 years to really make an impact on Lough Neagh after decades of pollution that has largely gone unchallenged. We need to start at the nug of the problem and that’s people and companies causing those problems.

It’s only right they are sanctioned for any wrongdoing and the environmental strategy and Lough Neagh plan aim to do just that - so pass them already.

Gas caverns victory hard fought

Boots on the Beach against Larne lough Gas Caverns, January 2024
DUP junior minister Pam Cameron -Credit:Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Huge congratulations are in order for the Antrim community that have spent years of their lives fighting a preposterous plan to salt mine seven huge caverns under Larne Lough so that gas could be stored in them.

The outrageous idea was the brain child of former oil prospectors, Infrastrata, which changed its name to Harland & Wolff after buying the world-famous shipyard and set up subsidiary Islandmagee Energy to oversee it.

But after years of opposition, tens of thousands in legal bills and an unwavering will to protect their coastline and the nature it supports, No Gas Caverns finally won at the Court of Appeal this week.

I’ve followed this case from pretty much the beginning and have researched and investigated just about every aspect of the impact it could have on our food web, Muck Nature Reserve, 11 priority species and the dead zone it would create in the sea.

I’ve been in court to hear judges brush over the real issues at stake here and side, as many do, on the side of business to the detriment of the very building blocks of life.

So it was a huge breath of fresh air to see a panel of three judges led by NI’s top judge, Lady Chief Justice Siobhan Keegan, really get to grips with what’s at stake.

No Gas Caverns campaigners outside the Court of Appeal on Monday, June 17
Lough Neagh Partnership Gerry Darby points out blue-green algae at Ballyronan

I’ve said it here before and I’ll keep saying it ‘til I’m blue in the face - any new projects that involve the creation of new fossil fuel infrastructure need to be stopped because of their climate impacts.

But more than that, if they are cross cutting, the whole Executive needs to be involved in any decisions about such infrastructure.

We now have climate law, that includes legally binding targets, to drive our emissions down and it’s time our Ministers got with the programme on that.

The Gas Caverns case has huge implications for any decisions they make going forward.

I’m still not convinced John O’Dowd took the Climate Act into consideration when he decided not to call the application for Cloghan Point Terminal or Kilroot gas turbines in. Rather tellingly, Mid and East Antrim Council, awarded planning permission for all three of the projects I’ve discussed here.

I’ve asked the Department for Infrastructure if he consulted the Executive before deciding not to take these projects out their hands - and am still waiting on an answer.

I’ll update you whenever they come back to me!

Do 1 Thing

Tackle those asking for your vote in the upcoming General Election about Lough Neagh, water pollution, the climate crisis and how nature decimated our lands are. They sit in London and can surely work towards getting NI more funding to deal with all these issues.

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