Assembly motion on Lough Neagh 'crisis' is passed

Drone image of a boat sailing through algae in Lough Neagh
Blue-green algae is toxic to animals and can cause illness in humans [BBC]

A motion calling for an “ecological and biodiversity crisis” to be declared in Northern Ireland has been passed by the NI Assembly.

It was tabled by the opposition Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

The “biodiversity and ecological breakdown in Lough Neagh” was highlighted in the motion debated at Stormont on Monday.

The motion also urged NI's Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Andrew Muir to bring forward legislation to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency, as outlined in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored Stormont in 2020.

The UK watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, has responsibility for scrutinising environmental targets and law in Northern Ireland.

It has launched two investigations into potential breaches of environmental law here, both involving the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Independent environment agency

The SDLP's Patsy McGlone, who proposed the motion, told the assembly that "the establishment of an independent environment agency" is key to the response to "the ongoing ecological crisis" in Northern Ireland's environment.

His party colleague, Mark H Durkan MLA, said the "glaring failures in this area to date are unequivocal proof that the current structures just aren’t working".

"We have a moral obligation to tackle environmental degradation head on," he said.

"It’s imperative that we can confront the crisis before us and use every tool at our disposal to do so."

In 2023, algal blooms in Lough Neagh were visible from space.

So far in 2024, several sightings of the potentially toxic blue-green algae have been confirmed in Lough Neagh, near Strabane in County Tyrone and in County Fermanagh, although not at a large-scale bloom level.

Mr Muir has previously called for more funds to address the crisis and a report on Lough Neagh is due to be published soon.

"I remain committed to strengthening environmental governance both administratively and through the introduction of new legislation where that is necessary following full engagement and consultation," he told the assembly during Monday's debete.

Climate emergency

Ahead of Monday's motion, members of the campaign group Friends of the Earth gathered outside Parliament Buildings to demonstrate their support for it.

The assembly declared a climate emergency in 2020 and backed the creation of an independent body at the same time.

Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon told the assembly that "we can save lough Neagh but it’ll require us all to work together".

She called the lake - the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland - "a treasured gem of Ireland’s natural landscape" and said establishing an independent environmental protection agency is "the right thing to do".

Gerry Carroll, of People Before Profit said "glossy PR photos of ministers wearing water boots by the lough shore" won't fix the environmental problems in NI.

DUP MLA, Michelle McIlveen, said Northern Ireland has a "wider environmental issue" as well as the issues with Lough Neagh.

On the topic of establishing an independent environment agency, she said: "the blind creation of another body to take resources out of a limited pot is not the right thing to do" and that "what is in place needs to be reviewed before we add another layer".

In a proposed amendment to the motion, UUP members called for an "immediate review" of current environmental agencies.

Tom Elliott MLA said legislators needed to "be exact about who is responsible for what or just we are just going to blame each other".